Regent Park’s Daniels Spectrum served as the ideal location to host the 2016 Toronto Housing Summit, an event that brought together mayors and representatives from Canada’s largest municipalities with the intent of pressuring the federal government to adopt an effective national housing strategy. Hosted by Mayor John Tory and moderated by Councillor Ana Bailão (Ward 18), the summit saw the attendance of key figures from federal, provincial and municipal levels of government, as well as notable community leaders and activists in housing and homelessness advocacy.

The event took place in the context of the housing crisis taking place across Canadian cities, a phenomenon which has seen increased pressure on senior levels of government to take action on this matter and develop a national housing strategy that tackles homelessness, affordability, housing supply, and aging infrastructure. In the two decades since the governments of Canada and Ontario terminated their housing programs and determined that housing fell under municipal jurisdiction, the City of Toronto has been unable to meet the excessively high demand for social housing that is present in the city: there are now 97,532 households on the social housing waiting list for a total of 93,404 social housing homes.

toronto, house prices, housing affordabilityIncreases in house prices in the city of Toronto in May 2016 relative to May 2015; image courtesy of Better Dwelling.

In anticipation of the event, The Big City Mayors’ Caucus (BCMC), a working group of the mayors of Canada’s largest cities under the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, released a set of seven principles for a national housing strategy to tackle the present state of crisis in the Canadian housing system. Their strategy includes:

  • the inclusion of a provision for affordable housing in the 2017 Budget,
  • increasing construction of new social housing,
  • ending homelessness,
  • sparking the growth of the rental sector,
  • innovating sustainability solutions,
  • dedicated Indigenous and Northern funds, and
  • a review of the mandate of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

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An aboriginal land acknowledgement served as the event’s opening ceremony, a moment that reminded the audience of the values surrounding land that are present in First Nations communities. The First Nations regard land as a communal good, meant for all individuals to equally enjoy and respect.

Following this, Councillor Bailão offered welcoming remarks to the crowd and highlighted her experiences immigrating to Toronto at a very young age. The councillor reminisced about the shock she first experienced by the absence of slums in the city, a vision that was crushed once she became aware of the challenges experienced by low-income people in Toronto in their access to housing and social services.

Ana Bailao, Toronto Housing SummitCouncillor Ana Bailão at the 2016 Toronto Housing Summit.

Following Councillor Bailão’s introduction, Councillor Pam McConnell (Ward 28) prefaced her speech by commemorating Orange Shirt Day, an event which recognizes the damage inflicted upon aboriginal communities by the residential school program. Emphasizing the notion that policy actions have lasting and generational effects on urban communities, Councillor McConnell urged policymakers to work towards the goals set by TO Prosperity. This poverty reduction strategy enlists five focus areas to reduce poverty and improve individual and community wellbeing: housing, social services, transportation, access to food, and employment.

Pam McConnell, Toronto Housing SummitCouncillor Pam McConnell at the 2016 Toronto Housing Summit.

Mayor John Tory followed Councillor McConnell with a keynote speech in which he signalled the beginning of a new period of increased affordable housing construction, backed by an enthusiastic federal government which has declared its intention to increase funding for housing programs and take a more active role in the supply of affordable housing.

As part of his speech, Mayor Tory declared that the summit marked a pivotal point in creating a plan of action “to join forces to create solutions that will keep our cities and our country livable and affordable to all.” In the spirit of collaboration, Mayor Tory invoked the existence of Daniels Spectrum, a community arts and innovation hub located in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood, as a reminder that positive community outcomes can occur as a result of partnerships between different levels of government, the private sector, and non-profit organizations.

Daniels Spectrum, Regent ParkDaniels Spectrum community arts hub in Regent Park; image courtesy of Diamond Schmitt Architects.

Representing the federal government at the event was the Minister of Families, Children, and Social Development, Jean-Yves Duclos, who offered a keynote speech in which he recognized that the Government of Canada does not have all the tools and expertise needed to tackle the housing crisis, and thus emphasized the power of partnership and collaboration in delivering high-quality infrastructure projects.

In regard to the development of a national housing strategy, Minister Duclos declared that the Government of Canada had hosted a series of focus groups and consultations with affected parties in order to seek input on how to shape upcoming legislation and policy on the matter. In addition, the Government has been welcoming submissions from interested parties on suggestions and solutions to Canada’s housing crisis. The result of these consultations will be revealed November 22nd.

Federal funding for social housing in the City of Toronto under current trends; image courtesy of the City of Toronto.

The provincial commitment to solving the housing crisis was outlined by Chris Ballard, Ontario Minister of Housing and Poverty Reduction. The province’s strategy for housing provision and poverty reduction includes increased supply of social housing units, a portable rent benefit that is tied to a recipient instead of a specific unit, and introducing legislation for inclusionary zoning. Together, these measures should allow more Ontarians to secure access to housing while encouraging social inclusion, a mixture of incomes, and proximity to social services and local networks.

A panel featuring members of the Big City Mayors’ Caucus followed the keynote speeches and allowed the participating city officials to engage in a conversation on how cities can shape the upcoming national housing strategy. Most of the discourse seemed to surround the notion that, without increased federal funding and action, Canadian municipalities are simply unable to tackle the issue of housing on their own.

Don Iveson, Mayor of Edmonton, signalled how his municipality has 131 acres of land set aside to be redeveloped pending funding from senior levels of government, while at the same time the city was forced to close 171 units due to state-of-good-repair conditions. An increased financial commitment from the federal government on housing matters would undoubtedly solve such issues and ensure that Canadian cities can offer adequate and affordable housing for all. 

Mayors of Canadian Municipalities at the Big City Mayors' Caucus Panel.

In Vancouver, Mayor Gregor Robertson has been exploring the possibility of utilizing vacant city land to host modular housing communities. These camps, formed by prefabricated self-contained modules, represent an innovative style of housing that offers a sense of community and belonging much more significant than that of a homeless shelter while also keeping costs down by reclaiming vacant land and employing modular buildings.

The mayors’ panel constituted the last component of the morning portion of the summit. A series of workshops, talks, and presentations in the Regent Park neighbourhood filled the schedule for the busy Friday afternoon. Although no significant new funding was announced at the event, it was invigorating to see numerous members of all levels of government come together to take action on affordable housing. The course of action of Canada’s upcoming reengagement in the provision of social housing will be determined by actions and policies set to be determined in the coming months.

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What do you think is the best course of action to solve Canada’s affordable housing crisis? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below, and make sure to keep up with UrbanToronto as we update you on all new developments on this matter.