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.

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Cycling in Toronto and Copenhagen

Diversity is a double-edged sword – there is strength in it but it must be properly harnessed with its scattered nature. In a city like Toronto, we’ve seen decisions made “in the public interest” that do not necessarily serve the needs of the public affected. Rather, these decisions serve needs that are either grossly aggregated or imposed upon people. Take the removal of bike lanes on Jarvis Street for example. This bike lane is used by local commuters and had the support of the local councillor. However, the majority of council decided that an additional car lane would be better and thus it was removed. This is an example of the government listening to the wrong people for the wrong thing.

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Quietly raging against the lane-removing machine

I have to confess: up til yesterday, I had never ridden a bike in downtown Toronto. Why? Continue reading

Europe, part one: The City Unrestrained

From October 2nd to October 16th, I was in Europe, touring Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Malmö, and Berlin. The purpose of the trip was an academic one: to explore Scandinavian strategies for waterfront revitalization. Since I was in Europe anyway, I decided to sandwich my visit to the Scandinavian cities with Amsterdam and Berlin.

This trip will be split into four posts, by city, starting with Amsterdam.

The City Unrestrained

Canals are not the first thing that come to mind when I think of Amsterdam, but a quick search on Google maps shows how these waterlines percolate through the downtown (“Centrale”).

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Waterways are a prevalent element in the urban fabric of Amsterdam.

However, maps do not do the city justice when explored at the human scale. Buildings are low-rise by Toronto’s definitions (at four to six storeys – shy of 12 to be considered mid-rise) at a height that allows denser living while also accommodating vibrant at-grade activities.

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Peering south across the bridge from main Amsterdam Centrale train station.

Amsterdam is the City unrestrained, not to say the city’s development was left to a completely laissez-faire planning process, but I call it as such because of how it felt like urban life had taken over the city. This brings to mind a quote:

“First we shape our city, then it shapes us. ” – Jan Gehl

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Our Coffee Shop

A lovely article came out a few days ago about coffee shops and their role in fostering a creative class in a neighbourhood. There are two main types: large franchises and locally-owned coffee shops. The former includes Starbucks, Tim Hortons, McDonald’s McCafe, Second Cup, etc, and the latter, Bulldog’s (Toronto) and CoverNotes (Richmond Hill). Of course there are some mid-sized franchises like Aroma Espresso Bar which are scattered in malls and plazas.

Large or small, they serve as a gathering area for communities. Especially in the 905 suburbs, you may have to pay $3.50 for it, but it’s still as close as you’ll get to “public space“.

Nowadays, with Wi-Fi being an increasingly popular staple of coffee shops, people are inclined to stay longer, provided that they have a laptop. These people are typically students and professionals between ages 20-50. This is the creative class.

“The fusion of professional and personal lives are related to the fact that businesses and individual professionals are becoming more and more footloose”

The article goes on to say that coffee shops revitalize and shape our city by bringing the community together. It becomes a meeting place for professionals, students, and retired seniors. It brings people out of their homes and gathers a (local) “public”.

Hitting it Home

The article came on my twitter feed on the same day that I found out our local Williams Coffee Pub had closed down. Alas, irony is a cruel mother.

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Sheppard vs LRT

The hot topic-turned-punchline in Toronto right now is subways (‘subways, subways, folks!‘).

The past couple of months has seen city council become an all-out monster truck show, complete with casualties, not-so-secret weapons, and ‘backstabbing’. In round 1, the battle was for Eglinton Ave. The original plan was to have transit served by means of Light Rail Transit (LRTs). Those who oppose it echo this mode of transportation synonymously with streetcars, and lets face it, it’s a powerful word in Toronto as they’re known as clumsy, lethargic, 1960s-industrial revolution-esque chunks of metal limited to routes embedded in streets. However, the newer LRTs that will be released are capable of running at higher speeds, have a more comprehensive design (higher passenger capacity, ground level floors for accessibility), and don’t lie, they’re pretty sexy.

Toronto's current streetcars

New LRTs (Coming in 2014)

After enough arguing and name-calling (‘dictator’, ‘idiot’ etc.) to make the real housewives look like civil scholars, transportation plans for Eglinton Ave were won over by LRTs (and facts and numbers).

But from a larger perspective, the discourse unintentionally served a higher purpose – citizens of Toronto began switching channels from Days of Our Lives to City Council livestreams. This project actually hit home with Torontonians, and so, like the rational self-motivated little beings economists say we are, we began tuning in to the hot mess that is Toronto Transit season 1.

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