How I spent my summer break


Last spring I got a call from an old friend, Lizette Zuniga, who started the Toronto Community Housing revitalization projects in the Villaways and Allenbury Gardens. She now works for Rooftops Canada, a program that works with the Canadian housing sector and overseas partners to improve housing conditions and build sustainable communities.

Lizette asked if, while Council was on recess during the summer, I could join a team of Canadian officials in Durban, South Africa for two weeks to advise the local government on social and affordable housing development.

In response to a surge in gun violence, all three orders of government pledged $4.5 million in funding for Toronto police.

This was a humbling request. After all, we are not moving fast enough in our own city to create affordable housing — what could I offer? Turns out, our experiences here in Don Valley North with two social housing revitalization projects provided useful lessons.


Durban forms part of the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality, which includes other neighbouring towns and has a population of about 3.7 million people. However, more than half the population live far outside the urban core in areas known as "townships," which were large swaths of land used to segregate black people during apartheid.

An example of township housing in Durban

An example of township housing in Durban


When apartheid ended, many white business interests fled the city. This left the inner core underdeveloped and ushered in a wave of organized crime. Twenty-five years later, the port and two oil refineries drive the economy, and city staff are working hard to reduce crime and increase opportunity to realize Durban’s full potential.

Durban's local government identified large plots of city-owned land both inside the city and in the townships. They devised a plan to provide social and student housing in the city's core to situate residents closer to work and school. Outside the core they are trying to improve retail, employment and transportation as well as middle-income affordable housing. In the townships, the rationale is to provide housing for families who have begun to succeed but want to stay close to family members still living there.

Inner-city Durban

Inner-city Durban


What Durban is doing right

Similar to Toronto, Durban has set up a real estate office and corporation to partner with non-government housing builders and operators to develop the homes. The difference is that, unlike Toronto, Durban will continue to own the land once it's developed. And depending on the site, the building operators will be granted 50 or 99-year leases. This is important because it allows the city to hang on to the value of its land while providing affordable housing today.

I envy Durban's insistence on long leases. In recent years, Toronto has negotiated with some developers to include a set number of affordable units in their projects — but only for 25 years.

121 Parkway Forest Drive

121 Parkway Forest Drive


In all of these cases, the developer owns the land and controls the fate of the units when the affordable term expires. At 121 Parkway Forest Drive, for instance, I was overjoyed to negotiate a mix of rent-geared-to-income units when I was a rookie on Council. Twenty-five years seemed like such a long time then — now, I fret because 15 of those years have already flown by.

The missing middle

Now I'm back in Toronto facing the reality of our own housing needs. Mayor Tory and City Council unanimously agree we’ve got to act fast. To that end, we voted last December to activate 11 city-owned plots of land and develop a mix of market-rent and affordable homes on them.

Our method of proceeding is not ideal. We will not maintain ownership of these lands like our South African counterparts are determined to do. Furthermore, only 37 per cent of the units to be constructed will be deemed "affordable." These units will, on average, rent for 80 per cent of Toronto’s average market rent.

Wilson Heights is one of the 11 Housing Now sites

Wilson Heights is one of the 11 Housing Now sites


We urgently need more of this "missing middle" range of housing. Many of our kids and grand kids are finding that even with post-secondary educations and jobs to match, salaries are not keeping pace with housing needs. Yet even at the small ratio of only 37 per cent affordable, Toronto affordable housing projects are proving controversial.

Facing the facts

Since my return from South Africa, three of the 11 Housing Now projects have been the subject of negative consultation meetings. Rather than work together, some community members came to shout "Why here?" and "What sort of people will move here?"

I have it on good authority that this is what transpired because my own daughter attended two of these meetings.

My eldest daughter is eligible for affordable housing on paper, although no units are currently available for her. She performs a job in one of the best hospitals in North America that she had to go to college for almost three years to qualify for. But in this day and age, even her unionized health sector job does not provide enough for a single mother to pay full market rent.


So to answer the question of "what kind" of people will be moving into those units — it's my kid. It's your kid and all of their kids coming along in the next generation. It's time to face the facts: there is no longer any room for NIMBY-ism in the face of Toronto's housing crisis.

You'll recall that one of the 11 Housing Now sites is in Don Valley North on Esther Shiner Boulevard. When it's our turn to take our first look at the project in 2020, I hope our community will come together to roll up our sleeves and discuss how to make it work.

Change is hard — but our kids are counting on us.

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