Toronto’s rental housing is not only expensive, but also deteriorating, as apartment buildings age. This puts financial pressure and other stresses on renting families. With support from CMHC, the Wellesley Institute and SHS Consulting led a Solutions Lab to find actionable ways to address the issue, with broad agreement from tenants, landlords and building owners and the City.
3 Key Goals
Identify and understand programs developed by other cities to address housing repair.
Spark productive discussions to identify best practices to ensure good repair and housing quality.
Detect shortfalls in Toronto’s approach to apartment disrepair and design desirable and doable ways to improve.
Project scope and expected outcomes
Chances are, if you rent in Toronto, it’s in an old building. Almost all of Toronto’s high-rises were built between 1955 and 1985.
While some of these buildings are in good shape, many are not. Aging air systems can cause respiratory problems, old building envelopes and fixtures can contain hazardous materials such as lead and asbestos and some are infested with insects and rodents. Older buildings rarely meet current standards for energy efficiency or accessibility and need expensive retrofits. Building owners feel the pinch as well, as maintenance costs rise as the decades pass. In turn, this means passing costs along to renters, who have less money left over for essentials such as food and education.
According to the City of Toronto, there has been an 82% increase in purpose-built market rental units under construction from 2015 to 2019, after a long period of almost no new construction in that sector. That may alleviate some of the pressures on the rental market and provide more options to renters, but the problems of old buildings persist.
A Solutions Lab
These problems are complex: 525,000 households live in varying building types, ages and sizes, ranging from suites owned by individuals to high-rises owned by multinationals. There are also diverse interests to consider. What helps renters often costs landlords and building owners. Moreover, any solutions on this scale have considered the City’s regulations, rental and tax revenue and limited resources.
This is where the Wellesley Institute, an independent non-profit, policy and research institute focusing on health and healthy equity in the Greater Toronto Area, came in. Wellesley applied for and received $167,843 from CMHC’s Solutions Labs, which is part of the National Housing Strategy. The initiative helps organizations explore new ways to solve complex housing problems.
“Wellesley was able to do this because it is a neutral body,” says one of the Lab’s lead researchers, Kate Murray. “If it had been done by the City or a tenants’ group, they would have had more difficulty balancing interests. We’re not an advocacy or government organization and they needed someone who understood not only the tenants’ interests, but also those of the landlords and the City.”
Formally titled Best Practices for Healthy Housing Quality in Toronto, the Solutions Lab was co-led by the Wellesley Institute, which provided expertise in housing-development policy and research and SHS Consulting, which led the co-design process to arrive at solutions.
Grounds for discussion
Arriving at practicable solutions to address the deterioration of Toronto’s rental stock would require consensus among disparate groups: tenants, landlords and owners and the City. Therefore, it was necessary to prepare the grounds for discussion.
Beginning in mid-2019, the Wellesley and SHS team set-up an Advisory Committee to guide the work and the process. The team also conducted a jurisdictional review, with the aim of bringing in ideas that were being instituted in other cities and countries. Through workshops with each type of participant, along with outside expertise, the team also framed the questions to be answered:
- What is healthy housing quality?
- What is the context, nature and scope of the problem in Toronto?
- What are the contributing causes?
- What are the roles of governments and others?
This workshop also developed broader agreement on answers. Though the scope of the problem in Toronto is well researched, the connections between housing quality and health are not fully appreciated by everyone. The workshop fostered a broader appreciation for the many aspects of healthy housing, including health inequities among population groups and the connection between affordability and health, along with better-known aspects, such as air quality.
This common understanding set the stage for an all-day forum held at the University of Toronto in February 2020, which brought together many of the earlier participants together at the same table, along with academics and other experts and stakeholders. “That was a great day,” says Kate. “That we could get so many knowledgeable people in the room to work on this and that everyone was happy to be talking about it.” The aim was to determine the extent and sources of the problem.
From the participants
Quotations in the culminating report (PDF) of the Solutions Lab show the diversity of opinion of the participants:
- “Grants can be confusing and sometimes don’t feel like the right way to use public funding, but people in these towers deserve to have good homes. We have to balance competing narratives.”
- “You need to put a line in the sand that there’s a certain level of requirement for healthy standards of buildings and if you don’t meet it then you fall below.”
- “Part of the process is empowering the City to use the [acquisition] mechanism. We only use it on a voluntary basis to do retrofits but this has not happened in a long time… What are steps to use tools we already have?”
- “Real estate is the newest form of investment. It becomes no longer a place to live, but a place to make money.”
- “There is the dynamic of disinvestment, whether in neighbourhoods or in individual buildings, as a way to hasten tenants into vacating the building so they can be re-rented to others at a higher rate.”
Getting consensus also depended on getting active participation.
“While Wellesley Institute does have research funding, CMHC’s support made the broader Solutions Lab possible,” says Kate. “It allowed us to hire SHS Consulting and provided money for communication, as well as engagement with tenants and other participants – which was very successful, because we couldn’t have gotten the same level of participation without paying them.” Kate emphasizes that the tenant participants were paid an hourly living wage, plus childcare and transportation, to encourage representative participation and an equal voice. “With the big owners and City representatives all being paid by their employers, this brought tenant volunteers to the same level and showed the value we put on their time and expertise,” says Kate.
The City helped to bring landlords and building owners to the table, but not all of them. Some corporate landlords were not interested. However, as Kate puts it, “It was an achievement to get them to the table, to sit with the city and tenants. They didn’t agree on everything, but they were certainly enthusiastic about sharing what the solutions to these problems were.”
Arriving at solutions
Initially, there was broad agreement on about 10 solutions – far too many to work with. “First we grouped some of them. Then we went for consensus, posting them around a room and discussing each in detail. Then the participants ranked their choices.” For the release of the final report in December 2020, the participants were able to narrow the many suggestions down to a core of 5 practical ideas:
- Set and enforce standards for healthy housing quality, using a comprehensive, data-driven approach and bring the worst performing buildings to a healthy state.
- Centralize funding and loans for renovations and deep retrofits aimed at healthy housing quality and affordability.
- Establish healthy housing quality tenant hubs and a centralized network to support tenants on healthy housing quality issues.
- Set up mechanisms to acquire aging and distressed housing from building owners unable or unwilling to provide healthy housing quality, to ensure adequate repair and ongoing affordability.
- Establish a permanent committee dedicated to cross-system dialogue to support the preservation of quality affordable rental housing and further the other solutions.
Kate says that, as a researcher, she wasn’t that surprised by the solutions arrived at. “At Wellesley, we can do a research piece that verifies the value of each of these 5, but a research piece would not have generated this much buy-in. We have more contacts of interested participants than ever and many are champing at the bit to continue this work.”
Moreover, the Lab has generated high expectations, which Kate hopes will transform into sustained interest and partnerships. “There has to be some real advocacy before the City will pick it up,” she says. The Solutions Lab proposes a round table, representing tenants, landlords and building owners, the City and researchers that would guide the roll-out of each solution and possibly take on new ones.
Moving to action
The aim of the Solutions Lab was not merely to identify solutions, but also to set the stage for action. For each of the 5 solutions, the next step is to fund a demonstration or pilot in the real world, which can be tested before the solution is rolled out more broadly.
For example, says Kate, “Everyone’s most excited about buying slum landlords’ buildings and turning them over to non-profit providers and affordable housing. I think we can do a pilot of one building where the City thinks we can make the most difference, throw everything we have at it and have a wonderful showcase.” However, she’s also cautious, because retrofitting a building is one of the more expensive solutions, with costs ranging from $16,000 to $140,000 per unit. “Possibly this could be financed through loans, as was done in the 1960s and 70s,” she notes.
“The enforcement solution is practicable because the mechanisms are already in place”, says Kate. It’s mainly a matter of getting enough RentSafeTO officers to make healthy housing standards enforcement possible and having the resolve to do it – but it can also involve reviewing how other cities have approached the same problem and finding mechanisms to make it work.
Many of the details have yet to be worked out, including who will lead the work, how to fund it and how to maintain public interest and political will. These solutions will require a nuanced, long-term approach, with a sustained commitment, since the deterioration of Toronto’s rental stock is a complex problem that took decades to come about.
Project Team: Wellesley Institute
Location: Toronto, ON
- SHS Consulting
- City of Toronto — Municipal Licensing and Standards Division
- Toronto Public Health
- Erica Phipps, Principal Investigator, RentSafe
- Greater Toronto Apartment Association
- Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations
- J.D Hulchanski, Principal Investigator, Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership
- Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now Toronto
Get More Information:
Learn more: The Wellesley Institute.