Across Canada, people are examining what the National Housing Strategy (NHS) will mean. Our last two blogs summarized what’s in the Strategy and considered its strengths and soft areas. This one considers its implications for Ontario and the Toronto area.
Sustaining and modernizing social housing
Ontario’s Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy (LTAHS, 2016) includes social housing modernization. Challenges in this sector include expiry of funding agreements, tenants with higher needs, cost pressures on municipalities, and big waiting lists. Opportunities include regenerating older projects, and keeping post-expiry providers in the system with rent subsidies. Ontario has enabled some rent geared to income (RGI) to become housing allowances, and is developing a registration system for providers.
The National Housing Strategy will support this modernization. The Canada Community Housing Initiative keeps federal funds flowing, helping to keep rents affordable. This will involve new federal-provincial agreements that could potentially put funding on a new basis: mortgage-free non-profits can break even at moderate market rents, with separate rent subsidy for tenants with low incomes. There are opportunities to harmonize rules in program silos, and reduce the funding firewall between older social housing and new funding. This can make it easier to add units to social housing sites, regenerate old projects, and redeploy rent subsidies to other buildings. New federal loans for repair and retrofit will also help.
New affordable housing
The NHS poses challenges for Ontario and the GTA in new affordable supply. For the past 15 years, municipalities have coordinated this within a provincial framework, through the Investment in Affordable Housing (IAH) program. They choose project sponsors, flow the funding, enter project agreements, and monitor.
The National Housing Co-Investment Fund shifts the lead to the federal level, through Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). Meanwhile the IAH successor program will involve reduced federal funding. Yet the federal government is seeking contributions from provinces and municipalities. And delivering new housing requires staff on the ground in local communities, which CMHC lacks.
Service manager municipalities and the Ministry of Housing need to work out new ways to collaborate with CMHC and ensure that production happens smoothly, without delay or duplication of effort.
CMHC’s municipal GTA partners are not just the City of Toronto but the 905 regional municipalities of Peel, York, Halton and Durham. Most GTA growth is in the 905, rental housing is scarce, and low-wage workers, seniors, new immigrants, and people with disabilities have urgent needs for affordable rental.
Portable housing benefits
The Canada Housing Benefit will help Ontario to move in similar directions. Steps toward portable housing benefits were one of the main LTAHS priorities. The Income Security Reform Working Group, advising the government, has now recommended that reform of social assistance be dovetailed with a new and separate housing benefit. This would be received by low-income people regardless of whether their income is from wages, pensions, social assistance or other sources. NHS will help fund this.
Housing needs and mixed communities
The expected production volumes from the Co-Investment Fund are modest. Nationwide volumes of 6,000 new affordable units a year imply about 2,000 for Ontario. When social housing production was active a generation ago, over 6,000 were built annually in Ontario alone.
Ontario grows by about 60,000 households annually, two-thirds of this in the GTA. This includes many who have low incomes and cannot afford market rents. Building a mix of prices and tenures, including affordable rental, helps build mixed communities. The alternative is more people competing for older, rental buildings in downmarket neighbourhoods, or renting basement apartments and rooms.
Ontario has an opportunity to contribute more than the minimum matching dollars the federal programs will require. Reduced federal funds for the IAH successor program need not mean lower Ontario contributions. This province can budget enough funds to keep it going at the same scale as before, and provide extra resources to projects supported by the federal Co-Investment Fund.
The modest volumes of new affordable housing which the NHS will fund reinforce the need for a separate approach to supportive housing. A provincial advisory body has recommended adding 30,000 units in ten years. To move toward this target requires a Ministry of Health and Long Term Care program over and above the new housing produced by federal or cost-shared NHS programs.
An enhanced Ontario strategy
Ontario renters and first-time buyers are facing tight markets and price pressures, perhaps the worst since the 1980s. The 2016 census showed far more high-priced rental units, huge rental demand, and problems facing the millennial generation.
Ontario’s LTAHS in 2016 emphasized chronic homelessness, supportive housing, flexible rent subsidies, and inclusionary zoning. Its Fair Housing Plan in 2017 extended rent control and introduced a non-resident speculation tax.
The National Housing Strategy is an opportunity for Ontario to go further. Ontario communities need more mainstream rental supply, with rents that a tenant with $40,000 to $60,000 income can afford. Ontario needs more deeply affordable rental housing than the NHS is set to produce in this province. Ontario needs an enhanced strategy, building on the NHS, to tackle Ontario’s pressing housing needs.