Three Policies to Advance Affordable Housing Initiatives

Recently a compilation of essays, The Next Urban Renaissance, by notable American urbanists was published and made available online for free. My interest was piqued when I saw Edward Glaeser credited for one (I’m a big fan of Triumph of the City), but I decided to read the first piece on affordable housing first. My draw to affordable housing has been bubbling as of late, and I’ve been fascinated with its promise to end homelessness. As dorky as it may sound, it was exhilarating plowing through Toronto’s policies related to social housing, initiatives to eradicate homelessness, and programs that I never knew were already in place, like the Toronto Rent Bank.

Authored by Professor Ellen of New York University, the piece admits to proposing no new ideas, but eloquently rounds up three great policies that have shown promise:

  1. Tax land, not property.
  2. Reduce or eliminate parking requirements for new developments.
  3. Shift public funds spent on homeless shelters to time-limited rental subsidies for those at risk of homelessness.

Again, these proposals are not new – splitting taxes between land and the actual building encourages owners to make improvements and renovations to the building – eliminating the existing disincentive to increase the value of the property (which would lead to higher taxes). This also discourages landowners from speculating and holding onto valuable infill properties (e.g. parking lots) in land-scarce urban areas. This type of speculation is exactly why there are random patches of parking lots in the midst of high-rises in downtown Toronto.

The second point I actually conducted a studio research project on. Currently, zoning bylaws stratify the number of parking spaces required from new developments in downtown Toronto, sorted by Policy Area. Those in the urban core have lower minimums of 0.3 to 1.0 parking spaces per dwelling unit (depending on the unit type) while those in non-Policy Areas (read: suburban) require 0.8 to 1.2 spaces per unit. Although this appears to make sense, from a personal standpoint, it’s clear just by the number of PARKING SPACE FOR RENT flyers in my condo building that there’s a much higher supply of parking than currently demanded. The advancement of biking infrastructure and transit service in the city has given people a viable alternative to driving in this city. However, by mandating parking spaces, the cost burden of constructing an underground parking space (in Chicago it’s roughly $36,000) are integrated into the final product, and thereby passed onto the consumer. In downtown Toronto, parking spaces upwards of $50,000 are not uncommon. By unbundling and lowering (or abolishing) the minimum parking requirement, we can lower the cost of housing.

The last point, I had actually not heard of before and I’m still trying to understand. “Rapid rehousing”, as it is called, provides families in need of shelter with temporary time-limited assistance to move into permanent housing. The emphasis is on getting this done ASAP. Staff would employ services that would help tenants stay housed, such as landlord negotiation, financial assistance, and social workers. According to the report, time-limited subsidies have proven to be cheaper in the long term than assigning people to shelters. Maintaining a steady job is also much easier with a private home than a shelter. Rapid rehousing is a great way to tackle an ever-growing waiting list for affordable housing. Currently there are over 78,000 households on Toronto’s waiting list, where the average wait time is seven years. Longer wait times leave at-risk individuals more vulnerable to present challenges, and the longer they stay unhoused, the further back they’ll be set.

I’d love to read more about affordable housing ideas, especially those that address tangled archaic policies that actually discourage housing solutions. I plan on researching New York’s experience with inclusionary zoning, and Hong Kong’s policy system with regards to housing. Lord knows the housing market over there is a pressure cooker. I’ll document what I find here.