Looking beyond our borders for solutions to affordable housing

By Pedro Barata, VP, Communications & Public Affairs and John Brodhead, Executive Director, CityWorks


Housing affordability is key to city livability. With average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment spiking to $1,800 and over 78,000 households currently on the city’s social housing waiting list, calling Toronto home is becoming more difficult. And not only for low-income residents. Modest and middle-income families, too, are increasingly feeling the squeeze of stagnating incomes outstripped by the rising cost of living. The GTA Housing Action Lab is a collaborative working group bringing together diverse partners on the housing front, including United Way Toronto & York Region and Evergreen CityWorks to help move the affordable housing agenda forward.  This summer, we ventured to New York City to search for creative solutions to Toronto’s affordable housing crisis.

Here are five things we learned:

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently launched a 10-year affordable housing strategy to address significant housing challenges—median apartment rents that rose by 75% between 2000 and 2012 and the loss of 400,000 affordable apartments in the same period, to name a few. A closer look at New York’s game plan promised to inform and inspire our own way forward.

1. Champions with ambitious plans will create results

During his campaign, Mayor de Blasio heard about housing issues in every community. Since taking office, he’s made it his signature initiative, focusing on affordability for low, modest and middle income families. He’s set bold targets—200,000 affordable units in 10 years—to rally other stakeholders around an affordable housing strategy. And that rallying cry has ensured that housing has become a cross-agency concern, bridging jurisdictions from education and children’s services to libraries, parks and transportation.

2. There’s no one silver bullet to creating affordable housing.

Affordable housing is a large and complex issue. In New York, where the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the city’s largest landlord, is responsible to 400,000 residents, 176,000 households and 110,000 kids, they’ve looked for solutions across sectors. They’re balancing new builds with preservation of existing units—indeed, over half of the city’s target focuses on preservation of aging and affordable rental, mostly in the private sector. Public lands and assets are being leveraged, while private sector engagement requires the support of a clear development process and fair and predictable incentives. And various measures such as tax benefits and rent supplements play a role. Hudson Properties is just one developer that has truly embraced the city’s incentives to build new affordable units through inclusionary housing policy.

3. Partnerships are key to success.

Cities can’t tackle the challenges of affordable housing alone. They need developers and not for profits to help keep driving that agenda forward. In fact, municipal investment in NYC to the tune of $8 billion over 10 years is expected to leverage $41 billion from the private sector. State and federal governments also play a large role in funding building and housing supplements in both the private and social housing sector. And fundamental to any success, of course, is building on the interests and insights of residents. After all, it’s not just about housing; it’s about creating communities. Getting locals involved and giving them the tools to be part of the project is essential. Grassroots community group Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDco) in the Bronx is just one example of an organization whose efforts are contributing to a vibrant and healthy community.

4. Housing strengthens local economies.

Construction and preservation of 200,000 housing units is expected to generate 194,000 construction jobs and over 7,000 permanent jobs targeted to the city’s employment initiatives. And at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), where almost 25% of the employees are residents, they’re now planning to double the number of employees working on greening initiatives from 2,000 to 4,000.












5. Be persistent.

New Yorkers across the affordable housing sector showed us that they don’t give up in the face of major challenges. They’re energized and ready to find solutions. And that perseverance is taking them where they want to go. Already in the first year of this massive undertaking, 17,376 units have been funded. The Via Verde Project in the South Bronx illustrates how this new approach is taking root and transforming a great city to make it a better home for all.

The visit to New York offered some great lessons for the City and Region on how to tackle this important challenge. Fortunately, there seems to be a renewed energy behind Toronto’s affordable housing agenda. Just as the provincial government wrapped up public consultations for their Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy, Toronto City Hall introduced its new ‘Open Door’ approach to fast-track building of affordable housing.

The opportunity is in front of us, but we must take it.