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Open your door to the housing agenda at City Council

Affordable housing is on the agenda at this month’s city council meeting, only falling behind transit as a central focus. The Open Door Affordable Housing Program spearheaded by Toronto Mayor John Tory and Councillor Ana Bailão is on the agenda at the July City Council. Here is a rundown of the different programs and motions being recommended:

The Open Door program works to streamline the affordable housing process to speed up approvals and provide incentives for developers to create affordable and mixed-use housing. Open Door would provide incentives to private developers who are looking to build affordable housing. This includes providing an exemption from building and planning permit fees in order to build affordable housing and would be secured for a 20-year term.

The Open Door program is part of the 10-year Affordable Housing Action Plan 2010-2020 (HOT). HOT has a target of 1000 affordable rental homes and 200 new affordable ownership homes annually, or 10,000 rentals and 2000 ownership homes over 10 years. Currently, the project is set to fall short by 6000 rental units and nearly 600 affordable ownership homes. Open Door hopes to remedy that situation by implementing more development by the private sector, piloting projects, activating government land, and streamlining city processes.

The CityPlace site at Bathurst St. and Lakeshore Blvd. and is one of the five sites chosen to kick off the project. This project will provide 389 affordable rental and ownership units. There will be 80 affordable homes built in the area.

Other projects that will be discussed in City Council include a program for 100 new affordable rentals and ownership homes at 30 Tippet Rd, and 32 new affordable ownership homes at 2 Bicknell Ave. Securing affordable ownership housing at 505 Richmond St. W. is a priority and property tax exemptions at 3087 Danforth Ave. and at 3738 St. Clair Ave. E. is also on the agenda.

Councillor Joe Cressy also introduced an item that discusses the role of Toronto Community Housing. This item on the agenda recommends that City Council transition a portion of Toronto Community Housing Corporation into a new community-based non-profit corporation. This recommendation was made in light of the organization’s reputation of being an unsuitable landlord for affordable housing tenants. Cressy is pushing for more council support in affordable housing to give residents better care.

It is a busy day in City Council, and the transit debate is sure to take over the agenda Wednesday. However, we can hope that once a decision has been made the city can finally focus on the affordable housing projects the residents of Toronto desperately need.

Inflated Toronto housing market prevents buyers from going green

High housing prices in Toronto are affecting homebuyer’s pockets and effectively preventing them from investing money in building sustainably instead.

The real estate market has skyrocketed, with expensive homes and low availability for people looking to buy. A detached single-family home in the GTA costing between $2 million and $4 million rose 77 per cent compared to 2015. Single detached homes in the GTA between $1 million and $2 million rose 64 per cent compared to the prior year. Homes have become unaffordable and are causing homebuyers to pool all of their available funds into buying a house at an extremely inflated price.

When homebuyers use every penny to invest in their home and begin paying their mortgage, much needed sustainable building practices such as solar panels or geothermal energy are cast by the wayside. Homebuyers often view sustainable practices as expensive and not worthy in the long-term. Though sustainable energy can be expensive initially, the long term investment is actually less expensive. However, many people aren’t even considering green energy investment because of current astronomical costs of housing.

Solutions are being discussed though to remedy the inflated real estate market and assuage the housing issues at hand. The federal government is discussing a speculative tax targeted at foreign investors. Many properties in Toronto and Vancouver — the two Canadian housing markets that have increased — are owned by absentee owners. The Canadian government has made it fairly easy for foreign investors to purchase property without paying taxes as a local citizen and it has helped inflate the market significantly.

One idea that has been presented to help Vancouver’s housing market is the B.C Housing Affordability fund. House owners would be charged a 1.5 per cent property surcharge on residential real estate, which would amount to $15,000 on a $1 million property. If the homeowner paid over $15,000 in income taxes though, they would be exempt from the surcharge.

Another issue that is driving housing prices upwards is a loophole in the real estate board that allows investors to flip properties without being taxed, which drives up the property value at a fast rate without repercussions. In Vancouver, the provincial government has promised to intervene in the real estate board to ensure they are following fair practices, but Toronto has not moved forward with any commitments of their own.

The federal government is also discussing forcibly cooling the housing market by increasing the mandatory down payment for houses under $1 million to 10 per cent. This would dissuade most first-time buyers from purchasing a house and decrease competition in the Toronto and Vancouver markets. At the same time, measures need to be taken to ensure that the rental market doesn’t accidentally drive prices up. There is also a fear that cooling the market would harm Calgary and Montreal’s housing markets, which aren’t doing as well as Toronto and Vancouver.

Preventing first-time buyers from purchasing homes to cool the market has been criticized as an unfair practice, and another option might be more profitable for everyone. Creating affordable housing in key areas would allow first-time buyers to purchase homes and wouldn’t continue to increase current house prices. Calgary launched a program called “Attainable Homes” that allowed buyers to purchase a home for $2000 as long as they could manage the mortgage. These homeowners were required to take financial training to properly understand the market and to pay the organization a certain amount of the property value increase when they sold the house. People are also prevented from flipping their house because if they try to sell too quickly, they would owe “Attainable Homes” a higher percentage of their property value increase.

The housing market has been a popular topic of conversation at the dinner table and the chosen solutions don’t seems to be working. It will be interesting to see how government intervention will cool the market, and if affordable housing becomes a priority. No matter what, cheaper housing prices will allow people to focus on sustainable building practices and invest in the future of green living.

Woman of the Week: Ana Bailão

Ana Bailão moved to Canada, specifically to the Davenport area in Toronto, from Portugal at the age of 15 — and she hasn’t left. In fact, she now represents the ward as a city councilor.

“It’s a part of the city that feels like home,” she said during an interview at city hall.

Her office is tidy and clean, with the perfect eastern view to capture the sunlight. Her desk, however, is full of papers, reports, and documents in file folders —organization is key when you’ve got one of the largest files in the city to date: affordable housing. While the conversation moves from her teenage interests to her current responsibilities within city politics, Bailão speaks with poise and passion. She gets excited about the possibility of change, especially in her own neighbourhood.

“I know what the community has gone through. At the same time, I was like so many that worked in the neighbourhood: I had family. I was a young professional. I could relate to both,” she said. “People are always very scared of gentrification and I always say changes happen. It’s how you manage it that makes the difference.”

Bailão didn’t always want to go into politics. While studying sociology and European studies at the University of Toronto, her plan was to pursue social work. “Sociology was really my passion,” she said. “I always felt very interested in how things affect society: how one area of society has such an impact on another and how you are able to affect change.”

It wasn’t until her local councillor took notice of the work she was doing within the community and invited her to participate in a project that Bailão considered jumping into the political realm.

“At first I said no, but then I thought – most of my classes are at night, maybe I can coordinate this. I called them back and said I could do it if he accommodated my school schedule. I got started as a part-time and it turned into a full-time five-year position. I fell in love with the work you can have at city hall.”

Ana PhotoSince then, Bailão has been focused on public service. When she lost the municipal election in 2003, she fell back on the private sector, working with banks and IT healthcare, always in a marketing or communications role. “But, I always kept involved in local organizations, because there was a need to come back to other types of work.”

When the opportunity presented itself in 2010, she ran for office a second time and won. In her first term she was asked to chair the Affordable Housing Committee and when she was re-elected in 2014, Bailão was offered the position as Toronto’s Housing Advocate. Since then, she has been fighting for a better understanding of what affordable housing means for the city, something she says has improved in the last few years.

“I think what we’ve been able to get is more attention to the issue, and I’m happy to say that,” said Bailão. “I’m happy to see the three levels of government talking about this issue.”

Housing is becoming a large file at city hall, with Mayor John Tory’s Task Force on Toronto Community Housing included in the 2016 budget. The Task Force spoke with over 1,000 tenants and community members, 100 different stakeholder groups, officials from the city, province, and federal governments, as well as international housing experts, and made 29 recommendations to improve and strengthen the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC).

“I think that it’s bold,” said Bailão. “It goes outside the typical recommendations. For me, what’s really exciting is this concept of using TCHC to strengthen our non-profit housing sector.”

Bailão has been an advocate for the merging of the private and public sectors to aide affordable housing. In Toronto, she said, we have the second largest landlord in North America and the units are based on an average income of $15,000. “That’s not healthy financially for the corporation, but also socially.”

Her suggestion: let not-for-profits and the private sector help.

“Once the buildings are repaired, it’s about more than the bricks. It’s about the people who live there and so how do we turn into a more resident-friendly and resident-focus approach. The non-profit sector can really help us with that.”

Her hope over the next year is that the city focuses on implementation. What will make this new Task Force different from the many reports already presented to council will be the results.

“The devil is always in the details,” she said. “Let’s hope we can do something substantially different from what has happened before.”

Suffice to say, Bailão has a lot of work to do. So much so that she finds it difficult to make time for herself, a fact that is reiterated by the pile of unread books she bought around Christmas. She does do a little bit of travelling, mostly to visit family and friends in Portugal. She started running in the summer and has continued it during the winter.

Trudeaumania takes over Toronto

Photo taken by Katherine DeClerq

Trudeaumania is real.

Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid a visit to Toronto’s city hall to meet with Mayor John Tory. It was the first time in 18 years a prime minister visited the institution, but that wasn’t why people were so excited. It was because they had the opportunity to get close to the celebrity politician.

The media struggled to stay up with Trudeau and Tory as they walked from Queen St. up to city hall. People sporting bright unicorn Trudeau sweatshirts were running through the crowd, trying to get a selfie with the sexiest head of state in the world, while scores of young women stood in his path screaming his name.

One cameraman made a wrong step and slipped on the skating rink in the square. Reporters ran — and I mean sprinted — around the crowd to get better view of the prime minister, just to run face-first into a father holding his kid, trying to get a glimpse of the people at the center of the spectacle. Personally, I was elbowed in the head and shoved into a snow bank.

“Oh my god, it’s Justin Trudeau!” screamed two jumping girls as he made his way into city hall. I have to say I was impressed with the strength of the prime minister’s security force, dawning the stereotypical sunglasses and earpieces, trying to keep everyone at bay. What a job.

After the screaming died down and the swooning stopped, the prime minister got up on stage with the mayor and opened his mouth to talk. And talk he did — although he didn’t say much. In fact, he hardly said anything worthwhile.

It was obvious the prime minister didn’t want to make any promises during this visit, despite the mayor’s attempts to indicate otherwise. There was no mention of a commitment to the SmartTrack or the Yonge Relief Line, and he didn’t even touch on the $2.6 billion promised to the city for transit.

“We are in the middle of pre-budget consultations.” Trudeau said when a reporter asked when we could expect a cheque for infrastructure. “The infrastructure investments that the mayor is counting on are not a problem, they are part of the solution that Canada is facing.” What that means…no one knows.

Really, the only thing Justin Trudeau reiterated was his government’s pledge of $60 billion over the next 10 years towards green and social infrastructure, and public transit. There was no elaboration. Where will the money go? What are the government’s priorities? All are excellent questions that remained unanswered. The rest of the 10-minute question period included the Prime Minister dancing masterfully around each media inquiry, citing what seemed to be election promises and vaguely mentioning the Liberal’s commitment to job creation, economic growth, and international relations.

But, that didn’t matter to the fans. As one grown man standing behind me in the crowd said: “Wow, his hair really is great!”

And I guess that’s all that mattered.

Photo by Katherine DeClerq