City must strengthen its hous­ing com­mit­ment

Toronto needs to al­lo­cate more tax dol­lars to the cause — be­fore ask­ing for help

Toronto Star - - GREATER TORONTO AREA - Royson James

One gets the im­pres­sion Mayor John Tory woke up one day this spring and dis­cov­ered that Toronto has a hous­ing cri­sis, es­pe­cially when pro­vid­ing af­ford­able units for ci­ti­zens on fixed in­come and low salaries.

Sud­denly, he’s af­ter Queen’s Park to help the city fix the crum­bling so­cial hous­ing stock. Or else!

For a long time it has been tran­sit; now, he’s found out that hous­ing is as much of an “im­per­a­tive.” Some 110,000 Toron­to­ni­ans live in sub­si­dized hous­ing.

An­other 181,000 are on the wait­ing list. The cur­rent stock is crum­bling, in need of $2.6 bil­lion in re­pairs.

In­stead of fix­ing them, the city has sold off $71 mil­lion worth of stand-alone homes and is clos­ing bro­ken-down homes at a rate of 600 this year and a fur­ther 400 next year.

It’s un­con­scionable — and has been a blight on our con­scious­ness since 1998, when it be­came the city of Toronto’s re­spon­si­bil­ity.

The Mike Har­ris gov­ern­ment dumped the units on the city as part of the damnable amal­ga­ma­tion down­load al­most two decades ago.

Ev­ery mayor since Mel Last­man has groused about so­cial hous­ing. None has done more than raise a voice and evoke high-sound­ing moral ar­gu­ments.

“The time for ac­tion is now. In fact it was be­fore now, be­cause re­pair­ing so­cial hous­ing is a moral, eco­nomic and so­cial im­per­a­tive,” Tory said last week.

Re­ally? Why, then, do you not in­crease the city’s al­lo­ca­tion of funds to re­pair the dam­aged build­ings? Why are you pro­mot­ing a freeze in prop­erty taxes in­stead of a ded­i­cated 1- or 2-per-cent in­crease to build a fund that stops the clo­sures?

The re­hearsed an­swered is that the city has spent nearly $1 bil­lion on the hous­ing units. This claim glosses over the fact that much of that money comes from mort­gage re­fi­nanc­ing, as­set sales, for­give­ness of prop­erty tax and devel­op­ment charges. When it comes to real money — tax dol­lars that are in the com­pe­ti­tion for im­por­tant ser­vices — hous­ing isn’t at the top of the food chain.

So, it’s not a moral im­per­a­tive at all; it’s a po­lit­i­cal one. And, as a po­lit­i­cal is­sue, so­cial hous­ing has fallen to the bot­tom of the heap.

In the may­oralty elec­tion lead­ing to the amal­ga­ma­tion of Toronto-area cities in 1998, the even­tual win­ner, Mel Last­man, flubbed the is­sue by claim­ing there were no home­less peo­ple in North York. The words barely es­caped his lips when a home­less wo­man froze to death in a bus shel­ter in, yes, North York.

Then-city coun­cil­lor Jack Lay­ton seized the op­por­tu­nity, be­came Last­man’s hous­ing lieu­tenant, taught the mayor about the is­sues, and be­fore long, Last­man had de­clared hous­ing a na­tional dis­as­ter. The hous­ing file was at the top of the agenda. And news of a pend­ing cat­a­strophic so­cial hous­ing re­pair bill filled ev­ery news­pa­per.

The Mike Har­ris gov­ern­ment had down­loaded the hous­ing units to Toronto with­out pro­vid­ing the cash to re­pair the units — all the while claim­ing the stock was in good shape and the prov­ince was hand­ing the city a “gift of con­sid­er­able ben­e­fit.” Last­man was apoplec­tic. “I’m say­ing cover the costs. Dam­mit, what’s wrong with say­ing cover the costs?” Last­man said.

Twenty years have gone by and noth­ing’s changed — ex­cept the re­pair bill is nearly 10 times big­ger.

In­ter­nal doc­u­ments re­ported on by the Star’s Jen­nifer Pagliaro show half the prop­er­ties will fall into “crit­i­cal” dis­re­pair in the next five years, un­der cur­rent re­pair pro­grams.

And now we hear that home­less peo­ple are dy­ing on the streets at a rate of two per week this year. Be skep­ti­cal of elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives who wax loud and pas­sion­ate about an­other level of gov­ern­ment spend­ing money on ser­vices and is­sues that the lo­cal coun­cil ig­nores for years — un­til they de­cide it’s po­lit­i­cally ex­pe­di­ent to holler and shout.

Of course, a wise politi­cian uses elec­tion time to ex­tract prom­ises from gov­ern­ments that need pub­lic ap­proval and votes. And Tory is do­ing so — ahead of the up­com­ing pro­vin­cial elec­tion. But when he holds a news con­fer­ence with Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive Leader Pa­trick Brown, who of­fers noth­ing by way of promised fund­ing for so­cial hous­ing, ex­cept he wants to get crim­i­nals out of so­cial hous­ing, Tory risks ex­pos­ing his cam­paign as anti-Lib­eral. (The NDP’s An­drea Hor­wath, mean­while, has promised to fund a third of the hous­ing re­pair bill).

Yes, coun­cil should send a list to all Toronto-area MPPs show­ing the so­cial hous­ing in their wards that are in dan­ger of col­lapse.

Yes, city coun­cil should ad­vo­cate for in­creased fund­ing for so­cial hous­ing — push to the point of em­bar­rass­ing their col­leagues who are too com­fort­able with the cri­sis.

Yes, the mayor is right to call on the prov­ince to part­ner in putting so­cial hous­ing in a state of good re­pair.

But the ad­vo­cacy will have more im­pact when city coun­cil com­mits more of the city’s own tax dol­lars to re­solv­ing the vex­ing prob­lem.

“Let me be clear on this, any clo­sure of such units would be a di­rect re­sult of in­ac­tion of the other gov­ern­ments to part­ner with us in car­ry­ing out those re­pairs,” Tory says. “We have shown our lead­er­ship in good faith on this.” Only if you save the units, mayor. The peo­ple are with you on this. They will join the right­eous cam­paign to pres­sure Ot­tawa and Queen’s Park, if they re­al­ize your ac­tions match your rhetoric.

Bet­ter to say, “No, we won’t close the hous­ing units when our vul­ner­a­ble ci­ti­zens need ev­ery one we have. We will house our poor. We will not aban­don you and throw you over­board and then scream at prov­ince and fed­eral gov­ern­ments to stage a res­cue.

“Join us in the cam­paign and to­gether we will fix the 20-year-old prob­lem.” Royson James’ s col­umn ap­pears weekly

Mayor John Tory has sud­denly dis­cov­ered that so­cial hous­ing is in rough shape, Royson James writes.

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