Considering the February weather that Torontonians have just endured, the overheated housing market defies all logic. It feels a bit like saying that the average house price in Whitehorse just crossed $1 million.
Along with this new threshold, we hear the all-too-familiar memes: low interest rates, limited supply and excess demand all combine to create a hot and heady marketplace for sellers and real estate agents, even when it feels like -25 C outside. Young buyers beware: either hurry up or make do in a condo.
But who exactly is shut out? In the midst of all the fear-mongering, we hear nothing of the 90,000 families waiting for affordable housing, the single-parent households that struggle to find a decent place to live, or the many residents who endure miserable living conditions under landlords absolved of all responsibility.
These housing markets and the respective communities they serve are treated separately. They’re two completely different creatures occupying two completely different worlds. As a result, analysis of the “housing market” in Toronto is limited to speculation about the Bank of Canada’s next interest rate move, whether the market will ever cool down, and a comparative look at the cost of detached houses, townhouses and condos. Are there bidding wars in Jane-Finch or Lawrence Heights, I wonder? I guess we’ll never know.
Given this divide in our thinking and public conversation, it may come as a surprise that most people on the other side would rather have secure employment and the ability to pay for a safe and clean place to live. In other words, they are also a part of the Toronto housing market: potential buyers without the means to even dream about a mortgage because they struggle to simply find an apartment or enough food. But are they less deserving of the goal of home ownership or the kinds of community development policy that this would entail in Toronto? Surely not.
The housing divide is starkly reflected in the continued failed attempts to create inclusionary provisions for affordable housing at both the municipal and provincial levels. There is neither a standard definition of affordable housing nor a dedicated law for including it in new developments. In Toronto, city councillors can try to negotiate with developers on an ad hoc basis under Section 39 of the Planning Act. However, in Ontario, there is no provincial equivalent of even this little-used municipal loophole.
MPP Peter Milczyn has tabled a private member’s bill that would give municipalities the right to require developers to include a portion of affordable housing in new developments. However, its very status as a private member’s bill and not government-backed legislation threatens its life in committee, where it has been stuck for some time and is far from a vote.
The upshot of all this is that as detached house prices continue to ascend to the realm of the gods, profit-savvy developers will continue to build condos for the remaining occupants of the “visible” housing market: younger income earners with cash and/or an income that allows for a mortgage but not quite enough for a house. The “invisible” housing market occupants will continue to be invisible because of a lack of foresight and political will to tie these threads together and create integrated neighbourhoods with housing options for all residents.
With one in five Torontonians living in poverty, that’s a lot of us left out in the cold, especially aboriginal, racialized and immigrant women who are more likely to experience poverty, precarious employment and lack of affordable housing as a barrier to leaving violent situations. This isn’t just about building more shelters and fixing the backlog of TCHC repairs. While these are necessary, they can never be more than band-aid solutions without careful consideration of how housing, urban planning and community development interact with poverty and inequality. If you’re employed on a temporary or contractual basis, as most people are these days, limited savings will not get you very far. If your average monthly income is $1,465, as it is for single parent households in Toronto, worrying about the interest rate isn’t even a dot on your horizon.
We talk about the overheated housing market and we talk about poverty reduction. But never the twain shall meet. And so we’re not just creeping toward a city divided into rich and poor neighbourhoods, we’re galloping there.