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E-BLAST: Creating the affordable housing Toronto needs

First, a personal indulgence. Shout out to my Dad, Jack Baskerville, who turns 94 today. He’s waiting patiently to be sprung from his long-term care room for a nice trip out to a real restaurant with real waiters. Soon, Dad! Soon!


In last week’s E-Blast, I shared some of the most notable items from our May Council meeting. One piece I left out was housing. My team and I have been engaging in many conversations with residents in Don Valley North about housing, whether that be helping a tenant who’s facing eviction or engaging with a neighbourhood about temporary and permanent housing solutions for those in our City who are homeless.


At one virtual meeting, I heard many residents ask what the City is doing to create permanent housing solutions for those who need them most. I was happy to field this question, as the Mayor and Council are prioritizing the creation of housing to relieve our shelter crisis above all else except COVID-19 itself. We made some important moves towards this just last week at our May Council meeting.

 

There has been a bit of confusion lately about a heavy-handed provincial planning tool called a ministerial zoning order or MZO. MZOs are a critical tool in the creation of rapid affordable housing. They can condense the planning process in order to take advantage of multi-government partnerships to get affordable housing built as quickly as possible.


In Toronto, we may request an MZO if we receive funding for housing that’s conditional upon the project being completed within a prescribed time limit. When this happens, we still engage the community. Most importantly, we only use MZOs for projects that meet urgent needs while complimenting the official plan for the area.


What causes me and my fellow Councillors to express outrage is when MZOs are used inappropriately by the Provincial Government to approve developments that, for instance, threaten the environment or compromise listed heritage facilities. City Council may have asked for MZOs, but not for developments that fly in the face of Toronto’s Official Plan or the Province’s own planning policy statement.

To eliminate the confusion, Council has adopted our own policy guidelines that outline the circumstances under which Council would support the use of an MZO. We are sending these guidelines to the Province and sharing them with you, our residents of Toronto. They are included in recommendation number one in this item.

 

Council approved two new projects that will create 336 units of permanent, supportive, and deeply affordable housing here in Toronto. The City has acquired two buildings downtown, 222 Spadina Ave in Chinatown and 877 Yonge St in Rosedale, which can be retrofitted using Federal Rapid Housing Initiative funding.


These buildings are good candidates because they were previously used as residential buildings. They also have great common areas for the kinds of programming and support services that people need when they are making their way back to independent life from homelessness.


These projects are also perfect examples of when the City would request the use of an MZO, as the funds for these projects, provided by the Federal Government, must be used by the end of 2021. MZOs are also necessary to decrease parking requirements and slightly increase the number of units to accommodate the larger number of bachelor units needed at these sites.


There are five more rapid housing projects on their way this year to use the rest of the Rapid Housing Initiative dollars and other funding components of the National Housing Strategy. Every one of these projects is a step towards addressing the housing and homelessness crises in our city.

 

Council endorsed a letter requesting that the Provincial Government reconsider its new strategy that would see virtual hearings at the Landlord and Tenant Board become the default format after the pandemic ends.

While you may not have had to advocate for yourself in a dispute with a landlord at a virtual tribunal, I know that many of you have expressed frustrations with other virtual meeting formats. Whether it be for a development consultation or Committee of Adjustment hearing, it can be hard to participate and have your voice heard in a virtual setting. We’re all making do given the current circumstances, but some matters are too important to make virtual meetings the default once we’re through this pandemic.


Part of the growth in homelessness in Toronto stems from evictions that have increased, lawful or not, throughout Ontario since the pandemic began. When the current moratorium on eviction tribunals is lifted, tens of thousands more tenants will face eviction. Providing fair, in-person eviction tribunals will be necessary to mediate recovery plans between tenants and landlords and prevent more people from experiencing homelessness.


There are a number of organizations supporting tenants who are at risk of eviction, including Willowdale Legal here in Don Valley North and the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations (FMTA). Legal aid clinics like Willowdale Legal saw a concerning Provincial funding cut just prior to the pandemic. They will need these funds restored to continue to be great advocates and mediators in these challenging times.

 

As I mentioned above, I’ve heard from many of you who have been specifically frustrated with the Committee of Adjustment (CoA) during the pandemic. In response to these concerns, Council and I directed City staff to conduct an independent review of this process. Staff will investigate your concerns, revise current processes, and consider alternatives for things like minor variances that will make the CoA process more accessible and fair for all residents.

 

MORE HOUSING INITIATIVES


Beyond this month’s Council meeting, Toronto’s Housing Secretariat continues to utilize any and all partnerships that come our way to produce more affordable housing. There are a few more initiatives worth noting.

Two modular housing projects have been completed in Toronto, and two more are preparing for construction. Once approved, these buildings are ready for occupancy after just six months. 226 new supportive units have been built to date, and Mayor Tory hopes to raise this number to 1000 units before the end of this term.


The Mayor has also lead Council in directing City staff and partner agencies to help move shelter clients into stable housing. Mayor Tory has urged that as soon as a shelter client is ready to take on their own subsidized apartment or TCHC social housing unit, our City staff are there to help them do so. In the last 14 months, 6000 Torontonians who were experiencing homelessness have found permanent homes.


This pandemic has only added to the housing challenges we’ve long been facing here in Toronto. That’s why it’s crucial that my fellow Councillors and I keep working towards a variety of affordable housing solutions as quickly as we can. While there’s still a ways to go to support our residents, we’re making some real progress towards housing stability and affordability in our City.

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