Categories
Election2021

Housing Platform Crunch: New Democratic Party

By Dr. Alan Walks (Professor, Geography and Planning, University of Toronto), Sean Grisdale (PhD Candidate, Geography and Planning, University of Toronto), and the Affordable Housing Challenge Partnership collective

Summary

Of the three major platforms, the NDP does the best job of emphasizing the need for more affordable rental housing as a key component in addressing Canada’s housing affordability crisis. The platform commits to building 500,000 quality, affordable units in ten years. The NDP implies that the majority of this 500,000 will be rental tenure, built in collaboration with provinces, municipalities, co-ops and affordable housing providers. We are pleased with the prominent attention given to co-ops and non-profits as we consider these institutions as key to building a genuinely affordable housing landscape. We would also emphasize that the NDP’s building incentive (waiving HST/GST on affordable development) is the only building incentive among these three platforms that is explicitly attached to building “affordable” housing. Our main critique of the NDP platform is that is falls prey to two trends we see in the other platforms: promoting easier access to mortgage credit (with 30-year amortizations), and scapegoating foreign buyers as a significant cause of the housing crisis.

Positives:

  • Commits to producing a significant number of new, quality, energy efficient and affordable housing units (500,000 over ten years).
  • Explicitly commits to helping co-ops and non-profit housing providers build new affordable housing as fast as possible
  • Waiving federal portion of HST/GST on production of affordable housing is a real incentive that will get more housing built
  • Rent relief will provide immediate and important relief for society’s most vulnerable
  • Policies facilitating co-housing serve an important form of niche housing that is currently underserved
  • A Beneficial Ownership Land Registry will be key to identifying who owns real estate
  • Commits to an “Indigenous National Housing Strategy” within 100 days of office
  • Commits to ending homelessness within ten years

Negatives:

  • Policies expanding access to mortgage credit will only make housing more unaffordable (eg. 30-year mortgages)
  • Overemphasizes the potential impact of a foreign buyer tax
  • Unclear plan for addressing role of domestic big business and speculation in the housing market

Deep Dive

The New Democratic Party Platform

There are eight stated policies or policy objectives related to housing in the NDP platform:

1. Create at Least 500,000 Units of Quality, Affordable Housing

Stated Policy Objective: “a New Democrat government will create at least 500,000 units of quality, affordable housing in the next ten years, with half of that done within five years. This will be achieved with the right mix of effective measures that work in partnership with provinces and municipalities, build capacity for social, community, and affordable housing providers, to provide rental support for co-ops, and meet environmental energy efficiency goals.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Yes. The stated goal would create enough new units to substantially improve the affordability of rental housing, and of potentially owner-occupied housing as well, given the greater choice provided to consumers. However, it remains unclear how many of these new units will be purpose-built rental tenure or some other tenure.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? Yes. The statement says 500,000 new units of ‘quality, affordable’ housing will be built over 10 years, half of this in the first five years (which does not actually indicate speedier development early on – they are saying that half the new units will be built in the first half of the period). This translates to 50,000 units per year, which is an ambitious but eminently doable objective. It is not clear exactly how many of these units will be rental units, but the language suggests that rental tenure will be the main tenure for the vast majority of these units.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Yes. This policy would substantially alleviate housing-based inequalities by building much-needed affordable rental housing.

Residents cheer the April 2021 acquisition of 22 Maynard Ave. by the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust in Toronto. Source: Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust.

2. Fast-Start Funds

Stated Policy: “In order to kick-start the construction of co-ops, social and non-profit housing and break the logjam that has prevented these groups from accessing housing funding, we will set up dedicated fast-start funds to streamline the application process and help communities get the expertise and assistance they need to get projects off the ground now, not years from now. We’ll mobilize federal resources and lands for these projects, turning unused and under-used properties into vibrant new communities.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Yes. The purpose of this policy is to help “co-ops, social and non-profit” housing providers build new affordable housing, and these providers are among the main experts in providing affordable housing. If the full 500,000 new units are built, this will substantially improve the average affordability of rental housing across the country.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? Yes. These new ‘fast-start’ funds will help “co-ops, social and non-profit housing” providers get new projects “off the ground”. Presumably, this will be linked to the construction of the 500,000 new units of quality affordable housing mentioned in the first policy statement.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Yes. Any assistance that can be provided to co-ops, social and non-profit housing providers to produce new units will create a more equitable housing landscape.

3.Waive the federal portion of the GST/HST on new affordable rental units

Stated Policy: “A New Democrat government will also spur the construction of affordable homes by waiving the federal portion of the GST/HST on the construction of new affordable rental units”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Yes. This policy will improve the construction cost equation for building new affordable rental units, which will mean the resulting units can be rented for less than they would have otherwise, producing more affordable units.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? Yes. This policy is intended to incentivize the production of new affordable rental housing. If there are projects that were previously bordering on being viable that could benefit from having this tax reduced, this policy will push them into fully viable territory, facilitating the construction of new units. Saying this, it is not clear how many units this policy could actually help produce.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Yes. If this policy makes some projects newly-viable from a cost perspective, it will have improved the housing equity landscape.

Tenants organize during the pandemic to fight evictions in Burnaby, BC. May 2021. Source: Eviction Defence Network.

4. Rent Relief

Stated Policy: “We’ll provide immediate relief for families that are struggling to afford rent in otherwise suitable housing, while we bring forward long- term solutions to the housing affordability crisis.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Unclear. Any household receiving rent relief will obviously benefit, but the provision of rent relief could mean that landlords feel there is room to raise rents further. Thus, the impact on the average rent remains in question. This does not mean that the policy is misplaced, however, as the benefit of rent relief to vulnerable households facing eviction far outweighs any potential changes in average rents, which even if they involve increases would be minor.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. This policy is meant to provide stability for existing tenants.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Yes. This policy helps lower-income tenants who are most vulnerable remain in their housing. It will significantly help improve the lives of the children of lower-income households, as they will not have to move to new housing as often (and in turn, move to new neighbourhoods, schools, make new friends, etc). Moving often as a child has been found to impact well-being later in life.

5. 30-Year Mortgage Terms for First-Time Buyers, and double the Home Buyer’s Tax Credit

Stated Policy: “we will re-introduce 30-year terms to CMHC insured mortgages on entry-level homes for first time home buyers. This will allow for smaller monthly payments, freeing up funds to help make ends meet for young families. We’ll also give people a hand with closing costs by doubling the Home Buyer’s Tax Credit to $1,500.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? No. While the lower payments will initially benefit those first-time buyers who qualify for the longer amortization term and the additional Home Buyer’s Credit, the fact this allows households to bid more for housing will push up prices to the point where they are no longer better off. The eventual result will be higher prices, coupled with higher debt loads for first-time buyers. 

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. This policy is intended to help buyers to bid for housing.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? No. It is likely to increase inequalities, as the price of housing and land rises as a result of these policies. Higher prices in the owner-occupied sector lead to higher rents in the rental sector, as landlords find they need to charge higher rents to afford their own mortgage payments, and the higher prices of owner-occupation push more people to compete in the rental sector.

6. Facilitate Co-Housing

Stated Policy: “a New Democrat government will provide resources to facilitate co-housing, such as model co-ownership agreements and connections to local resources, and ease access to financing by offering CMHC- backed co-ownership mortgages.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Yes. Co-housing models have traditionally provided affordable options for middle-income and lower-income households, so any policies that help build co-housing will improve overall affordability.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? Potentially (unclear). Co-housing typically involves shared ownership, but there may be room for including some rental units in any new co-housing buildings.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Yes. Co-housing models help serve a greater diversity of households, and help maintain housing stability for lower-income households. While co-housing will never be the main solution to the rental housing crisis, it can serve an important niche in helping create a more equitable housing landscape.

7. Foreign Buyer’s Tax

Stated Policy: “To help put an end to speculation that’s fuelling high housing prices, we’ll put in place a 20% Foreign Buyer’s tax on the sale of homes to individuals who aren’t Canadian citizens or permanent residents.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Not likely. As noted above, foreign buying was already minimal before the pandemic (especially, after the introduction of provincial taxes on foreign buyers) and it has dwindled to very small numbers during the pandemic. It has had minimal effect on housing prices, so an additional tax is not likely to do much at all.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. The policy only targets sales of property.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? No. As noted in relation to the platforms of the Liberal Party and Conservative Party, if there were a number of foreign buyers waiting on the horizon for the pandemic to end in order to unleash a new wave of foreign buying, this policy could help prevent that from occurring. However, there is no evidence of that wave waiting to happen. Furthermore, if implemented in similar fashion to the policies in British Columbia and Ontario, this tax could reduce the incentive to immigrate to Canada (given the lack of affordable rental housing new immigrants face in Canada). And a policy like this makes it seem like foreign buying is one, or perhaps THE, cause of the housing affordability crisis, when in fact there is no evidence of this, but the perception can lead to greater inequalities as a result of rising racism, xenophobia and discrimination.

Tenants facing renoviction from a 96-unit Le Manoir Lafontaine building on Papineau Avenue, Montreal bring the protest to their balconies. May 2021. Source: Ricochet.

8. Fight Money Laundering

Stated Policy: “New Democrats will also fight money laundering, which fuels organized crime and drives up housing prices. We will work with the provinces to create a public beneficial ownership registry to increase transparency about who owns properties, and require reporting of suspicious transactions in order to help find and stop money laundering.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Potentially. As noted in relation to the other platforms, Canada needs more data on fraud and money laundering, and the latter typically leads to higher costs, so this initiative is welcome and could (slightly) lead to improved affordability.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. This policy is not directed to producing new rental housing.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Potentially. Lower-income households are more likely to be victimized by fraud, so addressing the latter will produce more equitable outcomes overall. As with the other platforms, a beneficial ownership registry would help the public understand who owns land and housing, and help produce a more transparent, fair and democratic housing system, but more detail is required to fully assess the impacts on inequality.

Categories
Election2021

Housing Platform Crunch: Liberal Party

By Dr. Alan Walks (Professor, Geography and Planning, University of Toronto), Sean Grisdale (PhD Candidate, Geography and Planning, University of Toronto), and the Affordable Housing Challenge Partnership collective

Summary

The Liberal Party, as the current governing party, began rolling out their National Housing Strategy (NHS) in 2018/9, and their platform proposes to add to and extend this program if elected. Our opinion is that the policies contained in the Liberal platform will not adequately address the root causes of Canada’s housing crisis. The platform does make some long-awaited commitments to funding the renovation of some of Canada’s deteriorating purpose built rental housing stock. It also proposes to add a small amount (20,000 units) of new affordable rental housing to its current NHS commitments of supporting the construction of 160,000 “affordable” rental units. However, it’s important to note that almost half (45 percent) of these 160,000 rental units are planned through the Rental Construction Financing Initiative (RCFI), an NHS program whose affordability requirements are so minimal and so brief as to, in our view, not deserve the title “affordable”. Consequently, we remove the 71,000 units planned through RCFI from our calculation, concluding that the total number of affordable rental units planned through the NHS, should the Liberal’s be elected and follow through on their platform proposal, is 109,000. These are laudable, if modest, ambitions. These policies are also counterbalanced by commitments to new homeownership policies that we argue will make the affordability crisis worse. Indeed, their proposals to expand access to home ownership through a first-time home buyer incentive, and tax-free savings entitlements are only likely to increase house price inflation and household debt. Finally, as with the Conservative platform, the Liberals scapegoat foreign actors for the housing crisis despite evidence that domestic policies, as well as domestic speculators and corporations (eg. REITs and Private Equity firms) play a far more significant role.

Positives:

  • Commits to adding 20,000 units of affordable rental housing, bringing their total commitment through the NHS to 109,000 affordable rental units.
  • A Beneficial Ownership Land Registry will be key to identifying who owns real estate
  • Commits to co-developing an “Urban, Rural and Northern Indigenous Housing Strategy”
  • Commits to ending chronic homelessness

Negatives:

  • An overemphasis on policies expanding access to mortgages and homeownership will only continue to drive housing price inflation, as well as household debt levels
  • Many positive policies would appear to be beyond federal jurisdiction (eg. addressing NIMBYism, inclusionary zoning, public transit, rent controls and eviction bans).
  • Overemphasis on foreign buyers as opposed to financialized and corporate buyers (both domestic and foreign)
  • Policies addressing domestic speculators and corporations are weak and not likely to be effective

Deep Dive

The Liberal Party of Canada Platform

There are 14 stated policies or policy objectives, some multi-dimensional, in the Liberal Party platform.

1.New Tax-Free First Home Savings Account.

Stated Policy: “A re-elected Liberal government will: Introduce a tax-free First Home Savings Account will allow Canadians under 40 to save up to $40,000 towards their first home, and to withdraw it tax-free to put towards their first home purchase, with no requirement to repay it. Combining the features of both an RRSP and a TFSA, this plan would allow young Canadians to set aside 100% of every dollar they earn up to $40,000 and shorten the time it takes to afford a down payment.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? No. In fact, this is certain to make existing housing less affordable on average. Funds put into this new TFFHSA will have to be spent on buying real estate, which will push up overall demand. The additional money from these funds will allow bidders to bid higher prices for the same house. While it may help those who are able to avail themselves of this fund, on average it will mean higher prices for everyone, and lead to greater inequalities related to affordability (see below).

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. This policy funnels money only into owner-occupation. By driving up land values in the process, it may make rents less affordable too (as landlords raise rents to cover all their costs).

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? No. In fact, it will increase housing-based inequality. This policy will allow those under 40 years old who have $40,000 in savings to put them into this new TFFHSA and not only receive an immediate tax deduction, but also enjoy tax-free growth inside the fund. How many under-40s have $40,000 in savings? Only those who already enjoy higher incomes than others, perhaps because they have parents who are wealthy and have helped them (with education and training, rental housing costs etc). In fact, it is even more likely that it is the wealthy parents (largely from the boomer-generation) that this policy is targeting. This new fund allows the $40,000 to be gifted, providing wealthy ‘banks of mom and dad’ a new tax-subsidized vehicle for helping their kids get into owner-occupied housing. By providing dual-deductions (both going in, and coming out of the fund) the federal government will provide a significant tax subsidy worth upwards of $12,000 to the select group of borrowers (and their parents) that is able to access it.

Allowing these already-advantaged families even greater advantage will create greater inequality among this age cohort, as well as within the boomer generation (as only the wealthier boomers will have the funds to gift to their kids for this new TFFHSA). Furthermore, by cutting off the eligibility criteria at age 40, this policy will augment further inequalities between generations (why should someone who is 41 be so discriminated against?). This policy is a recipe for creating greater housing-based inequalities and future political divisions between and within generations, and it will be funded by a regressive tax subsidy to already-wealthy people. 

2. More Flexible First Time Home Buyer Incentive

Stated Policy: “In 2019, we launched the First Time Home Buyer Incentive (FTHBI), an innovative new tool that allows middle class families looking to buy their first home, reduce the size of the mortgage they require, and reduce their monthly housing costs. FTBHI is a shared-equity mortgage, where, upon sale, the government incurs a portion of any increase (or decrease) in a home’s value. A re-elected Liberal government will: Allow you to choose between the current shared- equity approach or a loan that is repayable only at the time of sale. This would let you keep more of any increase in the value of your home, while still reducing your monthly mortgage costs.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? No. While this could potentially help an individual or family who otherwise might not be able to afford to purchase real estate, other things remaining equal this will add to demand in the more affordable segment of the housing market, and make housing in that segment less affordable on average.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. This policy is only geared at the owner-occupied sector, and not the rental sector.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Unclear. There is a possibility that home-buyers that use this program will see their own housing equity grow at slower rates than other home-buyers, for two reasons: 1) a portion of their equity is repayable to the federal government upon sale, reducing the buyer’s equity, and 2) because of the price-stimulating effect among units purchased through this program, those who buy in this segment may have bought at elevated prides and in turn see their long-term equity grow slower than property whose value was not as artificially raised. Saying this, the equity-growth potential of the underlying property assets accessible to those eligible for this program is not likely to have any significant impacts on overall inequality.

3. Reducing Closing Costs for First Time Buyers

Stated Policy: “A re-elected Liberal government will: Double the First-Time Home Buyers Tax Credit, from $5,000 to $10,000, which will put $1,500 in your pocket to make a home purchase a little bit easier.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? No. By increasing the total demand, this policy will lead to higher overall prices, although it may (but in fact may not, if prices rise more) help those who are able to take advantage of it.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. This policy is only geared at the owner-occupied sector, and not the rental sector.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? No. This tax credit is targeted at first-time buyers, which are a highly diverse group.

4. Reduce Your Monthly Mortgage Costs

Stated Policy: “Canadians who have a down payment of less than 20% of the cost of their house or who have a mortgage over $1 million dollars pay insurance premiums that can be up to 4% of the purchase price of a home. On the average Canadian home, this means a homebuyer could be paying close to $30,000 in premiums over the life of their mortgage. Typically, the smaller your down payment is, the higher your premiums. This puts financial pressure on families that can least afford it. A re-elected Liberal government will: Reduce the price charged by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation on mortgage insurance by 25%. For a typical homebuyer, this will save $6,100 [and] Increase the insured mortgage cut-off from $1 million to $1.25 million, and index this to inflation, to better reflect today’s home prices.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? No. It will help stimulate more demand, leading to higher prices on average. It may benefit those who see their premiums drop, but overall those same buyers are likely to see average prices rise as the additional buying power bids up prices.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. This policy is only geared at the owner-occupied sector, and not the rental sector.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? No. In fact, this policy could lead to greater inequalities in the future. CMHC premiums exist in order to help cover the losses associated with defaults, for instance in the case of a recession when people lose their jobs and can’t afford to make their mortgage payments. With lower CMHC premiums, this means that if a recession hit the federal government would be required to cover more of these losses, and to pay for this may have to reduce spending on other welfare supports, which mostly help low-income households. If this happens, it could increase inequality.

Ontario Coalition Against Poverty calls for 214-230 Sherbourne, Toronto to be expropriated and redeveloped as social housing. Source: CBC News, October 2018.

5.“Build, Preserve or Revitalize” 1.4 Million New Homes

Stated Policy Objective: “Our plan will build or revitalize an additional 250,000 homes over 4 years. On top of the 285,000 homes currently being built each year, this will mean nearly 1.4 million homes will be built, preserved, or revitalized by 2025-26 under a re-elected Liberal government.”

And: “The Liberal Housing Plan will support the construction of 100,000 middle class homes, helping more families achieve the goal of home ownership, while also building more than 20,000 more units of new affordable rental housing, and ensuring 130,000 units are revitalized from a state critical disrepair”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Highly unlikely. If this policy led to sufficient new supply, it could help alleviate price increases, but the policy is not only about producing new housing, but ‘preserving’ and ‘revitalizing’ existing housing. The policy only forsees adding 100,000 new “middle class” homes over and above what otherwise would have been built, and only 20,000 “new affordable rental housing” units, across the entire nation. Presumably, the remaining 1.28 million units will be ‘preserved’ or ‘revitalized’. These numbers of new units are far too low to affect prices, whether in the rental or ownership sectors. Given the low numbers of new units proposed as a proportion of the total, this policy suggests that the federal government will help pay to renovate existing properties, which could lead to higher overall prices.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? Yes. 20,000 new units of ‘new affordable rental housing’ are proposed.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Unlikely. The number of new units, in either the owner-occupied sector (100,000) or the rental sector (20,000), is really too low to have an effect on housing-based inequalities at the national scale.

5.1. Help Cities Accelerate Housing Construction

Stated Policy: “A re-elected Liberal government will:

  • Invest $4 billion in a new Housing Accelerator Fund which will grow the annual housing supply in the country’s largest cities every year, creating a target of 100,000 new middle class homes by 2024-25. This application-based fund will offer support to municipalities that: grow housing supply faster than their historical average; increase densification; speed-up approval times; tackle NIMBYism and establish inclusionary zoning bylaws; and encourage public transit-oriented development. This fund will support a wide range of eligible municipal investments, including red tape reduction efforts, and reward cities and communities that build more homes, faster.
  • Help speed up the time it takes to build more homes by investing in e-permitting technology and help communities streamline the planning process.
  • Work with municipalities to identify vacant or underused property that should be converted to housing on the principle of use it or lose it.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Unlikely. As noted above, the number of new units is quite low compared to the underlying need, and will have little affect on prices. It is also unclear whether the municipal approvals process is actually a problem, excepting the problems of NIMBYism which have been present in Canadian cities for over a century. But the federal government has no jurisdiction to intervene in municipal affairs, except for the case of housing for Indigenous residents. It is unclear whether the federal government can actually affect municipal decisions.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. The policy only mentions building ‘100,000 new middle class homes by 2024-2025’, and does not mention rental housing at all. This is despite the fact that NIMBYism mainly affects rental housing, not owner-occupied or middle-class housing.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Unclear. If the federal government were actually able to help alleviate NIMBYism, there is potential for reducing housing-based inequalities. But the federal government does not have jurisdiction over municipal affairs (municipalities are the ‘creatures of the Provinces’), except in the case of housing for Indigenous peoples. But the policy does not even mention Indigenous peoples, or the rental housing the is usually the target of NIMBYism.

5.2. Build and Revitalize More Affordable Housing

Stated Policy: “A re-elected Liberal government will: Permanently increase funding to the National Housing Co-investment fund by a total of $2.7 billion over 4 years, more than double its current allocation. These extra funds will be dedicated to helping affordable housing providers acquire land and buildings to build and preserve more units, extending the model of co-operative housing to new communities, accelerating critical repairs so that housing supply remains affordable and is not lost, and developing projects for vulnerable groups, such as women, youth, and persons with disabilities.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Yes. While the devil is in the details (which are not spelled out in this policy), if cooperatives and other affordable housing providers are provided with more funds they wil be able to reduce their costs and pass this along to households. It is not clear exactly how many units would be affected though.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? Yes. The policy states that these ‘extra funds will be dedicated to helping affordable housing providers acquire land and buildings to build and preserve more units’. It remains unclear how many units will be affected by this policy, but the overall objective states that 20,000 new units of affordable rental housing will be built, so this is likely the target number for this policy.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Yes, but by a small amount. Even if all 20,000 new units of affordable rental housing are built, this is a very small number in relation to the underlying need.

Front d’action populaire en réaménagement urbain (FRAPRU) stages a march against discrimination in housing in Saint Michel, Montreal. The group calls for the financing of 50,000 new social housing units in five years and access to social housing for all, regardless of immigration status. Source: FRAPRU.ca, April 2019.

5.3. Convert Empty Office Space into Housing

Stated Policy: “A re-elected Liberal government will: Double our existing Budget 2021 commitment to $600 million to support the conversion of empty office and retail space into market-based housing. We’ll convert space in the federal portfolio, and commercial buildings [and] Work with municipalities to create a fast-track system for permits to allow faster conversion of existing buildings, helping maintain the vibrancy of urban communities.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Unclear. The kinds of housing that will  be produced out of the former office space is not specified.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? Unclear. It is not clear what kind of housing the former office space will be converted to, nor how many units this might produce. The details are missing.  

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Unclear. Apart from the question of whether this might help alleviate housing affordability problems, this policy also raises questions about where people living in cities might work. Is this policy based on an assumption that the pandemic has permanently restructured live-work relations, and that many people currently working from home will continue to do so? If offices and retail spaces are converted to housing, there will be less space available for employment, especially in areas where traditionally one found higher concentrations of rental housing. If those jobs disappear, will renters need to buy cars in order to commute the longer distances where the remaining places of work are found? During the pandemic, renters were more likely to work in jobs that required them to come to the job site.

5.4. Help Bring Different Generations Under One Roof

Stated Policy: “A re-elected Liberal government will: Introduce a new Multigenerational Home Renovation tax credit to help families add a secondary unit to their home for an immediate or extended family member. Families will be able to claim a 15% tax credit for up to $50,000 in renovation and construction costs, saving up to $7,500.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Potentially. This policy could help alleviate pressure on existing rental units, by bringing family members back into the family home in new units.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? Yes. The policy is meant to subsidize some of the costs of creating new units within the family home. It is unclear how many new units are envisaged as resulting from this policy.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Unclear. This policy would help households who have space in their existing family homes to turn that space into separate units. It will therefore subsidize homeowners will larger houses, who are statistically wealthier on average (although there is much variation), and will benefit the family members of these higher-income households. But the freed-up space in the rental market could help alleviate some of the pressure on rising rents, benefitting others trying to find housing in the existing rental market. Once again, the devil is in the details, which are not provided in the platform.

6. New Rent-to-Own Program

Stated Policy: “A re-elected Liberal government will:

  • Introduce a new rent-to-own program to help make it easier for renters to get on the path towards home ownership while renting. The program will be designed based on three principles: the landlord must commit to charging a renter a lower-than- market rate to help Canadians build up savings for a down payment; the landlord must commit to ownership in a five-year term or less; and proper safeguards will be in place to protect the future homeowner.
  • Create a stream for current renters and landlords, particularly those in condo settings, to immediately enter into a rent-to-own agreement.
  • Commit $1 billion in loans and grants to develop and scale up rent-to-own projects with private, not-for- profit, and co-op partners.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Unclear overall. On average by taking units out of the traditional owner-occupied market this program could lead to rising prices in that market. But by requiring that rents be lower than the market rent, it could lower average rents across the board (but may not affect the actual rents of those outside the program). Of course, those who meet the criteria for this program (but who otherwise would have remained renters) should benefit. Saying this, the policy is to provide ‘loans and grants to develop and scale up rent-to-own projects with private, not-for-profit and co-op partners’. Does the latter mean that this program will also be used to turn existing rental housing currently located in cooperatives and non-profits into owner-occupied housing? If so, this could mean a reduction in the number of rental units, and seriously impact the ability of cooperatives and non-profit housing providers to deliver their services, making rental housing more expensive. This is another policy where the devil is in the details, yet there are not sufficient details provided.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? Unclear. The policy  appears intended to merely convert already-existing or already-planned units into rent-to-own units.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Unclear. In other nations (such as the United States), rent-to-own programs have a chequered history, with many private rent-to-own programs actually working as vehicles for dispossession and equity-stripping. This is obviously not the intention here, but more detail will be needed before any assessment of the equity effects of this policy can be undertaken.

Six Nations members at the 1492 Land Back Lane camp have successfully resisted suburban housing development expansion into their territory in the Haldimand Tract. Source: CBC News, November 2020.

6. Support Indigenous Housing

Stated Policy: “A re-elected Liberal government will:

  • Work with Indigenous partners to co-develop an Urban, Rural, and Northern Indigenous Housing Strategy and support this strategy with dedicated investments.
  • Work with Indigenous partners to create a National Indigenous Housing Centre with Indigenous people overseeing federal Indigenous housing programs once fully realized.
  • Make additional investments in First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Nation housing, as we continue to work towards meeting our 2030 commitment on closing the gaps for Indigenous Infrastructure.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Hopefully (but unclear). There is not enough detail in the policy statement to actually assess this question

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? Hopefully (but unclear). The policy is to “Make additional investments”. Does this mean building new housing? Or repairing existing housing? There are not enough details in the policy statement to answer this question.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Unclear. Again, there is not enough detail provided to answer this question.

7. End Chronic Homelessness

Stated Policy: “A re-elected Liberal government will: Appoint a new Federal Housing Advocate within the first 100-days of a new mandate to ensure the federal government’s work toward eliminating chronic homelessness, as well as other housing commitments, are fulfilled, [and] Move forward with our plan to invest in Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy to support communities across the country.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Hopefully (unclear). The appointment of a Federal Housing Advocate is a positive objective. Not enough detail is provided about how this might affect affordability.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? Unclear. There is no mention of building new housing units.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Hopefully (maybe). If chronic homelessness could be ended, or even partly ameliorated, this would really help to reduce housing-based inequalities. But the data needed to assess the equity outcomes of this policy are not present in the statement.

Toronto police raid homeless encampments in Toronto’s Moss Park and Lamport Stadium. July 2021. Source: Complex.ca.

8. Home Buyers’ Bill of Rights

Stated Policy Objective: “A re-elected Liberal government will: Create a national Home Buyers’ Bill of Rights so that the process of buying a home is fair, open, and transparent. [and] Convene federal and provincial regulators to develop a national action plan to increase consumer protection and transparency in real estate transactions.”

And: “The Home Buyers’ Bill of Rights will:

  • Ban blind bidding, which prevents bidders from knowing the bids of other prospective buyers, and ultimately drives up home prices.
  • Establish a legal right to a home inspection to make sure that buyers have the peace of mind that their investment is sound.
  • Ensure total transparency on the history of recent house sale prices on title searches.
  • Require real-estate agents to disclose when they are involved in both sides of a potential sale to all participants in a transaction.
  • Move forward with a publicly accessible beneficial ownership registry.
  • Ensure banks and lenders offer mortgage deferrals for up to 6 months in the event of job loss or other major life event.
  • Require mortgage lenders act in your best interest so that you are fully informed of the full range of choices at your disposal, including the First Time Home Buyer Incentive.”

Some of these policies are within federal jurisdiction, but others are within provincial jurisdiction. To deal with this problem, we have separated these policies into two batches:

8.A – Those aspects of the ‘Home Buyer’s Bill of Rights’ that are under Provincial Jurisdiction:

  • Ban blind bidding, which prevents bidders from knowing the bids of other prospective buyers, and ultimately drives up home prices.
  • Establish a legal right to a home inspection to make sure that buyers have the peace of mind that their investment is sound.
  • Ensure total transparency on the history of recent house sale prices on title searches.
  • Require real-estate agents to disclose when they are involved in both sides of a potential sale to all participants in a transaction.

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Not likely. Blind bidding, optional home inspections, and full disclosure by agents, have been the norm for many years in a number of provinces already, even in times when prices rose much more slowly. Transparency of house sales is an excellent idea for establishing fairer and more transparent markets. But Nova Scotia has publicly released transparent sales histories for many years, and it suffered just as bad of a rapid price increase in the cost of housing as the rest of the country during the pandemic. Not only do these measures appear to have minimal effect on prices, but they are under provincial jurisdiction, so it is unclear how the federal government expects to accomplish these goals.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. These measures only affect existing housing.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Not likely. Making sure that transactions are fair and transparent, and that there is full disclosure of the interests of agents, will improve the perception and legitimacy of real estate markets, and could perhaps reduce fraudulent activity. But it is not clear that this would have much of an effect in reducing material inequalities.

8.B – Those aspects of the ‘Home Buyer’s Bill of Rights’ which are under Federal Jurisdiction:

  • Ensure banks and lenders offer mortgage deferrals for up to 6 months in the event of job loss or other major life event.
  • Require mortgage lenders act in your best interest so that you are fully informed of the full range of choices at your disposal, including the First Time Home Buyer Incentive.”
  • Move forward with a publicly accessible beneficial ownership registry.

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Yes, slightly. By requiring lenders to offer mortgage deferrals, and act in the best interest of borrowers, they will need to charge higher average interest rates on uninsured mortgages, and be more open about borrowing options. The higher interest rates should help keep demand more stable (helping, in some small way to alleviate rapid price rises). Doing a better job at informing borrowers about their options should mean that borrowers are better matched with mortgage products that meet their needs, including lower-priced options, and better able to avoid predatory forms of lending. Note that this policy could only apply to federally-regulated lenders (like the large banks) and not the provincially-regulated lenders (like credit unions).

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. These policies mainly relate to existing housing.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Yes. Borrowers who lose their jobs will not have their housing taken away in the first six months, providing some relief in the case of unemployment. This will help to partially decouple housing loss and job loss, providing more stability to housing careers. This is will be particularly beneficial for children living in affected households, as they will not have to move as often and/or in such highly-stressful situations. The latter (children moving often between units) has been found to affect well-being later in life. Furthermore, it is low-income households that will benefit the most from requiring lenders to act in their best interests, as low-income households are disproportionately affected by ‘mis-selling’, predatory lending, and other kinds of lending that take advantage of a household with fewer options.  Making the beneficial ownership registry publicly accessible would allow the public to see who owns each property, which will enhance democratic procedures and perhaps put pressure on owners to be more responsible with tenants.

9. Keep Your Rent Fair

Stated Policy: “To help better protect renters, a re-elected Liberal government will: Stop “renovictions” by deterring unfair rent increases that fall outside of a normal change in rent. [and] Require landlords to disclose, on their tax filing, the rent they receive pre- and post-renovation, and implement a proportional surtax if the increase in rent is excessive.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Yes. While once again the devil is in the details, more scrutiny of rent increases, and penalties for above-guideline rent increases (rent increases that are above the annual guideline set by the province, in those provinces that practice such guidelines), could help protect existing tenants from ‘renoviction’ (evicting the tenant explicitly in order that renovations can be made that increase the chargeable rent on a unit). Saying this, rent control is not within federal jurisdiction. And the Liberal Party has not said it would prevent CMHC mortgage guarantees from being used by ‘renovictors’ (which the NDP has promised). It is unclear just how much power the federal government would have to influence patterns of renoviction merely through federal tax policies.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. This policy will only apply to existing housing, and is not meant to increase the supply of rental housing.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Yes. Low-income households are far more likely to face eviction and ‘renoviction’, and any protection they can be granted will disproportionately benefit them, creating a more equitable rental landscape.

Members of Parkdale Organize and Keep Your Rent confront Daniel Drimmer, CEO of Starlight Investments, at his home in Toronto, demanding rent forgiveness for tenants during the pandemic. Source: National Observer, May 2020.

10. Curb Speculation and House Flipping

Stated Policy: “To reduce speculative demand in the marketplace and help to cool excessive price growth, a re-elected Liberal government will: Establish an anti-flipping tax on residential properties, requiring properties to be held for at least 12 months. Canadians who encounter changes in life circumstances due to, for example, pregnancy, death, new jobs, divorce, or disability will be exempt from this policy. As this tax is introduced rules will be established to ensure that sellers subject to this tax are able to deduct legitimate investments in refurbishment.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Not likely. The policy only applies this tax to sales within the first 12 months, so would-be ‘flippers’ might be expected to now wait 13 months. At any rate, it is not clear that most ‘flippers’ always do their flipping in the first 12 months. This policy will not likely have much of an effect on actual housing investment or behaviour.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. This policy only applies to sales of existing housing.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Not likely. Given this new tax is not likely to actually reduce speculation, it is not likely to reduce speculation-induced forms of housing inequality either.

11. Crack Down on Foreign Ownership

Stated Policy: “A re-elected Liberal government will:

11.A. Ban on Foreign Buying

  • Ban foreign money from purchasing a non- recreational, residential property in Canada for the next two years, unless this purchase is confirmed to be for future employment or immigration in the next two years.

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Not likely. Even before the pandemic, available statistics suggest that foreign buyers were only a small fraction of the total market: after British Columbia and then Ontario instituted taxes on foreign buyers, their share dropped to very small numbers. The pandemic has reduced this further. The rapid rise in prices during the pandemic is due to Bank of Canada’s ‘Quantitative Easing’ program, in which the Bank purchases government bonds, and mortgage-backed securities, in order to bring mortgage rates and other interest rates down, as well as the federal government’s Insured Mortgage Purchase Program (IMPP), in which the federal government has purchased very large numbers of qualifying mortgages from the banks, taking the risk off the banks and spurring them to lend more, to more people. A ban on foreign buying will have no direct effect on this, and in turn, on current prices.

Furthermore, the ban will only apply to ‘non-recreational, residential property’, meaning that foreign buyers will *still* be able to purchase property for recreational use (cottages, ski resorts, etc), as well as purchase property for agricultural use. This policy will not prevent agricultural land from being bought up by foreign companies.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. The policy has little to do with rental housing production.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Not likely. Might this policy prevent a new wave of foreign buying post-pandemic? There is no evidence that such a wave is imminent, but perhaps this policy could prevent one from occurring if such a wave were to emerge in a world divided by covid-based safety concerns. On this, one can only guestimate. However, a policy like this makes it seem like foreign buying is one, or perhaps THE, cause of the housing affordability crisis, when in fact there is no evidence of this; but the perception can lead to greater inequalities as a result of rising racism, xenophobia and discrimination.

11.B. Non-Resident Tax on Vacant, Underused Housing

  • Extend Canada’s first-ever national tax on non- resident, non-Canadian owners of vacant, underused housing, announced to begin on January 1, 2022 to include foreign-owned vacant land within large urban areas.
  • Work with provinces and municipalities to develop a framework to better regulate the role of foreign buyers in the Canadian housing market so that this money does not deter housing from being available for, and used by, Canadians.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Unlikely. There is currently not enough data on the extent to which non-residents own vacant, underused housing. If the latter is extensive, then a national tax could spur owners to rent out more of this underused housing into the long-term rental market, or perhaps offer it for sale, in turn providing more competition in the housing market. Current data suggest that non-resident ownership is not substantial, however. Until there is sufficient data on non-resident ownership, the true impact of this policy remains unknown.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. This policy applies to existing vacant, underused housing.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Unclear. Because of insufficient data, it is not possible to assess whether this policy would have much of an effect, nor what kind of effect, on prices, rents, and the level of housing-based inequality.

Entire neighbourhoods of apartment buildings in Halifax have been purchased by financialized real estate investors including Starlight Investments, Canada’s largest landlord, and the pension investment arm of Telus. Source: Richard Cuthbertson, CBC News, May 2021.

12. Stop Excessive Profits in the Financialization of Housing

Stated Policy: “Large corporate owners of residential properties such as Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) are amassing increasingly large portfolios of Canadian rental housing, making your rent more expensive. Homes should be for people to live in, not financial assets for investment funds to speculate on. A re-elected Liberal government will:

  • Review the tax treatment of these large corporate owners.
  • Put in place policies to curb excessive profits in this area, while protecting small independent landlords.
  • Review the down payment requirements for investment properties.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Potentially. REITs and other large real estate asset management firms have been purchasing increasing numbers of rental buildings across the country, and then raising rents, with those rents flowed out to investors. Many of these firms seek to evict existing tenants after buying up the buildings so they can charge higher rents to new tenants. This leads not only to eviction, but higher average rents. Any attempt to dampen this type of behaviour should help maintain affordability. However, the policy only suggests that the federal government will ‘review the tax treatment’ of these firms and ‘put in place policies to curb excessive profits’. But what are ‘excessive’ profits? The federal government will apparently allow these practices to continue as long as the profits are not ‘excessive’ by their definition. They are not promising to stop the evictions or rent increases, so it is not clear how much of an impact this policy will have, if any. The proposal to “review the down payment requirements for investment properties” is too vague a statement to make any assessment of it. It is not clear that downpayment requirements are a major factor that is stimulating the financialization of rental housing.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. REITS and other larger real estate asset managers generally purchase existing rental housing (not build new housing), and this policy itself says nothing about spurring the production of any new rental housing.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Potentially. Again the devil is in the details. If the federal government merely moves to reduce ‘excessive’ profits, but allows these types of firms to otherwise continue with their general practice of evicting tenants so that they can raise rents with new tenants, then this policy will not have much of an effect.

13. Protect the Stability and Security of the Housing Market

Stated Policy: “To strengthen federal oversight of the housing market, a re-elected Liberal government will:

  • Establish the Canada Financial Crimes Agency as Canada’s first ever, national law enforcement agency solely dedicated to investigating and combatting all forms of major financial crime.
  • Increase the power of federal regulators to respond to housing price fluctuations and ensure a more stable Canadian housing market.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Potentially. This new Canada Financial Crimes Agency could provide data that is currently lacking, and help policy-makers create policies that better address financial fraud. All of that is welcome. But the second promise to ‘increase the power’ of regulators to deal with house price fluctuations is woefully under-explained. Federal regulators currently have enough power to respond to house price fluctuations if they choose, and they have done so by modifying lending criteria from time to time, including and particularly in relation to mortgages. It is not clear why they might need more power than this, or what extra powers are being suggested. Why haven’t they used the powers they already have to reduce speculation and risky lending? What new powers are being suggested?

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. This policy does not directly relate to the rental housing market.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Potentially. Financial fraud is disproportionately harmful to lower-income borrowers, and any attempt to reign it in will help reduce predatory forms of lending and protect vulnerable borrowers. It is not clear how new regulatory powers meant to enhance price stability would affect housing-based inequalities though.

Categories
Election2021

Housing Platform Crunch: Conservative Party

By Dr. Alan Walks (Professor, Geography and Planning, University of Toronto), Sean Grisdale (PhD Candidate, Geography and Planning, University of Toronto), and the Affordable Housing Challenge Partnership collective

Summary

Underlying the Conservative Party’s housing platform is a core belief that the private sector and the production of new housing supply “in general” is the ultimate solution to Canada’s housing woes. In our view, this platform is missing a major component necessary to building a balanced and affordable housing supply: policies that will help produce affordable market, non-market, and rent-regulated supply.  The conservatives do not actually voice a specific commitment to new rental housing numbers, although they do promote higher density of housing near transit stations. Indeed, there is little mention of “affordable” housing in their platform. In this platform, the housing crisis is blamed primarily on four scapegoats: lack of supply (which is odd given that housing starts have remained high over the last decade), foreign speculators, corruption, and money laundering. However, the implication that Canada’s housing affordability problems are primarily due to foreign actors is inaccurate at best, and ignores the significant role that domestic speculators and corporations (eg. REITs and Private Equity firms) also play.

Positives:

  • Commits to transit-oriented housing infrastructure (though this is not a federal jurisdiction)
  • Commits to incentives for private land donations to land trusts and cooperatives
  • A Beneficial Ownership Land Registry will be key to identifying who owns real estate
  • Commitments to a “For Indigenous by Indigenous” housing strategy
  • Incentives for foreign investors to build affordable rental housing

Negatives:

  • An overemphasis on policies expanding access to mortgages and homeownership will only continue to drive housing price inflation, as well as household debt levels
  • No specific commitments to producing “affordable housing” (only “housing” in general)
  • Relies on privatizing public land and infrastructure
  • Commits solely to incentivizing private developers to increase private housing supply
  • Their homelessness strategy has no direct housing component, and appears to assume homelessness is merely a by-product of addiction
  • Overemphasis on foreign buyers as opposed to financialized and corporate buyers (both domestic and foreign)
  • No intention to address role of domestic big business and speculation in the housing market

Deep Dive

The Conservative Party of Canada Platform:

There are five large multi-part policies or policy objectives related to housing in the Conservative platform.

1. Build 1 million Homes in the Next Three Years

Stated Policy Plans/Objectives: “To swiftly increase supply, we will implement a plan to build 1 million homes in the next three years. To do so, we will:

1.1. Leverage federal infrastructure investments to increase housing supply. We will:

  • Build public transit infrastructure that connects homes and jobs by bringing public transit to where people are buying homes; and
  • Require municipalities receiving federal funding for public transit to increase density near the funded transit.

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Unclear. This policy is based on the assumption that supply has not increased enough to meet demand, especially near public transit locations, and that an increase in supply near transit should make housing more affordable. While building more units near transit stations IS a laudable goal, and will help the household budgets of tenants who might not be able to afford a car, it is not clear that this policy on its own will affect average unit prices in any substantial way. Again, the devil is in the details. It is also not clear that municipalities are slowing down the building of new units near transit stations in any meaningful way, so there may not be much low-hanging fruit that this policy could help correct.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? Maybe (unclear). This policy is intended to spur the building of new units near transit stations. While the tenure of these units is not mentioned, traditionally units in high-density buildings near transit are more likely than other units to be rented out on the long-term rental market, due to the higher level of demand for such rental units. So, it would be expected that this policy, to the degree that it helps produce new units, will in turn produce new rental units. However, it is not clear whether these new units would be affordable. If they are found in ‘luxury’ condo buildings, then these new units might have expensive rents.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Potentially. The effect on housing-based inequality depends on whether the new units will include affordable rental units. Ideally, all the new units built near transit would meet the criteria for affordable rental units, and if this were the case, then this policy would improve housing-based inequalities. If, on the other hand, the new units built under this policy are expensive owner-occupied units, then it will have allowed higher-income households to benefit from this policy, producing greater housing-based inequalities.

Tenant group Stop Demovictions Burnaby organize against transit-induced gentrification associated with the extension of the Vancouver Skytrain into Metrotown, Burnaby. July 2016. Source: CityNews.

1.2. Review the extensive real estate portfolio of the federal government – the largest property owner in the country with over 37,000 buildings – and release at least 15% for housing while improving the Federal Lands Initiative

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Unclear. This policy essentially states that the federal government will ‘release’ (sell off?) 15% of its 37,000 buildings to other owners for housing. That is, it appears to be a policy of privatizing public assets. Will these buildings be used to create affordable housing, or instead will they create housing that does not meet the criteria for affordability? Private owners typically target the upper-income segments of the market, as that is where the profits are greatest. A better policy, from the perspective of affordability and equity, would be to maintain public ownership of these buildings, and turn them into social affordable housing.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? Unclear. Not only is it unclear whether the housing units that might eventually result from this policy be in the rental sector (vs the owner-occupied sector), but it is not clear whether the units would meet the criteria for affordability, or even whether this policy will result in a net growth of units.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Unclear. If this policy results in the sale of public assets to private owners who target the upper-income segment of the housing market, it could create greater inequalities, without a parallel profusion of new rental units for lower-income households.

1.3. Incent developers to build the housing Canadians both want and need, by:

  • Encouraging Canadians to invest in rental housing by extending the ability to defer capital gains tax when selling a rental property and reinvesting in rental housing, something that is currently excluded; and
  • Exploring converting unneeded office space to housing.

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Unclear. Allowing landlords to defer capital gains when trading properties certainly will ‘incent’ more trading, but it is not clear that this would make the units more affordable. It benefits the landlords. Meanwhile, the idea of converting office space to housing would have unclear affects, especially given there are no more details concerning what kinds of housing might be created, and at what price levels.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? Unclear. Only the suggestion of converting office space to housing has the potential for creating new units, but no details are provided of whether these would be rental units, or how affordable they might be. If the federal government were to convert office buildings to social affordable rental (retaining ownership of the buildings), this would certainly produce new affordable rental units, but the policy does not state this.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Unclear. The same lack of clarity, and issues that would have to be dealt with, are present here in the Conservative Platform as in the Liberal Platform on office space. A policy of converting offices to housing raises questions of where people in cities might work in the future. If lower-income households become forced to drive to far-away locations to find work, this could lead to new housing-based inequalities. The same comment applies to both the Conservative and Liberal policies in this regard. 

1.4. “Continue the Conservative commitment to Reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples by enacting a “For Indigenous, By Indigenous” strategy [and]

Canada’s Conservatives are committed to putting a stop to federal paternalism and instead partnering with Indigenous communities and empowering Indigenous Peoples with the autonomy to meet their own housing needs.

Enhance the viability of using Community Land Trusts for affordable housing by creating an incentive for corporations and private landowners to donate property to Land Trusts for the development of affordable housing. The incentive will mirror that which exists for donating land to ecological reserves.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Yes. First of all, if Indigenous Peoples are given more power and control over their housing needs, as long as this is accompanied by additional resources to see their ideas to fruition, they will come up with better solutions for their own communities. Second, community land trusts have been shown to be a positive solution for creating and maintaining affordable housing in the long term. Federal incentives to donate land for community land trusts would help keep land out of speculative markets and help produce more stable and affordable housing.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? Yes. Importantly, community land trusts typically keep the land in trust, and develop housing for either rent or long-term lease above ground. They are able to offer much more affordable rental rates over the long term.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Yes. Not only would greater Indigenous control and power (as long as this is accompanied by sufficient resources) help Indigenous Peoples to create more equitable outcomes within their communities, this will help create a more equitable nation. Community land trusts, likewise, will help preserve housing within cities for a diversity of populations, at affordable costs, and in turn will help produce more equitable neighbourhoods and cities.

Kensington Market Community Land Trust acquires a building in Kensington, Toronto. June 2021. Source: CTV News.

2. Root out the Corrupt Activities that Drive Up Real Estate Prices. “To root out the corrupt activities that drive up real estate prices and put homeownership out of reach, we will:

  • Implement comprehensive changes to the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act, and give FINTRAC, law enforcement, and prosecutors the tools necessary to identify, halt, and prosecute money-laundering in Canadian real estate markets
  • Establish a federal Beneficial Ownership Registry for residential property.
  • Closely examine the findings and recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry into Money Laundering in British Columbia, which is doing important work, and quickly implement recommendations at the federal level.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Potentially. Currently it is not known to what extent fraud and money laundering have inflated real estate markets, so it is important to investigate this issue to provide solid reliable data. The Federal Beneficial Ownership Registry is a very positive step that would allow the public to identify the owners of property. Saying this, it is not clear that these policies would on their own reduce housing costs.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. This policy is directed at existing housing and sales of new owner-occupied housing.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Potentially. Fraud and illicit activity typically has a greater negative impact on lower-income households, and raises overall costs. As noted for the Liberal Platform, making the beneficial ownership registry publicly accessible would allow one to see who owns each property, which will enhance democratic procedures and perhaps put pressure on owners to be more responsible with tenants.

3. Arrest and Reverse the Inflationary Impacts of Foreign Buyers and Speculation. Stated Policy: “we will ensure that housing in Canada is truly for Canadian citizens and residents first…We will:

  • Ban foreign investors not living in or moving to Canada from buying homes here for a two year period after which it will be reviewed.
  • Instead, encourage foreign investment in purpose-built rental housing that is affordable to Canadians.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Unclear. As noted, foreign buying was already low before the pandemic, and has been minimal during the pandemic. A ban on foreign buying is not likely to affect prices or rents. At the same time, this policy seeks to ‘encourage foreign investment in purpose-built rental housing that is affordable’. It is unclear how this will be done. And how it is done matters a lot. Policies that encourage such foreign investment could stimulate REITs and other large firms to move more aggressively into rental markets, and this could lead to higher rents (because these firms often do not build new housing, but instead seek to squeeze more rent out of existing tenants). But if the policies could be fine-tuned to only stimulate the building of new rental units, this could go some way to making housing more affordable. The devil, once again, is in the details.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? Yes. The policy explicitly seeks to ‘encourage foreign investment in purpose-built rental housing that is affordable’. It is not clear how many new units are being targeted, however, so it is difficult to say how much of an effect this policy will have.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Not likely. As noted for the Liberal Platform, if there were a new wave of foreign buying on the horizon, the ban could stave that off, but there is no evidence of such a potential wave. If the other part of the policy stimulating foreign investment in new rental housing does create new units with affordable rents, this could alleviate housing-based inequalities, but there is not enough information in the policy statement to suggest that this would be the case. Also, importantly (as also noted for the Liberal Platform and the NDP Platform), a ban on foreign buying makes it seem like foreign buying is one, or perhaps THE, cause of the housing affordability crisis, when in fact there is no evidence of this; but the perception can lead to greater inequalities as a result of rising racism, xenophobia and discrimination.

Financialized landlord Northview Real Estate Investment Trust owns more than 80 percent of the rental housing stock in Yellowknife, NWT and has large holdings across Canada’s North. August 2021. Source: John Last, CBC News.

4. Address Homelessness. Stated Policy: “To address homelessness, we will:

  • Re-implement the Housing First approach, which has been watered down by the current federal government, to aid in the fight against Canada’s addictions crisis.
  • Revise the federal government’s substance abuse policy framework to make recovery its overarching goal.
  • Invest $325 million over the next three years to create 1,000 residential drug treatment beds and build 50 recovery community centres across the country.
  • Support innovative approaches to address the crises of mental health challenges and addiction, such as land-based treatment programs developed and managed by Indigenous communities as part of a plan to enhance the delivery of culturally appropriate addictions treatment and prevention services in First Nations communities with high needs.”

Will this policy lead to housing that is more affordable? Unclear. This policy appears to assume that homelessness is mainly the result of drug addiction and mental health challenges, and not the result of a lack of affordable housing. Treating addictions and mental health challenges is very important, and coupled with Housing First strategies, this could benefit the homeless. However, the policy does not appear to also seek to reduce the cost of housing.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? Not likely. It is unclear whether the ‘re-implementation’ of the Housing First approach will mean the addition of new units. Typically, Housing First strategies have used existing housing units in social housing buildings to house the homeless.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? Yes. Any additional help for those experiencing homeless will help reduce housing-based inequalities, although an acknowledgment that housing costs are also a factor creating homelessness, coupled with policies to reduce those costs, would be even more impactful.

Camp Pekiwewin at Rossdale Flats, Edmonton, provided refuge for hundreds of homeless people during the pandemic until it was taken down the city and police. The camp was set up by Indigenous community groups including Beaver Hills Warriors and Treaty 6 Outreach, and Members of the Crazy Indian Brotherhood provided camp security. Source: CBC News, August 2020.

5. Make Mortgages More Affordable. Stated Policy: “To make mortgages more affordable, we will:

  • Encourage a new market in seven- to ten-year mortgages to provide stability both for first-time home buyers and lenders, opening another secure path to homeownership for Canadians, and reducing the need for mortgage stress tests.
  • Remove the requirement to conduct a stress test when a homeowner renews a mortgage with another lender instead of only when staying with their current lender, as is the case today. This will increase competition and help homeowners access more affordable options.
  • Increase the limit on eligibility for mortgage insurance and index it to home price inflation, allowing those in high-priced real estate markets with less than a 20% down-payment an opportunity at home-ownership.
  • Fix the mortgage stress test to stop discriminating against small business owners, contractors and other non-permanent employees including casual workers.”

Will these policies lead to housing that is more affordable? No. Each of these four policies will increase housing and land prices, because they will allow bidders to borrow greater amounts when bidding for housing. The higher bids will drive up prices very quickly, defeating the purpose of these policies. So, while these policies may temporarily make ‘mortgages’ more affordable for the households who initially access these mortgages, the housing that is purchased with those mortgages will become more expensive, and over time even the mortgage payments will rise back to their current (or worse) level of affordability. The result will be more indebted home-owners, and higher prices. Rising prices in the owner-occupation sector over time will mean fewer can afford to own, pushing up competition in the rental sector, leading to rising rents as well (unless many new units of rental housing are also built).

While it may seem counter-intuitive to many readers, housing affordability would be more improved by making it tougher to get a mortgage, and by reducing the amounts one could borrow. This would reduce the average bids for property, producing more of an even playing field among buyers and sellers, and producing a soft landing in prices. The rapid rise in housing costs was caused by so many borrowers being able to take out such large mortgages. It is a debt-fuelled housing affordability crisis. Reducing the amounts that people can borrow will mean lower average prices over time.

Saying all this, the stress test should be made more equitable for small-business owners and the self-employed, and the requirement for conducting a new stress test should be removed when renewing a mortgage with another federally-regulated lender. These are good policies and should be implemented in the service of fairness, although they are not likely to affect overall average affordability in any way.

Will this policy lead to the production of new affordable rental housing? No. These policies apply to housing purchase.

Will this policy alleviate housing-based inequality? No. Instead, on average they are likely to lead to greater levels of inequality (with one caveat about greater equity between the self-employed and those with salaried jobs) due to rising housing prices. Rising prices will mean rising debt loads, which disproportionately affect lower-income households. And rising prices will mean more competition in the rental sector, leading to rising rents and greater rental inequality.

Categories
Election2021

Housing Platform Crunch: Introduction

By Dr. Alan Walks (Professor, Geography and Planning, University of Toronto), Sean Grisdale (PhD Candidate, Geography and Planning, University of Toronto), and the Affordable Housing Challenge Partnership collective

Affordable housing has emerged as one of the biggest concerns of voters during the 2021 federal election, in part because of the rapid increase in house prices that has occurred over the last two decades, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each of the main national-scale political parties has promised new policies they claim will promote greater affordability of housing. The newsmedia is already full of commentaries on how these policies will or will not affect housing affordability. Of course, what is meant by ‘affordable housing’ is rarely defined, whether by these commentators or the political parties themselves, yet the definition of ‘affordable’ matters very much to these conversations.

In this blog post, we offer our thoughts on each of the housing policies contained in the major national-scale federal party platforms, and we comment on their effects in both a) making housing more affordable, which we define as declining average real rents in the rental sector, and declining average real prices in the owner-occupied sector, and b) building new rental units that are affordable according to i) the principles set out by the CMHC, which states that housing is affordable if the household spends less than 30 percent of their before-tax budget on housing, and ii) a common definition of affordable rental housing in Ontario, which states that a rental unit is affordable if it rents for less than 80 percent of the average market rent in its locality.

Furthermore, any discussion of housing affordability cannot avoid discussions of housing equity and equality. If a policy leads to declining rents or prices for the rich, but rising prices or rents for lower-income households, it is a policy that increases housing inequality and hurts those who need affordability the most. It is therefore important that we comment on the equity aspects of each policy. Ideally, we should only see policies that a) make housing more affordable, and b) produce new affordable rental units, and c) reduce housing-based inequalities. However, our analysis suggests that many of the policies being promoted by the federal political parties fail on one or more of these criteria.

Three national-scale political parties have released lengthy policy platforms: the Liberal Party of Canada, the Conservative Party of Canada, and the New Democratic Party. We comment on how and whether each of the policies listed in those platforms would lead to:

  1. New affordable rental housing,
  2. Alleviation (or augmentation) of existing housing-based equalities, and
  3. Housing that is more affordable (declining rents and prices).

Detail is provided for the assessment of each policy below.

It is instructive to calculate what proportion of the stated platform policies from each political party would actually make housing more affordable and/or reduce housing-based inequalities (see above). Each political party is proposing some policies that would make housing more affordable or create affordable housing, yet at the same time each political party is also proposing measures that make housing LESS affordable.

On balance, the NDP platform contains the largest proportion (50 percent) of policies that would actually lead to greater affordability, and is tied with the Conservative Party for having the least number of policies that would actually make housing less affordable (13 percent). Only a small proportion of both the Liberal Party platform (15 percent) and Conservative Party platform (13 percent) involves policies that would produce greater affordability with any certainty. However, there are also some policies that could potentially improve affordability in each of the Liberal platform (15 percent), Conservative platform (13 percent) and NDP platform (13 percent). There is a similar pattern related to the proportions of each platform that would produce new affordable rental units. A greater proportion of the NDP platform policies (38 percent) would result in the construction of new rental housing than the Conservative platform (25 percent of policies) or the Liberal platform (15 percent). This means that a majority of the policies proposed by each of the three parties would NOT result in the production of new affordable rental housing. However, in terms of the actual numbers of affordable rental units promised, at upwards of close to 500,000 new units the NDP proposal is far ahead of the Liberals, who have only promised 20,000 new units, or the Conservatives, who did not list a targeted number of new units they think their platform would help build.

In terms of policies that would reduce housing-based inequalities, as a proportion of the policies directed to housing in the party election platforms, the NDP is far ahead with 63 percent of their policies promoting greater housing-based equality, compared to the Liberals (15 percent) or the Conservatives (25 percent). However, it is also instructive that 25 percent of both the NDP and Conservative platforms, and 35 percent of the Liberal Party platform, involve policies that would actually worsen housing-based inequalities. Furthermore, in many cases not enough information is provided about how the policy will work to properly assess the outcomes, in which case the outcome is deemed unclear.

Below, each of the policies related to housing in each party platform is considered. Click through to read our reports.

Categories
Uncategorized

Blog: On Encampment Clearings

In 2019, as they approved the new HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan, Toronto’s City Council committed to taking a human rights approach to housing on paper, only to disavow it in action on June 22nd with a coercive, violent clearing of the encampments in Trinity Bellwoods Park. Following this, our elected officials had an opportunity to reaffirm this commitment and ensure that no further evictions went forward. As we write, the militarized clearing of unhoused residents at Lamport Stadium is underway, on the heels of the clearing of the Alexandra Park encampment yesterday. We urge the City to reject a punitive approach to encampment dwellings in favour of an approach that restores dignity and justice to residents, and upholds the commitment made to recognizing housing as a human right. We also, however, recognize that to do so within the existing system is potentially a pipe dream.

What is happening in Toronto brings to mind the first chapter of Neil Smith’s The New Urban Frontier (1996) in which he describes the police riot that erupted in New York City’s Tompkins Square Park over thirty years ago on August 6, 1988. Smith writes about the forcible eviction of the park’s inhabitants by police, of the destruction of their belongings and the claims of city representatives that it would be ‘irresponsible’ to allow unhoused people to remain in the park, urging them into a shelter system that did not provide long-term solutions. He describes the brutal hostility of the police towards both park residents and their supporters, and the ongoing insistence of elected officials that parks are ‘not a place to live’ and have been ‘stolen’ from the community by ‘the homeless.’ Smith’s account of these events is disturbingly similar to the events in Toronto over the past month – and encampment clearings we have seen in other cities across North America such as Vancouver and Los Angeles – as we rush to ‘get back to normal’ during a new phase of the pandemic. He connects the violent eviction of encampment residents to a process of revanchism – the taking back of urban space by the ruling class – and he connects it explicitly to capitalism and class struggle.

Planning theorist Peter Marcuse, writing in the late 1980s, remarked that, ‘Homelessness exists not because the system is failing to work as it should, but because the system is working as it must.’ The current system – one that is based on private market principles – limits access to housing to a privileged few, while reinforcing the criminalization and spatial segregation of poverty. Recognizing this, we join the urgent call for system transformation, rather than cycles of reform and failure. 

The Affordable Housing Challenge Project Collective recently endorsed the recommendations put forward by the Toronto Drop-in Network and co-authored with advocates and people with lived experience, pushing for a collaborative and human rights compliant approach toward residents in encampments. The recommendations in this statement address present circumstances, as well as future investment in purpose-built, rent-geared-to-income housing, a pressing need that we at the AHCP are working to articulate. ‘A Pathway Forward’, which was signed by over 200 organizations, housing advocates and civic leaders, was not added to City Council’s agenda on July 14th, and has been opposed repeatedly by Mayor John Tory, who described the letter as ‘unwelcome’ and has repeatedly called encampments ‘illegal.’ Yet its demands, which urge meaningful consultation with encampment residents about solutions to this problem, are urgently important. On the same day, City Council deferred the legalization of multi-tenant rooming houses across the City of Toronto, withholding safety in this important affordable housing stock that, for many low-income people in the city, is the only accessible option. There is glaring contradiction between the stated values endorsed by City Council, and the dismissal of policies and practices that would uphold these values.

Housing Opportunities Toronto, the City’s ten-year action plan for 2010-2020, contains a set of recommendations guided by the Toronto Housing Charter, an earlier attempt to codify a rights-based approach to housing. Some of the points in the Charter are as follows:

  • All residents should be able to live in their neighbourhood of choice without discrimination.
  • All residents, regardless of whether they rent or own a home, or are homeless, have an equal stake and voice in Toronto’s future.
  • All residents have the right to equal treatment in housing without discrimination as provided by the Ontario Human Rights Code, and to be protected from discriminatory practices which limit their housing opportunities.

Almost a decade after this report was initiated, the City, aligned with the Federal government, doubled down on a rights-based approach to housing.

The National Housing Strategy Act (2019) affirms a commitment to realize the right to housing as recognized under international human rights law, and it requires that governments support and maintain a national housing strategy and appointed councils and advocates. According to international human rights law, the right to housing recognizes: ‘the right to a safe and secure home in which to live in security, peace and dignity, meeting standards of adequacy, including standards relating to legal security of tenure, affordability, habitability, availability of services, accessibility, location and culture’ (National Right to Housing Network, 2019). The Act is not enforceable in courts, but is meant to hold the government to account in implementing policies and programs that would ensure the right to housing for all. While this initiative at the federal level is admirable, provincial and municipal governments are not required by law to respond to the federal recommendations, though these bodies are encouraged to participate in collaborative efforts toward the realization of the right to housing in their jurisdictions. In the HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan, the City of Toronto affirmed that housing is a human right. However, it is the province of Ontario that has jurisdiction over rental laws and oversees the Landlord and Tenant Board, where renters are often disadvantaged in favour of corporations. The province’s own housing strategy – the More Homes, More Choice Act (2019) – does not mention a right to housing, and hinges on the idea that increasing housing supply will make housing more affordable, focusing on cutting red tape for developers rather than ensuring that deeply affordable options are provided to people.

John Lorinc, writing in Spacing Magazine on July 19, diagnoses the seemingly intractable issue of affordable housing provision as a problem of municipal governance. He notes that,

‘The regulations firmly embedded in our planning framework are tailor-made for investors, speculators, developers and the owners of detached homes’ (Lorinc, 2021). Marcuse and David Madden (2016) go further than this to suggest that a system that is market-based and oriented around private profit cannot respond to the needs of working class people or meaningfully integrate any sense of housing as a right. Indeed, in Toronto we have seen the market-based system generate increasing polarization between those who have been able to buy into homeownership and asset-based wealth and those who have not – with many of the latter being funneled further into precariousness while navigating the trials of the rental market. So long as housing continues to be understood to be an investment product, and housing policy is tailored to meet the needs of investors and the real estate industry rather than residents, it is hard to understand precisely how any stated right to it could be defended.

We may be seeing a shift in mindset, in some respects, when it comes to affordable housing and homelessness. However, it is arguable that this shift in mindset must also be accompanied by a shift in the distribution of resources across city-dwellers, lest it be perceived as an attempt to merely shift optics. One key way to begin this redistribution is to disincentivize the use of housing as an investment tool. What can we make of the fact that the average homeowner, who has likely seen a significant return on investment over the past several years (and even more significant during the pandemic), will only see a $22.00 increase in their property tax bill in 2021?  It seems that we have a situation in which values are articulated, yet are not substantiated through material changes that would allow these values to become praxis. Perhaps, then, it is time to move away from statements and declarations on rights-based approaches to housing, and to focus more energy on substantive redistribution measures and governance. The dissonance between the City’s reports, and City Councillors’ commitments, and the actual policies and spending channels, has become glaringly obvious. The decision to fund police, private security, and equipment to coerce people out of parks is a choice, and it is a choice that comes with expenses. Property owners’ tax money could be put toward stable, adequate housing—not hotel rooms—for those unhoused residents who seek it.

Although it is disturbing to see the violent enforcement of City-led encampment evictions continue, it is important that we do not erase long histories of organizing against such practices, and the solidarity of residents and neighbours in resisting these evictions. Just as surely as there are acts of urban destruction, there are acts of urban resistance. The support and care in the face of violence that was displayed in Trinity Bellwoods on June 23rd, in Alexandra Park on July 20th, and at Lamport Stadium on July 21st, reminds us that it is still possible to shape the city we want to live in and there are those who want to do it.

In solidarity,

Sinead Petrasek & Loren March

AHCP Statement: On emergency tiny shelters

As we head into colder months and a second heightened wave of the pandemic, the AHCP collective are adding our voices to the rounds of housing advocates, activists and city residents calling upon all levels of government to immediately prioritize the protection of tenants and finding safe housing solutions for people who have been unhoused. In the city of Toronto, the combined force of months of insufficient support for tenants, the cancellation of the eviction moratorium, the return to Landlord Tenant Board hearings and evictions, and the City of Toronto’s program of encampment removal, are pushing residents into a dire situation. Strong action is urgently needed around these issues. We stand with tenants and with encampment residents facing the uncertainty of the months ahead, and join the call to end the forced removal of people from their homes.

The Affordable Housing Challenge Project Collective stands in solidarity with carpenter Khaleel Seivwright and the increasing number of groups speaking out against the dismantling or removal of shelters in public spaces in the city.

The City of Toronto views the presence of structures in our public parks as ‘illegal,’ and has taken taking a law-and-order approach to the issue of temporary emergency ‘tiny shelters’ in parks, taking legal action to prevent more from being provided to those sleeping outside and forcefully removing some. Many people who have used the tiny shelters have spoken out against the recent court injunction against Seivwright. Encampment residents have described the police enforcement practices as violent and involving high levels of harassment and destruction of tents and survival equipment. They have also described the City’s response as inadequate and not meeting the specific needs of many unhoused people. Many have made the difficult decision to stay outside through the coldest months of winter because the City’s formal shelter system presents a high risk of exposure to COVID-19 (including new variants), because options presented remove people from their existing support networks, and because of the policing of residents in formal shelter spaces. Many have sought refuge in shelters only to be turned away due to shelters regularly being over capacity – a problem that existed before COVID-19.

We believe other responses to the ongoing crisis are both needed and possible. We would like to use this as an opportunity to highlight the recommendations of the Office of the Chief Coroner in the 2018 Faulkner inquest, which encouraged, among other things, that the City of Toronto review its existing policies around the provision of survival gear to unhoused residents, and the expansion of harm reductions principles and services in the existing formal shelter system. We also would like to highlight other cities, such as Ulm in Germany, which have taken more supportive approaches to the provision of emergency shelters and sleeping pods. We encourage the City to see this example as an inspiration for what a different approach might look like. If the City deems tiny shelters to be unsafe, they have an immediate responsibility to find safer accommodations for those sleeping in them. With many of the City’s shelters being regularly over capacity, this means temporarily ensuring that those forced to sleep outside are provided with means of doing so more safely and more comfortably. Ultimately, no one should be put in a position where they need to choose between risking freezing, burning, or exposing themselves to COVID-19. The fact that many hundreds of Toronto residents feel they have no other choice is a direct consequence of decades of underfunding and underregulating of housing in Toronto. If this controversy shows anything, it is the utter inadequacy and inequity of the existing housing system, and the need to radically rethink how we address housing needs across the city.

We know that shelters like sleeping pods and tiny shelters are no replacement for secure, long-term housing solutions, but in an emergency situation they are a necessary tool. We urge the City to immediately drop legal action against Khaleel Seivwright, and to stop removing shelters from public spaces.

Loren March and Jeremy Withers on behalf of the Affordable Housing Challenge Collective.

AHCP Statement: Joining the call for immediate housing solutions

As we head into colder months and a second heightened wave of the pandemic, the AHCP collective are adding our voices to the rounds of housing advocates, activists and city residents calling upon all levels of government to immediately prioritize the protection of tenants and finding safe housing solutions for people who have been unhoused. In the city of Toronto, the combined force of months of insufficient support for tenants, the cancellation of the eviction moratorium, the return to Landlord Tenant Board hearings and evictions, and the City of Toronto’s program of encampment removal, are pushing residents into a dire situation. Strong action is urgently needed around these issues. We stand with tenants and with encampment residents facing the uncertainty of the months ahead, and join the call to end the forced removal of people from their homes.

Blog: Renting in the Time of COVID, or The Meaning of Home in this Time

Photo credit: Photo by member of the AHCP Collective

The home, in the midst of what is said to be a period of collective trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, has become a symbol of necessity. For many of us, it is what we rely on for physical and emotional safety, a site of refuge and resistance against the pandemic’s creeping invasion into every facet of our lives, a space for ‘work from home’ labour, and a place of belonging and comfort. With a circulating slogan of “we are all in this together” as a way to promote and build collectivity in this moment in time, there has been some awareness about providing more support for people who are in need, quarantined, and socially isolated. Although a sense of community is embedded in this message, it can also shroud and blur the very distinct divide between the permanently housed and those with precarious housing such as renters. Indeed, renting and being housing-deficient in the time of COVID-19 have produced more vulnerability with regard to the meaning of home and its notions of permanence, safety, and comfort. Despite public calls for social unity, the fragmented reality of the housing crisis in Toronto has been further exposed and stark housing inequalities have become more visible as people struggle to pay rent, retain their housing, and secure healthy and safe places to stay during the pandemic.

There are monumental signs that things are not equal and that they are not okay over the course of this past summer. Individuals and communities are fighting on multiple fronts – against anti-Black racism through the important direct actions of Black Lives Matter, against domestic and gender-based violence as we learn the on-line hand signals that silently identify abuse, and against housing displacement and homelessness as people retreat to the spaces where they can afford to live. These issues are not siloed but are deeply interconnected and interwoven with the uneven development of the city, systemic racism and inequality, and with the inequitable forms of housing provision. The recent collection of demographic data by the City of Toronto identifies that the parts of Toronto most starkly impacted by COVID-19 cases are neighbourhoods in the post-war suburban areas of the city such as West Humber, Jane Heights, and Malvern/Rouge, that are also communities with a large number of Black residents and other people of colour.  Comparatively, and indicative of Toronto’s socio-spatial injustice, an area with one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 cases is the Beaches neighbourhood – an enclave comprised of largely white and affluent homeowners in the east end of the city’s downtown. A report published this past August by Toronto’s Wellesley Institute underlines that housing precarity and evictions are more likely to occur in the neighbourhoods that have been significantly impacted by COVID-19. The connection between the differences caused by racialization and income disparity, where people live in the city, and their form of housing tenure has become increasingly apparent and blunt in the midst of the pandemic.

We need to centre the practice of renting in Toronto within larger conversations about where and how people live, and what they live in. Renting, like many other things, is a precarious act. In Toronto, a city with skyrocketing rents and little rental supply – where the average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment was $2013 per month in September 2020 – it is even more precarious. By renting our housing we situate the responsibility and power over our living spaces squarely in relation to the whims and interests of landlords. Renters experience this while waiting for repairs to be done, while competing with other renters for a dwindling supply of affordable rental housing, and while experiencing covert and explicit forms of discrimination, prejudice, and racism in rental applications.  Renting has become a way of life in Toronto despite the desire of Canadians for property ownership. Renting in Canada, however, is not the same as other countries where tenancies are much more a part of the social fabric of aging in place; where renting is seen as a socially acceptable action. In our popular discourse, renting one’s housing in Canada, despite its prevalence, has become increasingly ‘counter-normative’ – it is (mistakenly) viewed by larger society as an act that individuals are forced to do when they can’t afford to purchase a house, when they do not receive family help with the increasingly large down payments that are needed, and when they don’t have the social privilege that is increasingly required to enable home ownership. Owning a home is, problematically, viewed as a mark of full citizenship and engagement within Canadian society. The ubiquitous trope of the ‘property ladder’ does little to mitigate this discourse, with one either making a linear way up the ladder over the course of a lifetime or failing to reach the first rung. Such narratives are constituted by and embedded within an individualized and asset-obsessed culture of property ownership in Canada that is reproduced in the form of family home ownership and residential investments for lease by so-called ‘mom and pop landlords’ and multi-national corporations; both of which exist to generate wealth from the needs and precarity of renters.

Amidst calls to retreat to our homes during COVID-19 – to isolate, to quarantine, to work, to care-take, to sequester in place because there is nowhere else to go right now – the precarities and dominant narratives that renters experience are forgotten as access to housing becomes a universalized ‘given’. There exists an unwavering sense that everyone has the same and equal comfort and safety of home and ability to pay for housing and this notion is supported by public policy. Renters have faced a policy and funding void within the context of multiple governmental supports for Canadian residents since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.  While the federal government has created a financial relief program to mitigate payment pressures for commercial tenants (the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance program – CECRA), and federal policies encouraged banks to provide 6-month mortgage payment deferrals to homeowners, no federal funding program has been developed to lessen financial burdens on residential tenants. Indeed, residential tenants have been directed to the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), intended for individuals who have lost their employment income and consisting of payments of $2000 in total per month, to cover rent and day-to-day expenses – a program that is now coming to an end. The responsibility of financial relief for residential tenants has been given to provincial and municipal governments, which have devised ad-hoc plans that vary by province and municipality.

In Ontario, this has surfaced in the form of temporary relief from the penalization of residential eviction. At the beginning of the pandemic, the provincial government passed an eviction moratorium that suspended residential tenant evictions ordered by the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) or the hearing of eviction requests in relation to tenants who were not able to pay their monthly rent due to the economic stresses and employment losses that were created by the pandemic. A report by the Toronto Foundation states that in Ontario, between 8-13% of tenants were not able to make their rent payments in April or May. The temporary ban on eviction hearings at the LTB ended at the beginning of August. The lifting of the ban has been identified by affordable housing activists as a punitive act that will create both a bottleneck and flurry of LTB eviction orders due to the moratorium on prior eviction hearings (that were already backlogged) and new eviction applications that will now be brought forward by landlords. Thousands of eviction orders are currently backlogged at the LTB. The situation is further complicated by the assent of the provincial government’s Bill 184, Protecting Tenants and Strengthening Community Housing Act, on July 21, 2020, which affordable housing and tenant rights advocates see as a regulation that will make it easier and faster for landlords to evict tenants through a series of changes to the Residential Tenancies Act. The changes brought by the new bill have also been made retroactive to the start of the eviction moratorium, creating an expedited process for evictions to occur based on rental non-payments during the pandemic. Indeed, Toronto’s City Council voted on July 29, 2020 to proceed with a legal challenge to Bill 184 because of concerns over the impact of the pandemic on residential tenants in the city and a rise in future evictions. A recent announcement by the provincial government to bring forward legislation this fall to halt the annual rent increase in 2021 does little to lessen the burden of the already high payments that renters make on a monthly basis. Indeed, renters have been paying the existing annual rent increase in the midst of the pandemic.  In Toronto, the exceedingly high rental housing costs, employment precarity caused by the pandemic, and inadequate short and long-term policy support and funding relief for residential tenants during the pandemic – including new legislation that works against tenant rights – has produced a very sudden crisis for renters. This is especially concerning given the unpredictable longevity of COVID-19 and the recent rise in case numbers, as well as its yet-unknown long-term social and economic impacts.

During the pandemic we have been told to ‘stay safe’, to keep healthy, and to reduce the transmission of infection. These ideas are linked to the upkeep of our health, and towards our bodies remaining largely at home and in protective social bubbles. Staying at home and reveling in the comforts of home have, for some, become a hallmark of the COVID age. However, we need to collectively ensure that a right to genuinely affordable housing, to be free from evictions and displacement, to have comfortable, safe, and secure housing in order to shelter from threats caused by the pandemic, must be situated at the front and centre of public discourse and policy – not just in light of this current public health crisis but with a long view towards comprehensive housing justice. A rights-based approach to housing must emphasize a move away from our societal obsession with generating wealth from individualized property ownership and include generous public support for renters and attention to community-based, de-commodified alternatives for how we live and how we are housed.

* Note: Renting in Toronto is a precarious act. We are mindful that identifying the names of people who are renters and who are also openly critical of high rental costs and problematic landlord practices can place these individuals in more vulnerable positions when it comes to renting. As such, this blog post was authored anonymously and posted by members of the Affordable Housing Challenge Project Collective.

** For further discussion on the topic of renting and evictions in Toronto during the COVID-19 pandemic, please attend the Affordable Housing Challenge Project’s public webinar, “Pandemic Displacements: Fighting the Evictions Crisis Amidst COVID-19” on Tuesday, October 13th from 7-8:30 pm. Please register on Eventbrite via the following link: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/pandemic-displacements-fighting-the-evictions-crisis-amidst-covid-19-tickets-124150568693

Blog: Towards an anti-racist housing agenda: Some thoughts on white supremacy and policing in housing

Photo credits: Loren March

**This collaborative blog entry contains work from several members of our core group. Posting it has taken slow consideration for several reasons. We have taken time working through many conversations along the way. We are not all in perfect agreement around how to get there, but feel that getting to another, better world is both necessary and possible. It is not our intention to take up space better occupied by Black scholars and activists, but rather to speak out against anti-Black racism in housing, to share information we are privileged to have, to share what others have said, and to encourage others to think through racial justice and housing justice together. Please take our words here as an offering in solidarity with the struggle against white supremacy.**

A recent wave of police brutality in North American cities, including the killings of George Floyd, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor, and most recently Rayshard Brooks, in the United States, has ignited what we might consider a global uprising against anti-Black racism and police brutality. In Canada, the tragic deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, D’Andre Campbell, and Chantel Moore, all left dead following police-conducted “wellness checks,” have also ignited large protests condemning the systemic white supremacy underpinning policing in the country, connected to a broader movement for Black liberation. All of these protests have popularized calls to defund the police, with proponents arguing armed police have no place performing key social services which could be administered more safely and effectively by dedicated social support and crisis workers bringing specialized training (including de-escalation training) and an ethic of care, and that affordable housing and direct community resources and social services ought to be funded instead.

In response to such calls, we’ve seen city councillors Josh Matlow and Kristyn Wong-Tam put forward legislation that would cut the Toronto police budget by 10%, yet Toronto activists, including Desmond ColeRobyn MaynardSyrus Marcus Ware, and Sandy Hudson have insisted that such a cut is sadly insufficient in terms of eliminating violence and meeting the broad goals of redistribution of funding and radical reimagining of community care and safety that are the horizons of abolition. While this cut would reduce the police budget by approximately $122 million for the year, it is important to consider that the police budget request for 2020 was already increased by 3.9% from 2019 to an astounding $1.2 billion. In fact, the slice of the pie going to policing has been steadily increasing in cities across Canada for over two decades, where funding commitments towards addressing crime have continued alongside austerity efforts to “balance the books” with cuts to key social services like housing. Going back further, the Ministry of Public Safety shows that in the years between 1997 and 2013, the cost of policing more than doubled while the average salary of a police officer increased by almost fourfold compared to the average employed Canadian. In Toronto, this trend continues today where the 2020 budget includes a contract with police to raise salaries by 11.1% over 5 years (ending in 2023). According to the Toronto Star, this represents a far bigger raise than given to the majority of other city employees.

Austerity itself is a process that dovetails with and relies upon racialization while producing and reinforcing racial hierarchies. Historically, cuts to social services and the retreat of the welfare state from the provision of care and support has had disproportionate consequences for low-income and racialized groups experiencing oppression and marginalization. As such, they have been long been denied access to the amenities and services that many white people take for granted. Exacerbating these circumstances, the police – who are at their root a fundamentally racist and colonialist apparatus, enforcing ingrained racist and colonialist state laws and policies – have in many ways become the main front-line workers addressing urban social problems. Thus, as neoliberal austerity has progressed, and cities’ more supportive capacities have been reduced, the police have been called upon to administer a range of social service roles that they are inadequately trained and ill-suited to fulfill. Over the years, this approach has manifested in the increasing presence of police in our schools and the criminalization of mental health and drug use, in turn justifying a renewed expansion of our prison system. Critical scholars and a range of community activists have long decried this growing police presence, and particularly its negative impacts on racialized groups, in particular Black communities. This gross imbalance of spending in the U.S. context was recently highlighted in an article in The Atlantic, suggesting that the police state has grown significantly as the social safety net has been thinned. Here in Canada, graphics of the Toronto budget are being widely circulated online by people questioning the disproportionate spending on policing in comparison to valuable areas such as education and housing.

Those urging the defunding and dismantling of police forces as we know them insist upon the redistribution of these resources into community-led solutions and into other important sectors as a preventative way to address urban problems. In addition to other community supports, an excellent place to eventually reallocate some portion of this funding is, of course, towards long-term, accessible, affordable and equitable housing. Yet, we must consider that we cannot simply funnel money into housing and expect that this is, in itself, a path to justice and equity. Our argument here aligns with abolitionist perspectives in suggesting that, in a context of pushing for broad systemic change, it will be important to recognize how even housing itself has been and continues to be a site of white supremacy, surveillance, state violence, policing, exclusion and racial injustice, and to pointedly try to address these issues as well. As scholar activist Robyn Maynard has said, “what anti-Black racism means is that… for us policing is everywhere.” Housing is certainly not free of it, and therefore might not offer everyone all the safety and security that many white people might presume it inherently implies. Recently, this has been made especially clear in calls to reevaluate police “wellness checks” which too often end with people of colour dead in their own homes.

Indeed, housing development itself – while often thought of as a kind of neutral practice – is deeply racialized and significantly affected by government policy. Starting in the 1990s, around the same time we see the doubling of police spending by jurisdictions across the country (1992-2015), housing spending was undergoing a process of government disinvestment. Central to the dynamics of ownership and “growth” in Toronto’s housing sector during this time was a broader shift in government policy across the country towards what some scholars call an individualized or “asset-based” form of welfare. Where previously, the debt burden for costs associated with personal safety and security (like housing, retirement savings, among other things) was a relatively communal affair, with this responsibility being taken on largely by the state, things have shifted such that access to the various resources needed to ensure one’s personal safety and security is now disproportionately premised on the accrual and management of assets (like housing) that are expected to rise in value in perpetuity. This shift towards asset-based welfare is often pegged at 1993 in Canada, when the federal government under Chretien chose to officially absolve itself of any direct responsibility for social housing production. Soon thereafter, following on the federal government’s heels, the Mike Harris administration eradicated the Ontario Housing Corporation and downloaded the province’s social housing responsibilities to the cities. Since then, social housing in Toronto has largely been a matter of managed decline as TCHC units have slowly fallen into disrepair while the existing stock of affordable units in aging private apartments are now targeted by real estate investment corporations interested in evicting and refurbishing their units to attract higher income tenants.

As a consequence of this deeply embedded emphasis on individual homeownership, Canada’s urban housing is now among the most expensive in the world, while Canadians are among the most indebted. And as Simone and Walks (2019) show, these debt burdens are highest among neighborhoods with larger numbers of lower-income newcomers and racialized people. This functions through a process akin to “reverse red-lining” in which racialized and low-income communities are more likely to be targeted with predatory loans that put them at risk of losing their assets in the event of unexpected disruptions to their income. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has characterized this process as enacting a kind of “predatory inclusion” of Black people in housing markets. Many are aware of the history of red-lining, racial covenants, and other racist and exploitative real estate practices in the United States, which geographer Clyde Woods called ‘asset-stripping,’ however similar practices in Canadian cities are too often ignored.  

Racism also prevents people of colour from accessing affordable or desirable rental housing. Black applicants – and in particular immigrants and refugees – continue to face serious barriers and discrimination in terms of finding affordable housing in their neighbourhoods of choice. In spite of human rights legislation that prohibits this practice, landlords, who currently hold the upper hand in the Toronto rental market, often make decisions about who rents their units based on racist biases. There is a longstanding and widespread history of discrimination in Ontario’s rental housing and mortgage markets, but the City and province do not collect data on these issues. In addition to all of this, in September of last year, the provincial government gave the green light to the Toronto Community Housing Corporation to refuse housing applications from anyone who has been evicted during the past five years for an “illegal act.” Mayor John Tory praised this move, saying it sends a “strong message to criminals who choose to threaten families and seniors in their homes.” Yet this move serves to punish people who have been disproportionately criminalized, targeted by racist policing and a racist justice system, and to deny housing to folks who potentially need it most. The policy has been criticized for cutting social supports without addressing root problems as it can be used to deny social housing to already-marginalized people and their families while wrenching last-resort social supports away from people who need them.

Simultaneously, the “return” to living in the inner-city by a Canadian workforce increasingly employed in office work and services has seen racialized and poor communities displaced to the suburbs as downtown property values have ballooned through various efforts at inner-city reinvestment and gentrification. In some cases, efforts to revitalize and privatize public housing in Toronto’s downtown are understood by scholars as both a form of state-managed gentrification and a process akin to “recolonization,” a characterization that strongly reminds us that all housing in the city is built on stolen land. Gentrifying neighbourhoods also tend to be disproportionately policedStudies conducted in the United States have also indicated that cities which have economically relied upon the growth of housing prices while simultaneously cutting back on social service spending have also seen the largest increases in law enforcement expenditures – budgets which are funded primarily through private property taxes.

When it comes to alternatives to the private market, subsidized forms such as public or social housing have long faced a kind of “territorial stigmatization” and been demonized as “slums” and spaces of “evil and danger,” thus legitimizing higher levels of policing, surveillance, and often even removal via demolition and revitalization. These spaces are actively socially marginalized. This has much to do with their connection to racialized communities. Policing interventions (for example street checks and carding or the “surge policing” methods of the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) have targeted and criminalized non-white and low-income communities across Toronto. Even beyond formal policing practices, Black and Brown residents have continuously been targeted by other modes of spatial control in the places they live. For example, as Martine August (2014) has pointed out, Toronto’s mixed-income public housing redevelopment schemes have seen many instances of more affluent, white residents surveilling, excluding and exerting power over lower-income, racialized residents. Policing and security are often a central concern for white people, whose calls for policing of “improper” use of public spaces, and the “improper users” therein, primarily fall on racialized people (August, 2014, 1164). As the Black residents in August’s research point out: “People call the police every time they see Black people outside” (2014, 1171).

Finally, urban planning itself, in both the United States and in Canada, has been a largely white-dominated practice that has centered white needs and desires. This has limited its potential in terms of supporting the flourishing of Black residents and people of colour in cities. Recently, an open letter addressed to the Ontario Professional Planners Institute has been circulated, recommending that, in addition to planning more inclusive communities, strong action be taken to support and advance the work of Black planners specifically. Planning continues to be an area in which there is much work to be done in terms of accountability around historical and ongoing white supremacy, and in terms of making adequate changes that would bring more Black practitioners to the front. We say this as non-Black critical scholars who work around issues of urban space, planning and housing, who ourselves wish to do better to lift and platform the many Black thinkers, practitioners and voices operating in the field, and seek to promote an anti-racist housing agenda.

All of this is to say that white supremacy is deeply entangled with housing, and there are overt and covert forms of policing and structural racism that are constituted by this. These issues all demonstrate that it would not be acceptable to only reroute money from policing into something like affordable housing, but that broad systemic racism in housing must also be addressed if we are to contemplate more racially and socially just alternative forms of community-based governance and affordable housing communities. In some cities, the complex and diverse forms divestment and anti-racist city planning might take have already begun to show themselves – from Minneapolis voting to dismantle their police department to Black Lives Matter LA supporting the community-generated People’s Budget and encouraging LA City Council to adopt it. Demands are largely place and context-specific, but there are many areas of overlap. In terms of budgets in particular, activists point to mental health services, education, community programming, and housing as important areas that have been gutted by austerity that need a return of significant funding. Black Lives Matter has also put forward particular demands around funding and policing. BLM in Hamilton put forward a list of demands on June 2 that called for justice and immediate action on the part of the City, including ending publicly funded police surveillance of Black communities, of Black students, and Black people experiencing homelessness. In Toronto, BLM has demanded the redirection of public money into supports that can enrich Black lives in the city and the radical imagining of a “new normal” in which the terrorizing of Black communities is ended.

We suggest that if any process of restructuring or defunding of police is to occur, some municipal funds ought to be rerouted to the better provision of affordable housing, more direct social and community services, more community control over justice and the dismantling of racist housing practices. We also insist that myriad forms of white supremacy and anti-Black policing (from policy to actual cops to racist neighbourly surveillance) must be painstakingly worked out of housing. Navigating these issues will be a long process, and a difficult one to address, but now is the moment to dig in our heels. Planner, scholar and placemaker Jay Pitter has insisted that urban thinkers must begin to engage deeply with these issues, while BLM activist and artist Syrus Marcus Ware tells us that now is a chance to take an imaginative leap with the many people on the ground who have long been doing the work and pushing for systemic change. For a start, those of us working in the field might begin by centering questions of race and inequity in work around housing. We might participate in Black-led conversations around how housing might be re-envisioned to be truly inclusive and safe. We must also push for the involvement of and center the voices of more progressive Black urban planners and policy-makers in city-building processes, and particularly in all areas related to housing. Finally, we must also push back against commonly held notions that “solving” our housing crisis is simply a matter of providing more supply. In fact, questions around physical type of supply, ownership, spatial distribution and the preservation of existing supply must be at the centre of our concerns. We must dream bigger than we have thus far. Care, critical thinking and anti-racist politics will have to underpin every step of any process of redistribution. 

Loren March is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, Department of Geography and Planning

Sean Grisdale is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, Department of Geography and Planning

Blog: ‘Staying home’ in public

Milkman’s Lane leads through one of Toronto’s many ravines down into the Don Valley. Many of the city’s ravines have long been the refuge of people experiencing homelessness. Photo taken by author in early April.

This past weekend, it finally happened. Following increasing calls on the part of many of Toronto’s urbanists and public space advocates for a dramatic expansion of access of urban public space, the City finally opened up streets around the downtown for socially distanced outdoor leisure activities with its new Quiet Streets Initiative. This was much to the jubilation of downtown residents, many of whom eagerly took the opportunity to take over streets like Lakeshore Drive, previously deemed the exclusive domain of automobiles. The street was filled with the carefully dispersed bodies of cyclists and pedestrians, joyfully taking up space for some long weekend fun.

Yet this exceptional access is, unsurprisingly perhaps, not being extended to everyone. Not two days earlier, under the nearby Gardiner Expressway between Spadina and Rees St., which runs parallel to Lakeshore, outreach workers, activists and inhabitants found themselves in a tense standoff with Toronto police and representatives from the City who had come with vehicles and machinery to dismantle an encampment that had been erected during the pandemic. This clearing of homes and displacement of people was a part of a broader initiative that the City of Toronto has been recently undertaking to remove numerous encampments that have assembled throughout the city. Similar initiatives have been observed in other Canadian cities, such as Victoria and Vancouver

The co-existence – and perhaps even congruence? – of these events demands that we rethink not just housing, but public-private binaries in so-called COVID-19 times and beyond. While extraordinary spaces are being opened up and rendered ‘public’ and accessible to certain privileged groups of people for a very particular array of permitted leisure activities, simultaneously the practices and bodies of people experiencing homelessness are being strategically targeted, policed and removed from other ordinarily public spaces. At a time when ‘staying home’ has been deemed a primary point of defense against the spread of disease, what happens when ‘home’ implies public space? What happens when home does not fit into the legitimized idea of what constitutes a home? 

What is a home, exactly, anyway? If ‘staying home’ has been deemed a primary point of defense against the spread of COVID-19, what does that mean? Thinking through the work of geographer Sarah Dooling (2009), who, in her work on urban justice, coined the term ‘ecological gentrification’ to refer to the process by which the production of urban green spaces serves to erase and displace people experiencing homelessness, we can see how the privileged spatial access of some people relies upon the dispossession of others. Yet Dooling also offers us other important insights. For her, homelessness is not just a problem related to affordable housing, it is also a political problem tied to our ideological constructions of housing, home and public space, and to the ways policymakers, housing providers and law enforcement exercise their power in relation to these. This means that the very way we think and talk about something like ‘home’ can in effect create certain vulnerabilities and perpetuate injustices in the lives of people experiencing homelessness. Dooling insists that normative ideas that constitute a legitimate ‘home’ as something that cannot possibly exist in public space inform practices like the clearing of encampments that we are seeing in Toronto. If ‘home’ is understood an inherently ‘private’ space, and public and private space are understood in terms of binary opposition, then ‘home’ cannot exist in public space. It does not matter if you inhabit a doorway, or you set up a tent in a ravine, and you are forced to engage in what are usually understood as ‘private’ acts in ‘public’ spaces. This binary categorization of public and private makes thinking of supposedly ‘public’ spaces as ‘home’ impossible, and in effect produces a kind of easy displaceability in regards to the people who might dwell in such circumstances. It produces a kind of right to nowhere, and in turn justifies the practice of placing people anywhere, regardless of their personal preference or ideas about what a safe home might be for them.

Without attempting to romanticize lived experiences of homelessness, Dooling’s work underlines that, for some people, life in an encampment can offer a better sense of home and safety than a shelter can. She underlines that the decision to camp outdoors is ‘not an absolute preference; rather it is a choice made relative to the viability of all other options’ (2009, 627, italics mine). The possibility that an encampment might be preferable or safer for people than the shelter system, however, is largely left out of the City of Toronto’s depiction of encampments, which has mostly focused on a perceived lack of social distancing and hygiene, and a potential danger posed by fires. The possibility of considering groups who are camped together as ‘family bubbles’ is also foreclosed by the limited understandings of ‘household group’ implied in the province’s current policies around interpersonal contact and gatherings. Yet there remains the possibility that camp life might provide more space and privacy than the shelter system. Camp communities might also offer a sense of belonging and a source of mutual care and support in a time of crisis. And finally, many of the individuals interviewed in recent media stories, have noted that they have chosen to live in encampments because the shelter system poses a dangerous alternative.

As of May 22, the City of Toronto’s data on active cases of COVID-19 in the city’s shelters shows 311 active cases. The City’s data shows one confirmed death in the shelter system, although two have been publicly reported in the media. Five of the Toronto’s shelters are currently experiencing outbreaks of the virus. According to advocates and people who use the shelters, social distancing is impossible in the shelter spaces. Homelessness activists and outreach workers recently filed a lawsuit against the City for violating the rights of shelter residents and placing their lives in danger, which has since been settled. Many of the people who have resorted to living in encampments throughout the city’s parks, ravines and in-between spaces have done so because the alternative they face is both frightening and potentially life-threatening.

The City has expressed a growing concern for those living in such encampments, particularly after a man lost his life in a fire in the Rosedale valley ravine on May 1st. Just prior to this tragedy, on April 29th, while announcing new programming around homelessness, Mayor John Tory also stated a concern about the risks of COVID-19 spreading in these spaces where he suggested there is often no physical distancing. The City of Toronto’s general manager of shelter, support and housing administration, Mary-Ann Bedard, has argued that those living in encampments have been offered alternative accommodations. She has stated that representatives at the City ‘have made a commitment not to clear a site without offering everyone a placement,’ but that they are ‘not always able to offer everyone a placement of their choice.’ While the City has been actively setting up arrangements for people to be housed in condos, apartment buildings and hotels at 27 different sites, and also plans to build 250 units of supportive modular housing, the option many continue to be offered is to move into the shelter system.

Concerns for safety are valid, and ultimately long-term, secure housing needs to be provided to anyone inhabiting encampments who might want it. Toronto, after all, had a homelessness crisis long before COVID-19 appeared, with our shelters at capacity, and the housing crisis has only served to put more people at risk. The current situation should be taken as an opportunity to think through some long-term, sustainable options for safe and supportive housing, and to address our overburdened shelter system. In the meantime there must be a respect for people’s wellbeing. The practice of forcefully removing encampments enacts violence, further disrupts lives and relationships in an already traumatic time of crisis, and disregards the possibility of people experiencing homelessness having any sense of what is good for them. As some recent research has found, the clearing of makeshift homes simply pushes people into more hidden locations, putting their safety more at risk (Westbrook and Robinson, 2020). Surely other courses of action are possible. Safety measures could be developed. Fire safety plans and social distancing plans could be discussed and implemented. Handwashing stations could be provided. Having seen first-hand with what speed the City managed to provide portable handwashing stations to community gardens across downtown neighbourhoods when the province declared them an ‘essential service,’ it seems completely viable for such emergency provisions to be made available for encampments that are the subject of serious public health concerns.

While exceptional spaces are produced on the behalf of more privileged publics, people experiencing homelessness are understood to be engaging in inappropriate behaviours in already existing public spaces. Of course, at their core, these kinds of exclusionary practices are far from new or extraordinary. In the months leading up to the shutdown, for example, police were already evicting and displacing people from encampments built in the Rosedale Valley. Yet in the wake of COVID-19, we need to reconsider the presence of homelessness in our city. It cannot be swept out of sight. And as behaviour in purportedly public spaces like sidewalks and parks is increasingly policed (and not just by the police themselves), and new forms of public space emerge and are socially produced, it seems necessary to reconsider the notion of publicness, and how homelessness fits into that. Does the public include those who are experiencing homelessness? And if so, how are the public spaces being produced going to include such people?

Loren March is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, Department of Geography and Planning