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My apartment was infested with cockroaches. The housing crisis is real.

When I tell people my home was infested by cockroaches, I get a variety of reactions. Some people shrug their shoulders and tell me that is a common problem in Toronto and other people shiver in disgust. Anyone who understands the difference between one or two cockroaches and a full-blown infestation immediately gives me a hug and asks what I need. Just in case you don’t know, let me explain.

The word “infest” means “to invade in large number, causing damage or hardship.” To me, it means seeing over one hundred cockroaches climb into every one of my things while I try to get what remains out of the house. It means losing a substantial portion of the things I worked hard for and loved. It means war between man and beast — and let me tell you the cockroach always survives.

The apartment in question is in Parkdale on Spencer Avenue. Parkdale is a complicated neighbourhood, with a population ranging from wealthy families in turn-of-the-century homes to low-income people surviving in dilapidated apartment buildings.  It is known as a low-income neighbourhood with a plethora of problems. One of the main issues is affordable housing.

The affordable housing waitlist in Toronto stands at 90,000 households, despite the failed attempt at building 10,000 affordable homes per year, originally introduced in the Housing Opportunities Toronto Action Plan 2010-2020. As for affordable housing that does exist, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation has a $2.6 billion backlog in repairs. A lot of other housing is rent-controlled, which this leaves tenants in a vulnerable position if they have a bullish landlord who wants them out to raise the rent.

The housing situation in Toronto is in crisis and what is the result? Children, adults and seniors living in pest-infested housing, myself included.

City Councillor Gord Perks of Ward 14 Parkdale-High Park sees the struggles within his ward.“Every tenant is being ignored. Their voices have not been heard at Queen’s Park,” Perks says. “Oftentimes, people with rental control are being muscled out of their units. The landlords aren’t happy about people who are rent controlled of course. They are trying to get above guidelines by allowing cockroaches to persist, and not doing repairs properly so people leave. Then they can put a fresh coat of paint on and jack up the rent.”

Large apartment building companies own many of the buildings in the area and it is well-known that landlords hold much power in Toronto. This leaves tenants in a vulnerable and disempowered position to demand better living conditions in these buildings. Children live in poverty-stricken housing barely five kilometers from Queen’s Park and City Hall.

Why is it that the affordable housing crisis hasn’t been solved in Toronto?

“None of the levels of government have fixed that problem. The prime minister, premier, and mayor think they can solve the problem without collecting more taxes from the population,” Cheri Dinovo, MPP for Parkdale-High Park says. “For example, we have a significant stock of Toronto community housing units in Parkdale. The CEO of community housing has said that he does not have enough money to maintain standards.”

The problem comes down to a lack of funding. It also is the result of the three levels of government passing the affordable housing agenda in Toronto back and forth like a hot potato nobody wants. Many solutions have been presented including Section 37, the Open Door program, Inclusionary zoning (IZ), Landlord Licensing, and rent control. None of these have yet solved the housing crisis.

Part of the reason for the lack of success of any affordable housing program is due to squabbling between different levels of government. The provincial government reintroduced their affordable housing bill Wednesday, including inclusionary zoning that would mandate a percentage of affordable housing in all new condo developments. The City of Toronto adamantly rejects inclusionary zoning in place of Section 37, mandating developers provide mandatory funding for community projects. But, a provincial law states it cannot be used in conjunction with IZ.

In truth, all of these options should be adopted to help obtain affordable housing as quickly as possible. “There is a whole host of tools we should be dealing with to help the housing crisis-because that is what it is- and we are not,” Perks says. “There is a middle line that has to be met. Inclusionary zoning is absolutely essential. It is the only tool that is working in municipalities, but they need to be able to invoke section 37 to build infrastructure. Otherwise, there is a danger that the section 37 will creep into funding for new affordable housing.” The provincial government and Toronto city council need to come to an agreement and find middle ground for both laws. Otherwise, people will continue to live in unacceptable conditions.

When I walk down the street in Parkdale, I don’t see people that deserve to live in cockroach-infested homes. I see a diverse and thriving population of families, and a community from far and wide who have come together to live in a neighbourhood overflowing with culture. I see children who deserve to have a clean home where they don’t get respiratory illness in the winter or feel like they can’t have friends over because their apartment building is in such a state of disrepair.

When landlords try to take advantage of people who can’t afford high-end housing, I wish they could see these are real people, not so different from their own mother or brother. I wish the City Council and the provincial government could stop fighting and see that these are the lives of families that are being played with. We need change now. I can only hope that the housing waitlist will disappear and poverty-stricken living conditions will become a thing of the past.

Section 37 vs. inclusionary zoning: Which would you choose?

What is the best solution for affordable housing?

The city and province are at an odds yet again, with the City of Toronto rejecting the inclusionary housing proposal the province is pushing towards. Instead, the city wants to continue using Section 37 benefits, a part of the provincial planning act that allows cities to give developers permission to build outside of zoning laws in exchange for providing funding for a project that contributes to the community. In conjunction with Section 37, the city has been working on the Open Door policy that pairs up with voluntary developers who are willing to provide affordable housing in exchange for various incentives.

On the other hand, inclusionary zoning would mandate that any new development being built in cities across Ontario would have a certain portion built as low-to-mid-income housing. The province plans on giving the cities the power to mandate how to implement the inclusionary zoning policies in their respective regions. Though this is a complimentary policy for affordable housing, there is one small problem. The province has mandated that Section 37 cannot be used in conjunction with inclusionary zoning unless under specialized circumstances. They have not specified what the “special” circumstances would be either.

This policy is forcing Toronto to choose between providing essential community services and desperately needed affordable housing — and it appears politicians are at a loss on how to proceed. Quite honestly, both section 37 and inclusionary zoning have their pros and cons, but neither is sufficient to solve the plethora of housing and funding issues that plague Toronto.

Pros and cons of inclusionary zoning:

Inclusionary zoning has been a popular method of building affordable housing in many major US cities including Chicago, Montgomery County, Maryland and San Francisco. It speeds up the growth of affordable housing because it makes it mandatory for developments to build new units.  It also creates mixed-income neighbourhoods, which allows children of low-income areas to avoid being marginalized in poor areas. Many people are worried that inclusionary zoning would drive up prices of the other units, but a report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has determined that affordable housing doesn’t affect pricing as much as assumed. Critics are concerned that the cost of inclusionary zoning falls on new homebuyers rather than all of the taxpayers in a city, which they believe isn’t fair. Inclusionary zoning can also only be applied to new developments.

Pros and cons of section 37:

Section 37 gives the local councillor and community the opportunity to choose how to use development funds to benefit a particular neighbourhood, which makes the funding flexible. It helps to create good neighbourhoods and give people access to parks, public art infrastructure, and community centres. These types of infrastructure are often ignored by the city in light of other projects that need funding, and shouldering private developers with the burden is a good solution. On the other hand, section 37 can be misused if the local councillor chooses a project that isn’t effective in the community. Though community funding is important, families, seniors, and low-income individuals need homes to live in, and this trumps public art installations.

What is a possible solution for the city and province? 

When the city rejected the inclusionary zoning proposal last week, they also said that if the zoning proposal were approved they would want a 10 per cent affordable housing mandate for the new developments going up, instead of just targeting inclusionary zoning at mid-to-low income households.

A potential solution is to have both options available for developers. By allowing them to choose between section 37 and inclusionary zoning, both community funding and affordable housing needs may be fulfilled. Most would choose section 37 as it stands, but if it were mandated that the community funding would have to equal the cost of building and maintaining 10 per cent affordable housing, it would even the playing field between the two policies. As well, Open Door could be maintained and continued alongside inclusionary zoning to the benefit of the  95,000 people on the affordable waitlist to obtain housing.

The state of affordable housing in Toronto is not of casual concern. It is a state of emergency. The staggering amount of people desperate for housing, and who are forced to resort to the streets or use most of their income to pay rent, is unacceptable. Instead of city and provincial councillors bickering over which policy is better, everyone need to bring all solutions to the table and create a viable plan to work together. After all, people’s lives depend on it.