Special to CaDCR
Micro cabins, mobile homes and modular construction could be a bigger part of Toronto’s long-term strategy to deal with an increasing homeless population and an overcrowded shelter system, the city’s economic and community development committee heard this week.
The committee is considering a 10-year, $674.5-million capital plan to transition a portion of the city’s emergency temporary shelter space to permanent city owned facilities with a maximum of eighty beds. The aim is to alleviate suffering, ease pressure on the shelter system and lower costs. Toronto’s shelter capacity expanded by more than 3,000 spaces during the pandemic, but city staff say capacity remains well below demand.
The development committee hearing took place while the city released a staff report outlining actions it says are necessary to restore housing affordability after what it calls decades of insufficient government investments across the housing system.
The report, Generational Transformation of Toronto’s Housing System to Urgently Build More Affordable Homes, responds to Toronto city council’s direction to develop a plan to approve 25,000 new rent-controlled homes in addition to what was already planned, thereby increasing the total housing target to 65,000 new rent-controlled homes by 2030.
The report will be considered by the city’s executive committee on October 31 and by council at its meeting starting November 8. The report includes estimates of funding needed from each order of government to be between $500 million and $800 million per year, in addition to repayable financing.
“We urgently need to build more affordable housing faster, so people in our city can find a home they can afford,” Mayor Olivia Chow said in a statement.
“We’re coordinating all city divisions to pull in one direction – building housing faster – and we’re setting new priorities to build rent-geared-to-income and not-for-profit housing. This report lays out a housing roadmap and we invite the federal and provincial governments to join us. Working together, we can quickly deliver thousands of units of affordable housing over the next few years. We’re ready to build.”
The housing plan recommends 22 actions to accelerate the development review and approval of new homes. These include dedicating more city-owned land to create new affordable homes, accelerating the delivery of “housing ready” projects on city and not-for-profit owned land and streamlining processes and technology to expedite approvals and housing delivery.
Of the 65,000 new rent-controlled homes target, funding has been secured to deliver 4,455 homes. The estimated cost to deliver the remaining 60,545 homes is between $28.6 billion and $31.5 billion across the next seven years and requires contributions from all orders of government, the report says.
Homeless advocates, meanwhile, told the development committee that people are seeking shelter in doorways, on transit and in emergency rooms across the city and are lined up and camped out outside of the city’s 129 Peter Street assessment and referral centre.
“The shelter system is full, and the existing long-term capital budget is insufficient to meet the needs of the system and those who rely on it,” says the Shelter Infrastructure Plan and the Homelessness Services Capital Infrastructure Strategy submitted to the development committee.
Approved with amendments and to be considered by city council next month, the plan would see 1,600 permanent shelter spaces added to the system between 2024 and 2033, with most to replace the 1,280 temporary spaces expected to be lost through planned hotel site closures. Cost estimates include site acquisition and construction and would primarily cover permanent sites to replace 1,280 beds in temporary hotel sites, in addition to a further 320 beds in other projects.
Demand for shelter beds continues to grow at unprecedented rates, city staff say, with shelters now serving more than 10,700 people. An average of 275 people are being turned away from Toronto’s shelters each night amid an influx of refugees, a chronic shortage of affordable rental housing and increases in the cost of living.
There are about 9,000 people in the shelter system in addition to 1,700 who are in hotels and other programs supported by the Canadian Red Cross. About 40 per cent of shelter beds are occupied by refugee claimants. Demand for shelter space will increase even further this winter as it does every year.
“The report seeks approval for a plan to exit from some of the very high-cost short-term temporary shelter programs and instead build out the number of purpose-built permanent shelters,” Gord Tanner, general manager of the city’s shelter, support and housing administration, told the meeting.
“There are growing concerns for the long-term sustainability of our existing shelter infrastructure. The city’s current long-term capital plan is insufficient to meet the needs of the system and the people that rely on it,” he said, adding that new approaches are needed in providing shelter infrastructure.
Those could include micro homes, very small, insulated dwellings that are being tested in municipalities including Hamilton and Waterloo to house the chronically homeless at least temporarily through the winter.
“They’re being used by people who have been living in parks and encampments who might resist coming into a shelter at all,” Tanner said.
Depositions to the committee also proposed the expansion of the city’s modular housing initiative that can cut costs and the time it takes to develop new shelter spaces, according to city staff. But Coun. Shelley Carroll cautioned that the city needs to conduct thorough due diligence to avoid cost overruns on such rapid housing projects that use prefabricated houses built in a factory and transported to a site for assembly.
In any case, said committee chair Coun. Alejandra Bravo “building out city-owned spaces instead of relying on short-term leases and rentals is an important goal. We can provide better shelter services and it’s better value for money.”
“Over a 10-year period, the cost difference of renting a temporary hotel ($37 million) can exceed the cost of developing a permanent new shelter,” the report said, adding that roughly 60 per cent of the spaces in its shelter system are held in short-term leases, with the remaining 40 per cent in permanent sites. The proposed plan would push the ratio to 60 per cent purpose-build, long term facilities.
Affordable housing researcher and advocate Melissa Goldstein told the meeting that the proposed shelter infrastructure strategy’s capital spending target fails to fully meet today’s need “never mind the need ten years from now.”
The strategy envisions permanent spaces for just about 60 per cent of the 2,054 people she said are in hotel shelters to “leave the city leasing expensive hotels indefinitely.”