Putting social housing units in condo towers

Reach for the sky indeed. The socially disenfranchised in Canada’s biggest city may one day be living the high life, courtesy of Toronto’s boom in downtown condominium developments.

An innovative approach to Section 37 provisions could see more residential towers include some form of subsidized housing to aid tenants squeezed out of the highly competitive rental market. Section 37 of the province’s Planning Act gives the city the power to allow developers to exceed height limits for their condo projects in exchange for the provision of some community benefit. While a noble concept, the idea of including subsidized units in newly-built condo towers is still struggling to take off with real estate developers.

If at all. According to figures contained in a report released Thursday by the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance (IMFG), barely 6% of Section 37 deals between developers and City Hall are historically ever directly converted to housing. The remainder come in the form of parks, public art or various other “desirable visual amenities.” Ten York, a 62-storey tower with a four-storey podium set for completion near late 2016, is one development bucking that trend. The high-rise has 694 condo units, 12 of which will be managed as co-ops by the Co-op Housing Federation of Toronto (CHFT). Stephen Upton, vice president of development and planning for Tridel, developer of the Ten York project, said the decision to include the units enables different strata of society access to downtown living.
He cites no negative response from either buyers or other prospective tenants. “No pushback at all, the buyers realize the people coming in are genuine renters who will be paying to live alongside them,” Upton said. “We were introduced to this concept by Councillor Adam Vaughan and he worked to have the units set aside. “It is a small start for us but one we will be examining in future developments. I think it has very real merit.” Between 2007 and 2011, the City of Toronto entered into 157 Section 37 agreements, yielding a cash component of around $136 million. Not surprisingly, the deals are concentrated in the parts of the city that have experienced the most rapid growth and property development, with the three wards in Toronto’s downtown core (wards 20, 27 and 28) receiving around 53% of the benefits. The other standout is ward 23 in North York, which is also securing a significant share of Section 37 agreements. Tom Cooper, executive director of Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto, says the sheer volume of high-rise developments planned and underway for Toronto gives him hope that more developers will open the way to allocating public housing through Section 37 offsets. “It is very hard to see a downside in these partnerships,” Cooper said, “especially when you realize around 80,000 people are waiting for some form of cheap, subsidized housing in this city. “They are waiting close to 10 years for their chance and every time a developer like Tridel sets aside units to create a mixed income community then a little less pressure is taken off.”

By his own admission Cooper has been in the co-op housing business for 33 years. In that time he has seen a variety of approaches taken to low income housing solutions. He points to two that were the forerunners to Ten York. “The St Nicholas Housing Co-Op at 7 Inkerman has 18 units,” Cooper said, “and from the street nobody would know it. They are fully integrated. “Then you look at the Grace MacInnis on Church, it has 32 units of co-op housing. “This sort of innovative planning began 25 years ago and was called density bonusing and helps those most in need without touching the public purse. The cost is borne by the developer alone.” Cooper is right to highlight opportunities in a city that is heading upwards rather than outwards. Nowhere else in North America are more highrises and skyscrapers under construction than in Toronto.

According to the German building database provider Emporis, Toronto boats 147 such construction sites, more than twice as many as New York City, the centre of high-rise architecture in North America. No other major city in the U.S. or Canada comes even close to Toronto’s — or even New York City’s — highrise construction activity. Vancouver occupies third place in the ranking, with 21 highrises under construction; Montreal follows close behind with just one site fewer. Boston, Ottawa and Richmond (B.C.), the three cities in joint eighth place, have only 12 highrises each being built. Still, so much anticipated available space means it is inevitable that deals will be made to benefit those most in need of a roof over their head. Just how much is debatable because of the sheer inconsistency in ward-by-ward outcomes. Dr. Aaron Moore, author of the IMFG report on trading Section 37 density for benefits, goes so far as to call for a total overhaul of relevant portions in the Ontario Planning Act. He wants clearer guidelines and a more systemic approach rather than the self-administered, ad hoc arrangement now favoured in Toronto. Ultimately, the province will have to decide whether to abolish the Section 37 in its entirety, reform it or find a replacement tool that is more transparent and outside the purview of individual ward councillors. Until then, developments like Ten York will be the exception rather than the planning rule.