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Toronto housing is getting out of reach — should private companies start providing homes for workers?

Toronto housing is getting out of reach — should private companies start providing homes for workers?

Toronto’s housing crisis shows no signs of abating.

The city is already among the 10 most expensive major housing markets in the world, as measured by the ratio of household income to house prices. And Toronto house prices are forecast to jump again this year, by just under 10 per cent in 2020, according to a report last month from the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board.

We have a housing crisis because there aren’t enough houses. It’s that simple, though policymakers don’t seem to understand that.

Supply has not kept up with the GTA’s rapid population growth.

Between 2016 and 2019, the GTA added more than 325,000 jobs, but only 102,000 new homes. And only two per cent of those new homes are classified as affordable.

Unfortunately, we have misdiagnosed the problem. We have attacked only the demand side of the housing crisis, when our problem is lack of supply.

The Bank of Canada has kept interest rates artificially low in a bid to make our insufficient supply of houses somehow affordable. Toronto’s surtax on foreign home buyers tries to make the limited supply of houses affordable by discouraging offshore buyers.

The feds’ stress tests on mortgage applicants have tried to make a limited housing stock affordable by discouraging would-be buyers of modest means.

Last September, the feds launched a first-time home buyer subsidy, again in hopes of making the existing supply of houses more affordable.

Those measures, most of them efforts to manage demand, have been in place long enough to have made a difference.

And they haven’t.

Those responses to the housing crisis have failed because they have not increased the supply of homes, period.

Economists describe that misguided approach as too much attention to demand, and scarcely any to supply.

Some solutions that might work:

Scale up the National Housing Strategy. Ottawa has been financing up to 125,000 new housing units over 10 years to 2027.

But that’s a meagre 12,500 units per year for the entire country, when the GTA alone welcomes more than 100,000 immigrants a year in need of housing.

Ottawa can make a meaningful difference by boosting its new housing to at least 50,000 units per year, starting now, or 250,000 units by 2025.

That would still be a lower level of federal housing provision than the 1980s, just before Ottawa effectively quit the housing field.

Scale up “worker housing.” In December, Toronto city council approved the HousingTO plan, which would provide 40,000 new affordable rental units over 10 years to 2030.

Here again, the effort is insufficient — just 4,000 new housing units per year. And almost half of those units would be social housing.

True, social housing needs a boost. But the housing crisis is most acute in the shortage of “worker housing” — shelter for Torontonians with too much income to qualify for social housing, but not enough to afford decent shelter.

Example: Average monthly rent for a one-bedroom Toronto apartment hit $2,300 last month. A daycare worker, with average annual income of $32,920, can afford to pay just $823 in monthly rent, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp (CMHC).

The city’s $23.4-billion plan, to be jointly financed with Ottawa and Queen’s Park, would benefit from focusing on where the need is greatest. That is affordable housing units for low-income workers, including teachers, nurses, orderlies, transit workers, cooks, nannies, security and custodial staff, and sanitation personnel. These are people who provide essential services to the city but cannot afford to live here.

Get employers to provide housing. The University of British Columbia has built up an inventory of rental units for faculty and staff that now numbers 685 units, administered by the arms-length UBC Properties Trust. Rental rates for UBC employees are 25 per cent lower than Vancouver’s sky-high market rates.

Resort operators in Whistler, B.C., began building worker housing in the 1980s. Today’s Whistler Housing Authority manages 2,033 rental and ownership units for workers in the town. Developers of new resorts and other enterprises in Whistler must provide new employee housing, or pay the housing authority to build it.

As mortgage costs soared, Bristol, England, faced an exodus of municipal workers priced out of the city. So Bristol has built a 161-unit housing development for municipal employees. City-employed residents of the new Elderberry Walk will pay 90 per cent of market rent. Or they can take shared ownership with the city of their units, accumulating equity while making payments on a comparatively modest mortgage.

A similar plan is underway in San Mateo, Calif., which is detailed along with other innovative projects in “Housing a Generation of Workers,” a must-read report by the Toronto Region Board of Trade and social-services provider WoodGreen, released last month.

“By building homes close to employment, we can help reduce commutes, congestion and air pollution while improving workers’ quality of life and productivity,” that report asserts.

Readers will recognize in the above examples the model of the company town, where employer housing was provided of necessity due to remote location.

It’s time to revive and refine that model. Since it would be built from scratch or occupy retrofitted buildings, the new affordable housing would boost the energy efficiency of the city’s entire building stock.

Hospitals and universities should be required to provide housing provisions for their modestly paid interns, teaching assistants and support staff. Employers would pay into a city-wide trust that provides affordable housing close to work.

For that investment, employers would be rewarded with lower employee turnover and absenteeism.

Through a city-wide affordable housing trust for employees, employers can provide self-financing, self-administering housing with minimal if any burden on the employer.

Employers are better able to attract the best and brightest workers (a boon in solving Toronto’s skills shortage problem ) if a decent, affordable place to live comes with the job.

Including residents on the housing trust’s board of directors would reinforce the trust’s independence from the employer.

Toronto has proven it can build large amounts of affordable housing quickly. It did so at the end of the Second World War in preparation for the baby boom, and again in the 1960s and 1970s to accommodate waves of European immigrants in flight from postwar economic malaise and Cold War tyranny.

In this latest Toronto housing renaissance, the new homes would be more varied in design and function. They would be located throughout the GTA rather than concentrated in ultra-high-density districts and would be small-scale (or “human-scale”), blending into established neighbourhoods.

The alternative is a GTA in which people cannot afford to live, which is not sustainable. We’re getting dangerously close to that point.

David Olive is a Toronto-based business columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @TheGrtRecession

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