Casa Torontonia: A student-focused reflection on Toronto’s housing market crisis and certain proposed solutions

Liam V. Sherlock, Senior Editor

The housing crisis in Toronto is something with which many of us are intimately familiar as students. Last year, I ended up paying far north of a thousand dollars for a glorified closet with a tiny and barely lit window. While the COVID-triggered rental housing crash, excellent timing, and an extensive search, can temporarily improved your choice of housing, particularly at the beginning of this year, few of us are fortunate enough to be satisfied with our accommodations, in this city of Toronto — where concrete boxes sell for more than some mansions elsewhere (many condos regularly costing upwards of a million dollars). 

Housing is generally recognised as a fundamental human necessity, necessary to life and  pursuit of happiness, much like food and water. A starter condo in Toronto, however, easily costs half a million dollars, which is roughly ten times the average annual gross wage. For comparison, this is roughly triple what my childhood home in the suburbs cost and roughly as much as a four to six bedroom house with acres of land costs in rural Ontario (if you can put up with the mosquitos). This is a problem, even with the (somewhat) higher average wages in the city.

Even as one browses the listings on a real estate site, or looks at the new condos’ billboards advertising new developments starting at half million, the extent and wider implications of this problem are not fully apparent however. While the effects are clear, these causes and roots for the astronomical rise of housing prices solutions remain murky, with what sometimes seems like more opinions than experts, the truth thoroughly hidden beneath onion-like layers of financial and political vested interests and agendas. Over the past seven years, the prices of Toronto housing have quite literally more than doubled, according to most metrics. While the fact of the increase is obvious, and painful, it also comes with far-reaching social implications for wealth accumulation and middle-class prosperity — after all, as anyone who’s played monopoly knows, money accumulates to the people who collect rent, not to those that pay it.

In recent days, the ire of the dissatisfied has been turned onto the single family home, with both the right-wing National Post and left-leaning BlogTO publications releasing virulent attacks on the housing style. They blame zoning rules that prevent multi-family abodes, such as those created by real estate speculators, from being formed for the lack of affordable options in Toronto. Meanwhile, Ontario’s rural population continues to decline as people emigrate to the megapolises, despite the unaffordable housing prices. In fact, these proposed attacks on single-family housing run contra the provincial policy some of them cite – the “a place to grow” (2020) strategic plan issued by the province of Ontario emphasises in Section 2.2.6 the need for housing choice, which should of course include the choice to live in a single family home. While the roots — and ergo solutions — of the issue are difficult, perhaps impossible to ascertain, in line with the above-mentioned report’s goals, Doug Ford’s provincial government has nonetheless appointed a “Housing affordability task force” to look into the issue, and attempt to locate solutions to what is increasingly Toronto’s greatest crisis. The success of this committee is yet to be determined, and one may well have doubts about it.   

The government, across all levels, meanwhile shies away from decisive action on those exploiting the housing crisis, hosting “consultations” on a vacant-homes tax, and taking baby steps against foreign speculators, house-hacking landlords and so forth, with a mere fifteen per cent tax on non-residents’ investment purchases, and no action on domestic speculators who buy properties and then renting them out for more than the mortgage payments, effectively stealing the dream of home ownership from their tenants. 

However, a walk down the streets of Toronto should quickly reveal that urban development and more housing does not have to come at the cost of Toronto’s last bastions of single family residences — a welcome escape from the neo-soviet aesthetic of the urban lifestyle’s concrete towers, mildly dilapidated row-houses, and often-squalid hostel-style buildings.

A quick walk down Yonge Street will lead you to a different conclusion. Ther a few recent developments, with a new skyscraper going up here and there, each with another five-hundred-plus high quality residences. Nonetheless, these new condos and apartments will soon be hiked up to unaffordable levels by speculators (and pure market pressure). However, Yonge street remains generally a wide tract of squalour and derelict buildings all through the central parts of the city, known for semi-legal dispensaries, smoke-shops, and sex-work. The speed at which condos are swiped up illustrates the demand for housing is real, but some of the best land in the city remains undeveloped. One frequent comparison for the housing situation in Toronto is high-density European cities such as Paris where the zoning laws allowed the creation of medium-sized buildings (six to twelve stories) throughout downtowns, which constitute a compact, easy-to-build, and not unsightly form of housing to fill city centres.

Should one look then to the delays and difficulties of construction, the red tape of consultations and especially Toronto’s zoning laws? These certainly have dogged the replacement Edward Johnson building and other UofT buildings for years, and may well keep developers from releasing more housing units onto the market and help relieve the market, especially for students. The province’s plan seemingly wishes to prioritise development on existing public transport infrastructure routes to more effectively utilise these and thereby reduce emissions. What about just eliminating commuting altogether and letting people live where they work and study — Downtown?

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