This pandemic has highlighted a number of issues that need to be prioritized — among them the need for a home and financial security. Back in March, the City of Toronto established the Housing Action Team (HAT) to address the intersection of these difficulties. In August, the team released its findings in the Housing and People Action Plan.

Noble intentions

The HAT, chaired by Deputy Mayor Ana Bailão, was formed to “flag new and emerging issues, collectively identify solutions, and plan for longer term recovery.” Its report highlights guiding principles, including the importance of housing as a human right; housing stability during a pandemic; the need to strengthen supportive housing; and the importance of aligning housing, health, and economic programs and policies.  

The HAT also raised the importance of finding long-term housing solutions, as well as the need to address racial disparities among people experiencing homelessness and to create housing opportunities for Indigenous peoples that are “designed, developed, and operated by Indigenous Peoples and organizations.”

In an email to The Varsity, Bailão’s office wrote that the HAT “is focussed on solutions as they relate to people (people experiencing homelessness, renters and operators/landlords) and the creation of a diverse set of affordable and market rental housing opportunities.”

A plan for all seasons

The plan used a ‘housing-first’ approach to homelessness, whereby people experiencing homelessness are placed in long-term housing situations rather than temporary shelters. It called for a number of immediate measures, such as increasing support for rent banks — which provide low-interest loans to low-income households — to keep up with demand during the pandemic. The plan also seeked to minimize the number of eviction orders filed as temporary bans on evictions lift.

The HAT suggested the implementation of a multi-tier “temporary rental assistance program” similar to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Suggested tiers of the program included ones for people transitioning between the CERB and other government benefits — like Employment Insurance and the Canada Recovery Benefit — and another that would provide assistance to renters who do not qualify for other benefits.

The plan also recommended increasing and accelerating investments under the 2017 National Housing Strategy, which aims to cut homelessness by 50 per cent across Canada. Specifically, it recommended increasing grants, streamlining the decision-making processes for projects that are already in development, and allocating uncommitted funding within the next six to nine months.

Other recommendations included expanding current financial assistance programs and allocating funding to retrofit and renovation projects and supportive housing projects. The plan stressed a “housing as homes” approach that places local needs above investments.

Potential pitfalls

The Varsity spoke with Alan Walks, a professor in the Department of Geography & Planning and a co-lead of the Affordable Housing Challenge Project from U of T’s School of Cities. He said that, in regard to addressing homelessness in the city, “there is a danger here in what might be called a go-slow incremental approach because the pandemic has really affected the landscape quickly — and now, we’re heading into winter.”

Loren March, a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography & Planning and the project manager for the Affordable Housing Challenge Project, wrote to The Varsity about the City of Toronto’s response to the pandemic. “I think [Toronto] has underestimated the intensity of the crisis of homelessness in the city and it takes a largely prevention-based approach which does not do much for unhoused people immediately.”

Toronto the Good-enough-for-now

Walks praised the rhetoric of long-term goals in respect to addressing homelessness in the city and racial disparities among people experiencing homelessness, as it laid the foundation for future policy to address these issues. 

He said that, when the City of Toronto’s plans are actualized, “if they truly do take to heart the idea of a right to housing, and making sure that traditionally marginalized communities are better served, and are actually served in a way that recognizes that right to housing, I think then the long-term visions that will emerge will be beneficial.”

“The city is maybe starting to come to terms with the fact that market rates are increasingly incredibly unreasonable and not doable for a very large part of the city’s residents – but it would be helpful for them to incorporate more ‘affordability in perpetuity,’ ” March wrote. 

Walks also identified that, due to the pandemic, dealing with housing affordability is difficult due to the nature of planning during a pandemic, as well as the issue of costs. “The pandemic has meant that cities are facing greater need in exactly the same time where the revenues have dropped,” Walks said. “So the funding issue is huge.”

“It’s hard to say what’s going to happen in the future,” Walks said. “So much is uncertain and depends on the timing of the pandemic and everything else.”