Toronto’s ‘signature’ affordable housing program could finally break ground after years of delays
After delays of up to two and a half years, Toronto could break ground on three developments from its Housing Now affordable rental program by next summer, according to a new report, while the shifting tides of the development market, including rising interest rates, loom large.
The three sites -- at 50 Wilson Heights Blvd, 140 Merton St, and the intersection of Bloor and Kipling -- are expected to inject 3,024 rental units into the market upon competion, with 1,510 of those units slated to be offered at rates below the city’s average market rent.
But as the city agency that handles its real estate portfolio, CreateTO, forecasts that construction will begin by the second quarter of 2023, timelines are still up in the air for the other eight sites announced in the first phase of what officials have dubbed Toronto’s “signature” affordable housing program.
Housing Now was approved by council in Jan. 2019, and has since been dogged by delays, as the number of projects in its pipeline has swelled to 21. Meanwhile, Toronto rents have hit record levels, with a waitlist for deeply affordable housing that ran more than 81,000 households long as of September. When a new, moderately affordable rental building downtown recently opened up applications for 100 available homes, it was met with 1,202 bids.
The Housing Now projects also now face risks such as rising interest rates and a “rapid escalation” in construction costs, said CreateTO CEO Vic Gupta. Those added costs threaten to “significantly impact” the agency’s ability to move ahead with the initiative as planned, Gupta wrote in a report for CreateTO’s meeting Friday, spurring staff to move “expeditiously.”
Through all three phases of Housing Now, the city has said it expects to allocate roughly $1.3 billion in land, staff resources and financial incentives such as relief from development charges and building permits, with the incentives expected to be worth about $433.95 million. The resulting mixed-use sites also rely on development partners and federal dollars.
Ana Bailão, the former city councillor who last term sat on the CreateTO Board, said over the last few months, staff had been taking a “second look” at the projects in earlier stages of work, given how the market has shifted. “What do we do to make sure that projects are still viable?”
“You can look at a series of things... more money on the government side, more incentives, more density, adding more market units to have more money to pay for the affordable housing.”
Gupta’s report outlines issues by property, from obtaining “acceptable” financing from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp to coordinating drainage over a TTC corridor.
Officials have previously given several other reasons to explain why the effort has fallen behind schedule, from disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to completion of transit lines.
According to the new report, construction at Wilson Heights and Merton St. was initially forecast to start by the end of 2020, followed by Bloor and Kipling by the end of 2021. While the city had said earlier this year it expected construction at Merton to start in November 2023, all three sites were forecast to start by the second quarter of the year in Gupta’s report.
Of the other eight sites announced as part of the first round of Housing Now, construction was initially expected to start between late 2020 and late 2022. None have an updated forecast date. The city, in 2019, had said it was targeting a first round finish date between 2022 and 2024.
Bailão said one issue with the first round sites was announcing the addresses while due diligence was still underway. Almost immediately, she said it became clear to officials that more preliminary research could help mitigate the kinds of hurdles that have arisen. “That is something that we identified to do better and more of as the program develops,” Bailão said.
To Magda Barrera of the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, speed is critical, as renters are contending with asking prices that hit $2,474 for a one-bedroom in September, per rentals.ca.
“It’s disappointing to see the delays because these were really big developments,” Barrera said, noting that data shows the affordable end of Toronto’s rental market has the fewest available units. She shared figures from CMHC, dated October 2021, which showed the city-wide vacancy rate of 4.9 per cent dropped to 1.9 per cent for units that cost between $1,000 and $1,249.
“At this point, any kind of new affordable rental is welcomed… it’s not going to solve the crisis, but any new rental affordable units we can get are making a really big contribution.”
She sees great potential in the Housing Now program, particularly lauding its ability to remove the high cost of land from the development equation, by using the city’s own properties.
“I really hope it can get back on track -- and give us the affordable rentals we need.”