When discussing policy, especially when discussing the goals of commodity allocation such as housing, it is important to remember the conflict that arises when the incessant need of private capital to expand runs headlong into the sphere of social costs. The result of the widespread adoption of a neoliberal global consensus happened a mere 40 years ago, and as a result, we are essentially living history as to its long-term ramifications. In this regard, the Housing Toronto Action Plan must be seen critically as a product of this capital-social friction borne in the neoliberal system; as David Harvey states in his text, Spaces of neoliberalization: towards a theory of uneven geographical development, “The preferred form of governance is that of the ‘public-private partnership’ in which the state and key business interests collaborate closely together to coordinate their activities around the aim of enhancing capital accumulation. The result is that the regulated get to write the rules of their regulation while ‘public’ decision-making becomes ever more opaque.” This opacity is the end goal of many major policy-makers in the modern neoliberal status-quo, as to expose the inner world of capital accumulation to public scrutiny is to draw back the curtain on why social ills and misery continue to rapidly climb during an age in which-- apart from the year over year impacts of trade wars and associated stagnation, productivity in Canada has historically never been higher. The Housing Toronto Action Plan is a public plan that defines the steps Toronto will take in the coming decade to deal with two main issues plaguing the housing market: affordability, and accessibility. However, as the study itself mentions, most of the previous efforts, including the former 2010-2020 Housing Action Plan, “have been more reactive than proactive, limited in scale and slow to roll-out.” This needs-based development strategy hinges on the fact that these policy proposals are reactive— how then, do we shift to a proactive strategy? Unfortunately, as the plan proposal outlines, these ‘proactive’ strategies are based less on community development and more on the defense of capital investiture; furthermore, the initiatives brought forth alongside a deepening public-private investment portends a dire future for many living on the peripherals. This document provides only the veneer of assistance to a progressively impoverished working class and a shrinking middle class— this is, however, not an outright malicious choice by local government, but simply the consequences of the neoliberal consensus that prevents the shift to non-reactive, asset-based development, and a stronger social policy in general.
In the executive summary of the report, the outline states, “(t)he evidence is clear that during the past decade, Toronto has experienced a ‘housing squeeze’ where many residents are ‘stuck’ in and ‘stressed’ about finding and keeping a place to live.” The primary element of this ‘housing squeeze’ is affordability, as “the housing market has boomed in recent years, at the same time it has left an increasing number of lower and moderate-income residents in an environment where rental and ownership costs have surpassed affordability levels.” The definition of ‘affordable’ is, however, nebulous until we determine the criteria for affordability and what this benchmark entails for low-income earners. In general, some of the current programs such as rent-geared-to-income or RGI define affordable as 30% below the market value for housing; however, these low-income earners include some 240,000 Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program recipients as well, who, as stated in the report, “(a recipient) of OW or ODSP faces an ‘income gap’ of between $699 and $1,224 per month” in the private sector even with these programs in place. A perhaps bleaker figure emerges from the January 2019 Toronto Market Housing Analysis, which notes, “people waiting for supportive housing are stuck in shelters, hospitals or correctional institutions; rooming and boarding homes or self-contained market housing for an average of 5-7 years,” it is here in that private sector, in which “87% or 122, 250 households in the private rental market with incomes <$30,000 spend more than 30% of their incomes on shelter.” We now see that ‘affordability’ as a concept is tied directly to ‘accessibility’. The amount of public housing available is currently enormously outstripped by the surge in low-income earners, and thus, the point of affordability is an even more myopic argument when it is impossible to even gain access to social housing. This, while being a seemingly black-and-white tale of supply and demand, is quite literally the only economic option available to the city which is beholden to upholding the profitability of the housing market, as evidenced by the extremely limited actions taken to date in the housing initiative, for example, the Housing Stabilization Fund which is an emergency fund available to OW or ODSP recipients to prevent homelessness to those who qualify and only on an imminent-eviction basis; or the Toronto Rent Bank which provides, “limited, interest-free repayable loans to eligible low-income households that are at risk of imminent eviction due to rental arrears,” which, like the HSF, is a reactive, means-tested resource which provides, “(a) maximum loan (of) an amount equal to two months’ rent,” which, according to the average rent of $1,089 as outlined in the TMHA, is an interest-free loan of roughly $2,178. As emergency measures, these two programs are at least a bare-minimum resource for those in desperate straits; however, unlike the following housing allowance proposal, only exist for and are used by a small fraction of the vulnerable population.
The Housing Allowances in particular are a focal point here, as the previous two solutions are means-tested programs that have also been largely ineffective—as outlined by Toronto Employment and Social Services, “only 5% of OW recipients in Toronto live in social housing or receive a rent subsidy,” and make such a minimal impact to the market so as to be unviable as a complete solution. The other solution touted by the initiative is an ad-hoc public-private initiative to ease the burdens of renters forced into the private market and experiencing issues with affordability, lack of proximity to community resources, etc.; however, the Housing Subsidy (Rent-Geared-to-Income, or RGI) operates in two spheres, public subsidized housing which boasts a 7-10 year wait time, and RGI housing through private landlords. The exchange of public funds to private landlords as a means of decreasing rent prices by 30% for eligible households with limited or no assets is a solution that entirely ignores multiple issues, such as the growing income gap for those who are already receiving these subsidies—as outlined again by the TMHA, “Rent for condo units grew by 25% from 2006 to 2017. Rent for new purpose-built rental units is out-pacing median renter household incomes.” The solution to the social cost of skyrocketing rents in Toronto currently, is to quite literally, use public funds to pay the gap; this again is a necessary condition of neoliberal capital defense, the rental market in Toronto, according to a 2017 private sector housing roundtable report, “…continues to hit the jack pot with a range of revenues from the growth in residential building, renovation activity and housing sales. In 2011, residential building permits were at an all-time high of $3 billion,” so then, what is to be made of an ‘affordable’ public-private system that is still unaffordable to a majority of the unhoused, underutilized, heavily scrutinized and means-tested, and exists far more as an economic driver than a social security net? This is, unfortunately, the result of the neoliberal desire for as minimal interference with or restrictions on the actual capital operations of the housing market as possible. The result of which is huge economic growth paired with enormous social tolls-- again as mentioned by the TMHA, extrapolating the current system into the future, “approximately 540,000 people will live in low-income households by 2031, up from 471,203 in 2016. By 2041, nearly 600,000 people will live in low-income households” and yet, rents on an average 1-bedroom apartment have increased 75% over less than a decade. The lack of market controls, flow of capital from public to private, relaxation of the definition of affordability, and a hithertofore unprecedented spike in the population of low-income households is the inevitable breaking point, and yet the proposal does not address any of these issues head-on, instead providing temporary band-aid solutions.
We now are at a point in which the ‘affordability’ issue does not have a solution— there are no ways to effectively control the speculative boom in the housing market without directly affecting profitability and confronting powerful housing interests, and thus we again move back to the ‘accessibility’ issue. Recalling earlier the 2011 $3B windfall in Toronto, it is then strange to point to the StatsCan observation that 37.9% of condos in Toronto are not owner-occupied. This statistic points to the fact that the housing market in Toronto is driven less by access to housing or a lack of housing, but by a social issue resulting directly from the heavy investiture of housing speculators and investors. This was also seen in the 1980s under the neoliberal regime of Margaret Thatcher in the UK which attempted to push the formerly robust social housing system entirely into private hands, as Harvey notes, “(a)t first blush, for example, Thatcher’s program for the privatization of social housing in Britain appeared as a gift to the lower classes which could now convert from rental to ownership at a relatively low cost, gain control over a valuable asset and augment their wealth. But once the transfer was accomplished, housing speculation took over particularly in prime central locations, eventually bribing or forcing low income populations out to the periphery in cities like London and turning erstwhile working class housing estates into centers of intense gentrification.” This crisis is most obviously seen as well in Vancouver where identical lax policies to market speculation and investment have driven the average price of a 1-bedroom apartment to $2,200 as of November 2019. The lack of any serious reaction to this is seen in the Housing Toronto Action Plan’s future steps towards curtailing the growing crisis, including increasing rent subsidies, however, the HTAP itself acknowledges that the original proposal prior to the publication of the plan, “(at) this level of funding, (it would) not be substantial enough to address the realities of the homeless and low and moderate-income renters in Toronto.” The second proposal is protect the cost of ‘affordable’ rental units that have entered into now-expiring agreements with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Operation, a crown corporation, by incentivizing housing providers to renew these operating agreements through property tax exemptions, at a cost of $3,315,905 tax dollars to the municipality over 12 years. While this program endeavors to, at minimum, protect the already critically low amount of affordable housing available already, it does so at a large cost and simply maintains the minimum stock by preventing buy-back from private landlords. The third proposal is simply a modernization of the service model for low income housing, however, the pivot to a choice-based system to deliver a greater sense of “freedom” and “selection” to those seeking assistance is hollow given that the choices of housing stock are still massively limited by wait-times and almost exclusively dependent on the private sector, and thus, the proposal is basically a UI refresh to a useless service. The final recommendations are increasing the already poor housing subsidies and making those subsidies more “portable” (ie, allowing a greater access to private markets). When taken in uncritically, these solutions seemingly offer an answer to ‘affordability’ and ‘access’ but in a nearly identical way to the currently flawed system, with no greater scope of action taken to combat the speculator-driven market. This is not only a drive towards elimination of public housing, but also an attempt to allow landlords, real-estate developers, and housing speculators to have easy access to public funds. Speculators and housing investors, in fact, to great shock and horror, are not mentioned at all throughout the entire proposal.
The Housing Toronto Action Plan, sadly, is mortally wounded as an effective public policy proposal from its outset; on the other hand, it is an extremely valuable policy from a Capitalist economic standpoint as it immediately provides the necessary pre-conditions to further capital accumulation as industry moves away from Toronto and the GTA (consider the closure of the Oshawa General Motors plant for example, once North America's largest auto producing facility, it now represents 10 million square feet of half-demolished wasteland and parking lots). The audacity of offering small stipends and emergency funds to the public in relation to the massive, generous concessions offered to landowners is fairly staggering, especially considering that the entire goal of the proposal is, “to provide Torontonians with housing that is safe, affordable and suitable to their needs”. The urgency of the policy recommendations as outlined in the Toronto Housing Market Analysis versus the real-life policies being advanced by the HTAP point to two conclusions: uncharitably, it is the result of greed by those in proximity to capital; or, perhaps simply the unfortunate result of the constant need for increasing year-over-year revenue regarding a commodity that just so happens to have an unfathomable social impact to communities and neighbourhoods. These two readings still boil down to accepting the realities of living in a neoliberal capitalist consensus, and thusly, a truly effective proposal must tackle the inequalities that stem from capital inequality as opposed to band-aiding social inequalities— most importantly, ending or curtailing speculation, rent controls and rent freezing, the purchase and development of purely social housing (as opposed to mixed-income projects) and the advancement of the welfare of those most vulnerable to the path set forth by this policy.
"Housing as a commodity: folks it jsut works"