‘Hidden experts’ have Big Ideas – and some small ones – for affordable housing
When Nicole Stewart imagines the future of Toronto, she likes to think small — really small.
The policy development officer in the City of Toronto’s Affordable Housing Office wants to see “tiny homes” built in backyards and laneways across the city. The teensy-tiny abodes could be between 100 and 800 square feet, made from recycled materials and energy-efficient.
“The possibilities are endless in terms of what you could make. But they’re much more affordable than what the market is currently offering,” she said.
Stewart talked about her passion for living small on a recent evening inside Paintbox Bistro, a bustling restaurant inside the revitalized Regent Park. The Star met with her and two other “hidden experts” to pick their brains about their big ideas for housing in Toronto.
In a city where cranes and real estate prices reach into the sky, it can be hard to imagine a future with any affordable housing downtown. Ninety thousand people are waiting for social housing, and bidding wars on homes often spiral out of control.
That’s why the Star sought ideas from so-called “hidden experts”: people within organizations who are the eyes and ears on the ground.
Throughout March and April, the Star will be speaking to hidden experts about the city’s most pressing concerns, from public transit to arts and culture. But we need your help to track down these unsung city-builders and are accepting nominations at thestar.com/bigideas.
It’s part of a city-wide brainstorm the Star kicked off Jan. 1, when we declared 2014 the Year of the Idea. In partnership with the Martin Prosperity Institute and Evergreen CityWorks, we are featuring ideas from experts and readers alike in the paper and on thestar.com.
Inside Paintbox Bistro, Stewart was joined by Lindsay Denise, volunteer treasurer for the Co-Operative Housing Federation of Toronto, and Neil Pattison, director of development at the Daniels Corporation.
Denise kicked off the debate by sharing her big idea for the city: transforming some Toronto Community Housing into co-operative housing, to give residents control over repairs and management of their buildings.
“The people living in co-ops are the ones governing co-ops. So people living in a community are the ones sitting around a board table and deciding what their community is going to look like,” she said.
Her idea is based on her own experience living in co-op housing. As a student new to Toronto eight years ago, she moved into a campus co-op and learned how to chair board meetings and read financial statements.
In Canadian co-ops, residents don’t own a share, but they become “members” and elect a board of directors. Members make decisions about how the buildings will be maintained and how the business of the co-op will be managed. Plus, co-ops are nonprofit, so rents are only raised to cover operational costs, and tenancies are stable and secure.
TCHC already has three partnerships with co-ops, including the Atkinson Housing Co-Operative in Alexandra Park. The co-op has been a huge contributor to that community’s revitalization, Denise said.
“They’re a really strong voice in a really strong community. So, I don’t think it’s extreme to say you could do that with other properties within the TCHC collection,” she said.
Pattison connected his own ideas about mixed-use development to his upbringing in a small town in northeast England. He grew up in a small home, within walking distance of shops and businesses.
He believes Toronto must embrace mixed-use development to build a city that is affordable and livable for everyone.
“You don’t separate your residential areas from your employment areas and your retail areas. You mix them together. That’s what enables places to flourish,” he said.
But Pattison said there is no one “big answer” to Toronto’s housing problems. “There’s lots and lots of little answers,” he said.
He offered a number of “little answers,” such as inclusionary zoning that would require affordable housing units in new buildings, as long as it’s fair and equitable to developers in different parts of the city.
Pattison also suggested the city cut the red tape to developers, to reduce the cost of development — savings that would be passed on to buyers. For example, the city could drop the parkland requirement for midrise buildings on avenues.
But his biggest idea was rooted in the surroundings of the debate: Regent Park. Daniels Corporation and TCHC led the community’s revitalization, and many longtime residents were able to become homeowners through a unique second mortgage program.
Buyers were able to secure an interest-free second mortgage of up to 35 per cent of the purchase price of their home. The loan was structured so the owner would pay it off with the proceeds of the eventual sale of the unit.
Funding for this program was provided by the city with money from the provincial and federal government. Pattison recommends growing the “affordable housing fund” and expanding the program.
“The key to breaking the cycle of poverty is to give somebody a step up,” he said. “If you can elevate somebody from being a perpetual renter to a homeowner, it’s pretty powerful thing to do.”
As for those teensy-tiny homes, Stewart pointed out that more than half of the 90,000 households on the social housing waitlist are requesting one-bedroom units. It costs about $220,000 to build one unit of affordable housing in Toronto.
So, Stewart asked: why not build some micro-homes and get two or three units for the same amount of money?
“What I’m suggesting isn’t any sort of shanty town or RV home in the city. I’m talking about really well-made, well-designed homes,” she said.
The phenomenon has exploded across the U.S., Europe and in some Canadian cities like Vancouver. But Toronto’s building code still contains some provisions that prevent landowners from building tiny homes.
The city does have a “Tiny Town,” on Craven Rd., near Gerrard St. E. and Coxwell Ave.,the largest concentration of detached houses under 500 square feet in Toronto. The homes were built for manual labourers at the turn of the 20th century.
With the crushing reality of real estate prices today, Stewart suggested it was time we embrace small dwellings again. It costs between $15,000 and $80,000 to build a 500-square-foot home, she noted.
But she recognized tiny homes aren’t for everyone.
“There’s a whole range of people that we want to serve, that have different needs within the city,” she said. “It’s really about having a toolkit and being able to pull from that.”
Story by: Laura Kane, Toronto Star
With files from Rachel Mendleson
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