Section 37, Affordable Housing, and Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

It’s a constant source of rage and despair for me to see glass condos and “luxury townhomes” going up around town while the affordable housing waitlist stretches to record numbers. (161,266 people total [PDF] as of January, in case you were wondering.) And, as you know, Bob, since all those new developments mean more Section 37 funds,

—oh, what’s Section 37? Basically, the zoning rules say what kind of stuff you’re allowed to build, and if they say you can only build a tower 6 storeys high, and the developer wants to build one 12 storeys high, Section 37 of the Planning Act says they have to pay some extra money that offsets the extra load on local infrastructure, or goes to benefit the community.* Like, streetscaping, or a daycare, or something.

It’s not a tax because that’s not allowed; the money doesn’t go into some citywide pot because that would make it a tax**; the exact amount, and the nature of the benefit, gets worked out with the city councillor for each development. Anyway

I naturally wondered if we couldn’t kill two birds with one stone and use Section 37 money for affordable housing. It’s totally an approved use. They can build it elsewhere in the neighbourhood, or they can set aside units in their condo. Because the current rules about it are kind of restrictive, the Planning & Growth Management Committee asked the city planners to revise them so it’s easier to do.*** And today, yes, today, they are talking about it at the committee meeting!!!****

I went to a very interesting open house on this back in November, where the planners explained the upcoming changes. You can read the report yourself to see what bits they’ve added (bolded here). From the list of possible incentives:

i. purpose built rental housing with mid-range or affordable rents, land for housing, affordable ownership housing, or, at the discretion of the owner, cash-in-lieu of affordable rental or ownership units or land;
j. a maximum of 20 individual affordable rental units, located in a registered condominium, provided the units are owned and operated as rental housing by a registered non-profit housing provider satisfactory to the City and meet established criteria, including securing through an agreement the maintenance of affordable rents for at least 25 years and rental tenure for at least 50 years. Such units will be deemed to be rental housing notwithstanding the definition of rental housing that would otherwise exclude condominium-registered units.

(However, after public consultation they’ve decided to remove the cap on rental units, and take another look at the 25- and 50-year requirements (some people think that’s too long; others, not long enough). None of this is written in stone yet.)

So, what’s the problem here? Why aren’t we all jumping for joy? What are some of the possible drawbacks of this approach?

The York Quay Neighbourhood Association thinks that “the affordable housing shortage in Toronto is so acute that we foresee all future Sec. 37 funds flowing towards this desperate need” (PDF), which is painfully adorable, you just want to ruffle their hair. WHO’S A GOOD CONCERNED CITIZEN. YOU. YES YOU ARE. GO FETCH. As a planner present at the open house told me, affordable housing, which calls up stereotypes of bedbug-ridden welfare scroungers bringing down property values, is “poison” to developers. The councillor has to push for it, and the developer has to agree to it, and because it’s something negotiated rather than mandated, you can’t make either of them do any particular thing. Developers make less money if they have it on-site, and they think it’ll bring down the property value if it’s built off-site. Councillors are inclined to side with developers as well; nobody wants to be seen as unfriendly to business. There are a few councillors who consistently negotiate for more housing in their wards (Vaughan, Wong-Tam), but that is entirely because they feel like it. There is no way to make, say, Doug Ford get a developer to opt for affordable housing rather than daycare.

(Can’t we make rules about this stuff? you might ask. Short answer: it’s called “conditional zoning” and “inclusionary zoning” and it’s up to the province, which has taken absolutely no action on it despite the fact that they’re theoretically in favour of it and people do keep putting forward motions and such. Write your MPP.)

Similarly, you can’t say how many units have to be set aside. Nor, it seems, can you add a clause saying “not all of the crappiest units, either”. That all is settled on a building-to-building basis. There’s nothing keeping anyone from setting aside a handful of terrible condo units for the non-profit and calling it a day. It’s too scattershot an approach to help the vast numbers of people who are inadequately housed.

The even deeper problem, which City staff are totally not rushing to point out, is that “affordable”, as the city planners are using it here, doesn’t actually mean, you know, affordable. Most of us hear “affordable housing” and think something like 30% of gross income, TCHC waitlist, bedbugs, etc. LOL NO. Note the inclusion of “mid-range” rent and “affordable ownership”***** in the guidelines. And “affordable ownership” doesn’t mean, like, those programs at Regent Park. “Affordable ownership”, as we were told at that meeting, means average sale price. Dear everyone, do you think the average Toronto home’s sale price is affordable?******

And lest you think I’m just pulling shit out of my ass, ACTO (Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario), who are slightly more in touch with reality than the YQNA, also point this out in their letter (PDF). They also note that over the past sixteen years, only 1,589 “affordable” units have been secured as rental housing. And over half of those were “mid-range” rent rather than, you know, actually affordable. If you think that slightly expanded guidelines will dramatically change that…I’ve got a bridge to sell you. They’re not gonna make a dent in the affordable housing waitlist, which is sitting at about 87,300 applications.

This is the main problem with using a planning tool never intended for the purpose to secure, you know, a basic fucking human right: case-by-case negotiations relying on individual goodwill (but mostly capitalism) will never, ever, ever replace legislation, policy, and investment in infrastructure. Like, ever.


* If you’re wondering how a community benefit takes the weight off local infrastructure, the Federation of North Toronto Residents’ Associations feels your pain (PDF).

** It would be wonderful if all city councillors understood this but they don’t.

*** They mentioned two cases where condo units were set aside for affordable housing:

  • The Charlie, a condo near King and Spadina, where four units throughout the building are to be owned and operated by Kehilla, a Jewish affordable housing nonprofit

  • Artscape Triangle Lofts in Liberty Village, where 20 of the live/work artist spaces are rentals and the rest for sale

Such cases didn’t count as Section 37 benefits at the time, but under the new rules, they would. This would ideally allow more affordable housing to be created.

**** Ideally I would have finished this post in, like, November, but ehhhhhhhhhhh~

***** Who the hell is the affordable ownership lobby? Who’s in their pocket? I really want to know.

****** If your answer is “yes”, 1. fuck you and 2. shouldn’t you be reading Toronto Life?

Diary of a councilspotter: Plastic bags

Wednesday, June 6, City Council meeting 24

Recap of this morning:

A bunch of councillors throwing hissy fits over the injustice of paying 5¢ for a plastic bag in a perfect microcosm of how conservative governments dismantle themselves by becoming so inefficient they’re not worth having around.

How this got started:

Berardinetti proposed having businesses donate the proceeds from the plastic bag fee to suitable groups, like environmental organizations.

This wasn’t a total dick move, so other people on the Executive Committee added a bit about rescinding the fee altogether.

(So wait, you may say. Are they proposing to get rid of the fee and donating the profits from the fee, in the same motion? Isn’t that kind of confusing? Yes, yes it is.)

And then Perruzza floated the idea of going in the other direction and banning plastic bags (as some cities have done), which made everyone freak the fuck out.

Ridonkulous arguments floated so far:

  • Scrapping the bag fee kills jobs at plastic recycling plants (Del Grande)
  • Dog poop!!1!!11 (Lindsay Luby)
  • If fee proceeds are donated to charity, people will buy EVEN MORE bags (Shiner)
  • Grocery stores aren’t giving out paper bags, so… (Di Giorgio?)
  • The bag fee is bankrupting corner stores and enriching big chains like Loblaws

As I type, the debate is still going on. FUCK EVERYTHING I’M GOING OUTSIDE.

Too many dicks on the dancefloor

This is actually footage from a #TOpoli pub night

#TOpoli, we need to talk. This has been bothering me for a while now, and since it’s International Women’s Day I figure I may as well take this occasion to point out that our burgeoning scene is one big white dudefest. And white dudefests suck. But luckily there are small, practical things we can do to fix this, which is good, because I would hate to totally fucking snap and destroy you all with the burning rage of a thousand Nunziatas.

Continue reading Too many dicks on the dancefloor

Diary of a councilspotter: In which the politicians take over City Hall

Monday, March 5, City Council meeting 19

The Story So Far:

  • January 17, 2012: In an unprecedented victory, left-wing and centrist councillors get together and vote to reverse most of Ford’s proposed budget cuts. Getting cocky, they think about bringing back Transit City, the previous mayor’s transit plan that Ford strongly opposes.

  • February 8, 2012: At a special council meeting, TTC chair and (up till now) Ford loyalist Karen Stintz spearheads a motion to basically reinstate Transit City, which passes with a decent majority. Team Ford would fire Stintz if they could, but the rules say they can’t.

  • February 21, 2012: Five Ford-friendly members of the TTC board call a special meeting and fire the TTC general manager Gary Webster instead. This is a bad move, and the other four councillors on the board are pissed.

  • March 5, 2012: Council votes to dissolve the TTC board and put together a new one, which happens to include the minority of TTC board members who voted not to fire Webster (this includes Stintz), plus some centrist and left-wing councillors. Council then votes Stintz back in as TTC chair.

For those keeping track at home, this is the third failed attempt by Team Ford to get back at Stintz for Transit City. But there’s more: there’s another special council meeting on the 21st where they’ll be making decisions about transit on Sheppard. (The mayor and others want subways; the plan calls for light rail.)

The title of the post refers to what Cllr Giorgio Mammoliti actually said at some point yesterday. Yes, that apparently came out of his mouth with no irony. It’s only a slightly more fucking ridiculous version of what Cllr Denzil Minnan-Wong and Cllr Michael Thompson have said at various points in the past few months: they believe transit should be depoliticized. Which, I mean, I live and die by “the personal is political”, so you can guess how I feel about that. It’s horrible because everything is fucking political, and “depoliticize” basically just means “pretend it’s not political” or “our politics don’t count as politics”, which is bullshit—

—and if it’s not that, it’s some kind of libertarian shit, like, the government shouldn’t be in this business, which is also bullshit. Doug Ford said as much during last Sunday’s radio show when he was spouting off about how “taxes are evil” (yes, another thing that actually crawled out of someone’s mouth)—he said the government should be providing services, not creating jobs (damn the economy!). But apparently those services don’t even include transit. These people’s ideal government is basically a glorified utility company. No wonder they lack long-term vision.

And I realize the entire point of this enterprise is to get inside government and tear it down but I can’t help remembering another feminist soundbite: “Don’t like abortions? Don’t have one.”

Don’t like politics?

DON’T. FUCKING. BECOME. A. POLITICIAN.

Diary of a councilspotter: The roof over our heads

Friday, February 17, Executive Committee Meeting 17

Had to miss the first half of the special Executive Committee meeting on TCHC for a meeting with an Ontario Works caseworker so she could verify I’m broke and gainfully unemployed enough. This one’s new. She asked what I did my degree in; I told her “Philosophy” and she laughed in my face. Hey, I’d be laughing if I were her, too.

When I got there they were a few dozen deputations in. The crowd was the usual housing activists and scattering of cranks, plus a good contingent of regular folks who rarely go to these things, many clearly here out of desperation—unpracticed in public speaking, with choked-up voices and often halting speech. It takes a lot of bravery to go down to City Hall and beg a bunch of callous old guys not to sell your house out from under you.

—Sorry. It’s hard for me not to go all Joe Fiorito on this. But I think that if you were serious about eradicating poverty here in Toronto, a solid affordable housing strategy would be the place to start, and it’s absolutely fucking infuriating that a gang of small-government ideologues with six-figure salaries who don’t give a shit about poverty are the ones managing the crisis.

Crisis, eh?

As of December 2011, there’s a record-breaking 82, 138 households on the affordable housing waitlist (PDF). The list is growing by about 7.5% each year, but they house only 4–4.5%. We’re in this situation because—stay with me here—market rent housing is unaffordable (especially for the working poor and people on social assistance), which drives up demand for affordable housing; but more people want to move in than are moving out, because market rent is unaffordable.

What we really need is to drastically increase the amount of affordable housing available. Selling off property as a stopgap measure—in effect, cannibalizing TCHC’s own assets for one-time funds—would be moving backwards. So what are some things we can do? I thought of a few:

  1. Enter into partnerships with other organizations, like co-ops, which would take on some of the cost (and potentially develop into affordable housing independent of TCHC).

  2. Provide rent subsidies to people currently living in market rent housing, which Team Ford seems to favour. I’m not sure whether this would be more or less cost-effective.

  3. Use Section 37 funds, which developers pay in exchange for getting to put more units in their buildings, to subsidize a percentage of units in new developments. Right now the money goes towards neighbourhood improvements, but (I think) there’s no reason why it can’t be repurposed. Recently Habitat for Humanity has proposed acting as a go-between.

I favour door #3, because it a) actually creates more housing stock, b) takes advantage of the current condo building boom, and c) uses money we’re already getting, rather than some hypothetical amount the province or the feds should really cough up and totally won’t. But I’m sure TCHC will need to rely on multiple strategies to get out of the hole.

The political option

So rookie councillor Ana Bailão, chair of the Affordable Housing Committee, offered the mayor a compromise: sell only some of the properties, the ones which are vacant and unliveable, and establish a working group to report back this fall on better solutions. Given that the majority of Council would be behind her, Ford had no other reasonable choice. At the meeting, this pissed off deputy mayor Doug Holyday, who loosed one of his spittle-flecked old man rants on how Bailão’s compromise was “the political option”, as opposed to selling all 675 properties right away, that being “the business option”.

Protip, Holyday: that option’s “political” too. It’s all fucking political! The whole principle of “running the city like a business” is a political ideology. In practice it means whatever the fuck you want it to mean—as we saw during the budget process where Team Ford argued strenuously for businesslike practices like selling off assets without consideration for the revenue they brought in, and during the transit debate when they rejected the most efficient and economical option in favour of a prohibitively expensive subway dream.

No one else on Executive Committee bought Holyday’s argument either, voting for Bailão’s plan in the end. Unfortunately it probably just bought us some time. So I’m thinking about one of the deputants I saw—a mother flanked by her two kids, sitting on the bench outside the library nervously practicing her deputation—and worrying. What can you do? Where can you go when nobody gives a fuck?

You can now get back to fussing about Gary Webster. Good night, and good fucking luck.