Mayor Tory’s bold housing plan passed council last Wednesday asking for a staff report by next March. As a politician who often touts his boldness, frequently followed by a lackluster follow-through, remember SmartTrack (bold purely for its naked political optics) and the proposed Raildeck Park (a bold miscalculation, as far as I can tell), this time round, the mayor’s dead serious. His Housing ACTION Plan, 2023, no less, is bold to the bone.
I’ll set aside all the reasons to be skeptical about yet another claim to boldness by this mayor including the fact that last term he concocted his Housing Now initiative and four years or so on, there’s nary a shovel in the ground to show for it. As Mark Richardson of HousingNowTO said on Metro Morning, Housing Now (no relation) “… has been an important lesson for the city in how hard it is to build a new apartment building in the city of Toronto.” Lesson learned? Fingers crossed! If someone like Mark Richardson is willing to extend Mayor Tory the benefit of the doubt for his boldness this time out, who am I to continue to bear a grudge?
Richardson isn’t alone in holding out hope that Mayor Tory’s on the level this time. As far as I can tell, housing critics and experts across the spectrum are praising the ‘housing action plan, 2023’ for its breaking with precedent of Saying Much and Doing Little in terms of getting housing built, especially affordable housing, although if there’s one angle of concern about the mayor’s proposal is that it does little to directly address the problem of affordability, relying as it does on knocking over and obliterating obstacles to increasing the supply of homes. It’s all about supply. Supply, supply, supply.
Which comes to the delight of many commentators and opinion-makers who have long since claimed that the source of our housing shortage is simply that we haven’t built enough of it to meet the increasing demand. Just open up the floodgates of supply and not only will we address the shortage itself but the issue of affordability. Supply meets demand. Economics 101. Free market fundamentals.
As simple as that.
In fact, it seems a whole cottage industry has popped up that basically accuses liberals and progressives of creating the entire housing mess. Legacy-progressives is the term being bandied about. Hypocritical legacy-progressives who’ve long since protected homeowner interests, maintaining exclusive zoning regulations to maintain the notion of ‘stable’ communities, essentially neighbourhoods with only detached or, at best, semi-detached houses allowed. Hypocritical legacy-progressives in the pocket of wealthy Residence Associations that successfully fend off even the mildest of gentle density encroachments as threats to the character of their neighbourhoods.
Hypocritical legacy-progressives and their so-called ‘liberal’ values of fairness, equity, blah, blah, blah, are the villains of this story. A delicious, delicious irony for those who either sniff at any such notion of ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ ‘values’ or who instead see themselves as the new breed of progressives, out with the old, in with the new, a generational change, don’t let the door hit you on your way out, old man.
None of the complaints lodged toward legacy-progressives are untrue. Restrictive zoning is exclusionary even in areas that are comparatively dense in respect to most everywhere else in the city. These neighbourhoods oftentimes sit right smack dab in the midst of a bounty of infrastructure like public transit, bike lanes and a solid mix of retail that make them highly desirable places to live. Many of them have fewer people living within their confines than they did 50 years ago for a variety of reasons, some natural, i.e. smaller family units, some galling, i.e. multi-residential homes converted or torn down into monster places providing more sq.ft./person.
Yes. To all of it. More density everywhere.
But how is this state of affairs solely the result of progressive or liberal thinking?
Last week, Mike Moffatt, an Ivey Business School prof, director at the Smart Prosperity Institute and very respected housing authority, tweeted out an enthusiastic link to an Atlantic article, The Obvious Answer to Homelessness. A snippet immediately caught my eye, “But liberalism is largely to blame for the homelessness crisis…” The ‘largely’ qualifier aside, this seems to be a rather definitive and rigid explanation for a situation that, by all other accounts, is multi-faceted in its root causes and solutions, in keeping, I guess, with the article’s title claim.
“… and yet the homelessness crisis we see in American cities today dates only to the 1980s,” Jerusalem Demsas writes earlier in the article. “What changed that caused homelessness to explode then? Again, it’s simple: lack of housing.”
Well, yes. People are unhoused because there is nowhere for them to live. That’s an easy observation to make, the answer is obvious. But, the jump from that to liberalism being largely to blame for the shortage?
Geez, taking the 80s as the starting point (already feeling like a deliberate shortening of the historical timeline), what else happened since then that may have helped contribute to a housing shortage? How about the whole Reaganomics wave? The gutting of the North America industrial base and the middle-class along with it. An ever-widening income inequality not seen since the Great Depression (another period of time with a spike in homelessness, btw). Here in Canada, the federal government stepping away from social housing in the early-90s and the whole downloading of services to the levels of government with the least financial ability to maintain let alone enhance them. The commodification of almost every aspect of our lives including housing.
The amazing thing is there’s a link right in the quote above to a 2020 CityLab article by Benjamin Schneider that goes into much detail about the history and root causes of homelessness. It begins to address solution ideas and while they are all obvious, none are particularly easy because if they were… well, you know how that ends.
Yes. Exclusionary zoning is a culprit but there’s nothing obviously liberal about that or even necessarily that recent. Yes. Rezoning and updating Official Plans to reflect the reality of a growing urban region may be the main contribution cities can make to help start rebuilding housing stock. They don’t have the governance powers to use more macro approaches. Yes. Intensify already dense neighbourhoods and push density into enclaves long resistant to it.
Yes. That’s obvious. Doesn’t make it easy or so overtly politically one-sided. It’s a great narrative, conveniently isolating one bad guy (with a surprise twist! You’ll never guess who!) –liberal-progressives, the Keyser Söze of our housing crisis. Unfortunately, reality isn’t a comic book. “As long as there is a price on shelter,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has said, “it will be inaccessible to millions of people.” Increasing housing supply is the correct answer to the equation. It’s the variables, plural, more than just one, the nuts-and-bolts of implementation, especially when it comes to affordability, the veritable weeds to get lost in, where it all gets much trickier.
Boiling it down to a single factor for the political pleasure of smug and censorious finger-pointing distorts the debate, sidelines often unheard voices and distracts from the many difficult choices that have to be made in order to begin putting a roof over everyone’s head.
By it’s very nature, the obvious is easy. The opposite isn’t necessarily true, however, The easy’s rarely obvious.