Cold and blustery winds from elsewhere can drop Toronto into the deep freeze. That’s certainly true on the weather front, as the extreme cold alert declared by the City of Toronto at the start of 2014 has reminded us, and it’s also true in housing policy.
Most of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the City of Toronto spends annually on housing and homelessness initiatives comes from the federal and provincial governments. As they put the squeeze on their investments, people who are homeless or precariously housed in Toronto start to shiver.
Perhaps the most striking indicator of Toronto’s huge and growing housing need is the city’s affordable housing wait list which continues to set new records month after month. In the third quarter of 2010, there were 140,649 people on Toronto’s wait list. Three years later, in the third quarter of 2013, the number had grown by 18% to 165,977.
If all the people on Toronto’s affordable housing wait list lived in one community, it would be the 24th largest city in Canada – bigger than Sudbury or Kingston.
The City of Toronto funds about 4,000 homeless shelter beds nightly with reported occupancy rates that can exceed the number of beds, at time going up to 110% for co-ed shelters. There are also 123 beds in make-shift shelters in the winter’s Out of the Cold program, which are at 99% occupancy. When shelters report occupancy near or over 100%, it means that more cots and mattresses are being squeezed into existing shelter spaces to accommodate additional people seeking a bed.
The Street Health report, sets out the devastating health burden experienced by people who are homeless.
But it’s not just people who are homeless who are suffering. The United Way of Toronto’s research series Poverty by Postal Code provides a graphic snapshot of the impact of poor housing on the lives of people living in high-rises and in the city’s suburbs. Similarly, Toronto Public Health’s Unequal City documents the health impact of poor housing, poverty and inequality.
During the life of the current Toronto City Council, which was elected in 2010, overall funding for the city’s Shelter, Support and Housing department (which manages most housing and homelessness initiatives) is sharply down.
Most of this $218 million reduction is due to federal and provincial cuts, according to City of Toronto budget analyst notes. Other Canadian cities have also experienced increased housing insecurity due to federal and provincial cuts.
In a number of Canadian cities, the Mayor has become a strong advocate for increased housing investments, including Dean Fortin (Victoria); Naheed Nenshi (Calgary); Mike Savage (Halifax) and others. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is leading the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ new national housing campaign.
In the 2013 budget, the City of Toronto also had to deal with cuts to housing and homelessness programs as the provincial government consolidated several programs and reduced funding. The Wellesley Institute has been documenting the health and social impacts of the elimination of the Community Start Up and Maintenance Benefit program.
As a temporary measure, the provincial government provided one-year transitional after outcries from housing and homelessness experts and municipalities, but that funding is due to expire in March of 2014 – creating another funding shortfall for the City of Toronto.
In addition to federal and provincial funding cuts for existing social and affordable housing and for services and programs for people who are homeless or poorly housed, the City of Toronto has been grappling with reduced federal and provincial investments in new affordable housing.
Lack of funding means that the City of Toronto is not even able to meet its modest affordable housing targets in the Housing Opportunities Toronto plan.
In 2011, the City of Toronto conducted what was the largest public consultation on municipal core services in the city’s history. “Meeting the needs of vulnerable people” was identified as among the top three priorities of more than 80% of the estimated 13,000 people who participated in the review process. More than 70% of Torontonians who participated in the extensive consultation identified “shelter, support and housing for the homeless and low-income” and “increasing affordable housing” as “necessary for the city.”
The city’s own consultation process revealed a strong majority in favour of increased housing and homelessness investments at the local level.
One important question that is emerging: what will the City of Toronto do to counter the ongoing federal and provincial cuts to housing and homelessness funding that are having a serious impact on the lives and health of vulnerable people?
Toronto City Council has several options to deal with housing funding shortfalls:
One option would be to increase municipal investments in affordable housing, either through general revenues (for instance, allocating a portion of an increased property tax increase to housing initiatives) or through specialized revenue tools (such as dedicating the revenues from the land transfer tax to housing).
Another option would be to identify innovative financing options that would allow the city to increase housing investments. Toronto City Council has approved an innovative financing strategy for its affordable housing agency (Toronto Community Housing Company) that includes a combination of financing strategies. Other municipalities in North America use municipal housing trust funds, municipal bonds, inclusionary housing policies, tax increment financing and other tools to generate housing revenues.
Toronto has started, with its Close the Housing Gap campaign, to take on a more dynamic role on the provincial and national stage in encouraging senior levels of government to increase their housing investments. As the largest city in the country, Toronto has an important leadership role.
The 2014 municipal election campaign will be a good opportunity for the people of Toronto to press those issues onto the public agenda. The election is also an opportunity for political candidates (including incumbents) to set out their housing policy prescriptions.