Ontario took real steps this week toward helping all of Ontario’s people to be safely and adequately housed. In the revised Long Term Affordable Housing Strategy three changes stand out that will help improve housing conditions and therefore good health outcomes. There are many things LTAHS does not address, such as new affordable housing or GTA-wide issues, but here are the three positive steps forward.
Inclusionary zoning has grabbed the headlines because it is a major decision that housing advocates have been waiting for. Municipalities will be given the power to require property developers to include affordable housing units in their development proposals. Each municipality would set its own specific policies and zoning rules under this framework. This has huge implications for growing cities like Toronto. The experience of Montreal, Vancouver, US cities, and the UK however shows that inclusionary housing is a valuable tool but not a gold ticket. It helps create mixed communities by housing a wider range of incomes. But to include the lower end of the price and income spectrum in urban development, we need the combination of these urban planning mechanisms along with funding to ensure that enough of these inclusionary units have truly affordable rents.
The Ontario government’s Housing Policy Statement and its Growth Plan for the Toronto region and beyond speak of creating “complete communities” and meeting the full housing continuum and a wide range of housing needs. It is only when planning and zoning powers are combined with funding that these goals can be achieved. Inclusionary zoning powers are a good step in this direction.
Second, a supportive housing framework sounds dry but it is important for linking elements in community services and housing that need to sync. First, it can connect broad goals to actual program decisions and funding, and second, it can link up actions that need to happen in different program spheres. The Ontario government has stated a goal of ending chronic homelessness, but homelessness is complicated. It is affected by labour markets and housing markets, by mental illness, drugs, family breakdown and abuse, by rocky transitions into adulthood, and many other things. To complicate things further, there are several big systems involved. For example, mental health services are funded by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care while social housing and homeless services are overseen by a different ministry and are funded and delivered by municipalities. So those systems need to coordinate well if we want homeless people who need mental health supports to get and keep stable housing. Although the funding attached to LTAHS for supportive housing needs to be enhanced, it’s a positive step to see Ontario’s ministries, with some funding in hand, working together more systematically on supportive housing.
The third prominent change in the Long Term Affordable Housing Strategy is in Rent Geared to Income (RGI) subsidy. Ontario has a system of RGI in social housing that – although an essential social program – is a frozen legacy of a 30 to 50 year old policy. In a province with almost half a million low-income renter households struggling to avoid arrears, RGI helps about 200,000 of them while most of the rest receive no assistance. The current system prevents income mix in older municipal social housing, prevents social housing tenants from taking their RGI subsidy to live elsewhere, and prevents the City from sharing these dollars around more fairly. While we need an augmented rent subsidy system, we also need flexibility in the existing RGI funding pool to remove barriers for people who need housing assistance.
This issue is part of a larger need to adapt the social housing system, a precious legacy of the more active housing policy of a generation ago, to the realities of today. The LTAHS messaging is that RGI reform is one large element in a “modernization” of social housing that will be undertaken in the coming years. We need to be vigilant that this will not mean any loss of dollars in the system, reduction in numbers of households assisted, weakening the viability of social housing providers, or further devolution of provincial responsibilities. But RGI reform, if done right, will be an important step toward meeting today’s needs more adequately and more fairly.
These three changes and other elements announced as part of LTAHS set the stage for collaborative efforts between provincial ministries, LHINs, municipalities, non-profit agencies and the private sector to provide affordable housing more effectively, and move toward ending chronic homelessness.