How To Solve Toronto’s Affordable Housing Shortage With Olivia Chow
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This is an election year in Toronto so I am trying to sit down and talk to all the candidates for Mayor to hear what they have to say about the condo market and related issues. This week I spent a few minutes talking to Olivia Chow about Toronto’s affordable housing shortage.
Olivia Chow Interview Highlights
1:00 Recent Reviews of the True Condos Podcast
2:06 Who is Olivia Chow?
3:25 What’s It Like Running for Mayor of Toronto?
4:28 Olivia Chow’s Thoughts on the Toronto Condo Market
5:38 Is Condo Developement Good for Toronto?
6:40 How Is Development and Transit Connected?
8:12 Olivia Chow’s Plan on Addressing Affordable Housing in Toronto
11:50 The Regent Park Model of Development
15:30 How Do We Build More Larger Condo Units?
How to Leave a Review for The True Condos Podcast on iTunes
Olivia Chow Interview Transcript
Andrew la Fleur: Hey, and welcome back to the show. This is an election year here in Toronto, and so I’m trying to sit down and talk to all the candidates for mayor to hear what they have to say about the condo market and related issues. This week, I spent a few minutes talking to Olivia Chow. For all the show notes on this episode, go to TrueCondos.com/Olivia.
More on that in a minute, but first, once again, thank you to everyone who’s listened, who’s shared, who’s reviewed this podcast. I really appreciate it. I’ve received a great response so far to this podcast. I’ve got about 10 episodes now. The podcast has been featured in the New and Noteworthy section of iTunes quite a bit, and so thank you very much for that. It’s all because of your support.
Speaking of reviews, we did receive a couple more lately. The first review here is from someone with a very creative name, by the name of Asians Can Be Sexy Too, believe it or not, but their review says, “I’ve greatly enjoyed the insights Andrew has provided to me over the years, as well as the expertise he brings to the table with his guests. It certainly helps me understand the complexities of real-estate investing in Toronto. Keep up the great work, and keep the podcasts coming.” Well, great. Thank you very much for that review.
Another reviewer by the name of Morrow App says, “Just listen to the podcast with Jared Menkes. Great information and it sounds like Andrew’s a natural at interviewing.” Thank you very much for all your reviews and all your support for the show. If you’d like to leave a review, you can do so on iTunes. I made a video that shows you exactly how to do that, and you can watch the video once again on the show notes for this episode at TrueCondos.com/Olivia.
Okay, now to today’s interview. I probably don’t need to introduce Olivia Chow, but just in case you don’t know who she is, Olivia is a former member of Parliament and a former Toronto city councillor. She gave up her seat in Parliament earlier this year in order to run for mayor of Toronto. She’s also the widow of former NDP and federal opposition leader, Jack Layton.
Currently, in the city of Toronto, there’s a waiting list of about 170,000 people for affordable housing. However, there’s just approximately 1,000 to 2,000 new affordable units being constructed each year. Olivia has recently announced that if elected mayor, she would create 15,000 new affordable housing units in her four-year term. That would represent approximately a four-fold increase from the current rate of construction, so naturally, I asked her about this ambitious plan, amongst other things. Check out all the show notes for this episode once again, TrueCondos.com/Olivia, and here it is: my interview with Olivia Chow.
How are you? How you doing?
Olivia Chow: Good. Thank you.
Andrew la Fleur: Great. How’s the campaign going?
Olivia Chow: Really wonderful and lots of energy, and people really want change.
Andrew la Fleur: Yeah. I just thought I’d … an interesting question to ask. Maybe you don’t get asked this a lot, but what’s it like to run for mayor of Toronto?
Olivia Chow: What is it like?
Andrew la Fleur: What’s it like?
Olivia Chow: It’s fabulous because you get to see every corner of the city, and there’s lots of neighborhoods that are just fabulous. I get to talk to people of all different ages, different background, and living in different conditions, and they are just marvelous. They all have this desire for change and that they are saying that it’s time that we invest in people, especially seniors, young people, and children. I’m hearing that over and over.
Andrew la Fleur: That’s great. Great. I know you’ve ran for different offices in the past. How does this campaign compare to the other campaigns that you’ve been involved in? I mean, is it …?
Olivia Chow: A campaign is a campaign. It’s no different.
Andrew la Fleur: Okay. No difference at all?
Olivia Chow: No, not really.
Andrew la Fleur: Okay. Now, obviously, this podcast is about the condo market. A lot of developers, condo investors, real-estate agents listening to this show. What are your thoughts on the Toronto condo market? Everybody seems to have an opinion on it. It always seems to be a hot topic. What are your thoughts on the condo market and on the development boom that is sort of never ending in the city? What are your thoughts?
Olivia Chow: Well, I’m not a pundit. I can’t project whether it’s going to go up and down or whatever. I just know that it gives vibrancy in an area. I represented downtown for many years and that in the King’s area, for example, or Liberty Village, these new residents that are coming into the area really create good energy. It also means that … More density means that they don’t necessarily have to drive to work. A lot of them walk to work or take TTC, which really helps.
Andrew la Fleur: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Do you think that the condo development is a good thing for the city? I mean, some people think …
Olivia Chow: Development is important, that we build, we grow the city. As to what kind of built form, it depends on the area. It depends on what kind of amenities are connected with it, so planning, really we need to follow the official plan. We need to make sure there’s good streetscapes that people can connect with and that there is social infrastructure and hard infrastructure in the neighborhood.
Whether it’s for shopping or for community centers, space, park, libraries, schools, all of those are social infrastructure that are important. As to hard infrastructure, we need the TTC, the public transit, the kind of hard infrastructure that would provide support to move people faster in a sense of community. All of those things combined are important.
Andrew la Fleur: How do you see the role of …? Transit’s always a hot topic. How do you see the role of transit and development working together? How do you see the two connecting and ways that the city can help the development community and ways the development community can help the city?
Olivia Chow: Well, having transit is critically important so that people can move faster, and having more development means that there are people … you have the density. So if we are to build subways, we need to build it in areas that are very dense so that we don’t end up subsidizing the transit riders extensively. In places that are less dense, we’ll have a bus. In a medium density, then we will have a [inaudible 00:07:32], like rapid transit.
Density and public transit are really connected, and what type of transit depends on how dense the area really is, so that’s really the planning. The chief planner, working with our public-transit officials, basically would have an official plan. The official plan would talk about the transit corridors, and we should then build according to where the developments are happening.
Andrew la Fleur: Okay. Let’s talk about something that’s obviously big on your agenda and something you’ve talked about a lot in the past month or so, is affordable housing.
Olivia Chow: Yeah.
Andrew la Fleur: Currently, there’s a waiting list of approximately 170,000 people, from what I understand …
Olivia Chow: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Andrew la Fleur: … waiting for affordable housing in Toronto. Tell us about your plan to address this problem in the city.
Olivia Chow: Well, it’s important that we make sure there’s more affordable housing, and we could defer the development charges for new buildings. That’s if the units are … Let’s say, if 20% of the units are affordable, we’d defer the development charges for 10 years, and we will continue to defer development charges if the units remain affordable. That would make sure there’s mixed-income housing.
It would also help build more rental housing. As you know, some of the condominiums are rented … Some of the units are rented out anyway. The city needs more rental housing, so I think that’s one way to achieve it, by smarter density and better deferral of development charges.
Andrew la Fleur: Okay. Can you flesh that out a little bit? How do you see that playing out? I’ve seen the number 15,000. Your target is 15,000 affordable units. Is that correct in the four years?
Olivia Chow: That’s right. That’s right.
Andrew la Fleur: Which would be, I guess, a major increase from what’s being built right now.
Olivia Chow: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Andrew la Fleur: How do you see it actually playing out?
Olivia Chow: What do you mean?
Andrew la Fleur: Well, if you can just flesh it out a little bit more in terms of how are you going to encourage such a big increase in the units?
Olivia Chow: I think I just answered it: the deferral of development charges. So there’s financial incentive …
Andrew la Fleur: For the developers.
Olivia Chow: … for the developers to build. Also, if we can speed up the approval process, that also means money, and it’s important to make sure that the approval process is not so excessively long. Right now, getting the zoning approved from application to final approval in City Council takes many years. Also, even just getting a building permit takes a long time, so all of that can be sped up.
Andrew la Fleur: Okay. Do you think that’s enough to …? I guess the problem with the developers I speak to seems to be just the lack of incentive, financial incentive, to build the affordable housing, as opposed to building what they’re used to building. Do you think that’s enough to encourage developers to make the switch from building market housing and condos to affordable housing?
Olivia Chow: Have you talked to them recently? I believe that … I spoke to … especially people that build rental housing, that they like the two-prong approach: faster approval and smarter zoning plus deferral of development charges. They said the combination of these incentives … Because time also means money, and they said, “Yes, that is the way to go.”
Andrew la Fleur: Right. Yeah, because like you said, a lot of the development process can take many years to get through, and that slow-down is really costing developers money, as well.
Olivia Chow: Absolutely.
Andrew la Fleur: Now, you’ve also said you’re a big fan of the Regent Park model of development, I believe.
Olivia Chow: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Andrew la Fleur: What is it that you like about that model, and can you see that model being used in other areas of the city, as well?
Olivia Chow: Absolutely. If you’ve been to Spectrum, it’s spectacular, and the new park is just beautiful, and the aquatic center. There’s so much joy in the neighborhood right now and so much pride. Regent Park used to be … People, when they talk about Regent Park, they are worried about safety and all that, but there’s really amazing tenants, a lot of talents living in Regent Park that hasn’t been celebrated enough. Now, they have a good space, like Spectrum, to celebrate it.
Regent Park, because of the redevelopment, has a combination of subsidized housing, affordable housing, and also condominiums. That concept of mixed-income housing in one neighborhood really comes from the co-op movement, which is the mixed-income housing within a building. We know it worked. Co-ops have been celebrated since the ’70s around the world, and we could go back to that philosophy. Using that philosophy, Regent Park has been revitalized. As a result, also 500 jobs were created. Alexandra Park right now is going through the same process. The residents agreed to do so.
Andrew la Fleur: Right, so Queen and Spadina, Alexandra Park?
Olivia Chow: Queen and Spadina. Yeah, that’s right. Daniels is the corporation that did Regent Park. Tridel is now working on Alexandra Park, and Lawrence Heights is next.
Andrew la Fleur: Right, Context Developments. Yep.
Olivia Chow: Absolutely. All of these three developers are very reputable. They’ve been in the market for a long, long time. They’ve done a phenomenal amount of work, and so I think that’s the way to the future. Prior to the mid ’70s, there were a lot of buildings that were built by the Ontario government, which were called Ontario housing.
Andrew la Fleur: Right. Yes.
Olivia Chow: They were basically an entire building of subsidized housing, and we know that model did not work. The city of Toronto, the old city of Toronto at the time, built a lot of mixed-income housing called City Homes, and they worked perfectly. So we just need to take these old models built by the Ontario government, now downloaded to the city, revitalize them, make them mixed-income neighborhoods, put social infrastructure on the ground, places for people to meet.
Andrew la Fleur: Like Daniels Spectrum you related to?
Olivia Chow: Absolutely.
Andrew la Fleur: Those types of facilities that really can change the make-up of a neighborhood?
Olivia Chow: Exactly, and the condos in the buildings … Look at Liberty Village; they have retail on the ground. That’s important. We can’t go and build buildings without eyes on the streets. Retail on the ground makes sense. But there were lots of rental housing or subsidized social housing, government housing that have been built that had no retail on the ground, so we need to completely renovate and renew those buildings.
Andrew la Fleur: Right. That’s great. One last question before you go, just to get you thinking a little bit here. You get asked a lot of questions every day. Is there one question that no one has asked you yet, but that you wish they would?
Olivia Chow: How do we build more bigger apartments, condos, so that families can live there?
Andrew la Fleur: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Olivia Chow: I know a lot of families that … They start in a condo, one person. Then they got connected, and they got married to a person. Maybe with a den it’s okay, maybe one bedroom, but when the baby came …
Andrew la Fleur: Where do you go?
Olivia Chow: … where do you go? They don’t want to move to Brampton because they might work downtown. They don’t want to go buy a car. If they wanted a car … They may even have a car. They don’t want to drive it every day and spend two hours commuting.
Andrew la Fleur: Right.
Olivia Chow: So how do we work together to have condos or rental housing that are bigger? How do we reverse the incentives that right now give financial incentive to build smaller units? I think that’s really important because we have families. We want children to be able to live downtown, too.
Andrew la Fleur: Yeah, absolutely. On a personal note, yeah.
Olivia Chow: And not downtown. I mean all of the city of Toronto, places where there are now condominiums and high-rise apartments.
Andrew la Fleur: Yeah, on a personal level, I totally agree with you. That issue has come up time and time again on this podcast, talking to different developers, talking to Jennifer Keesmaat. It is a big issue, and it’s a big question that everyone seems to be asking, but I think we need a lot more ideas around how to actually solve the problem and get families back into the core and get different options for families other than $800 million homes in the city, which is just not an option for most people now.
Olivia Chow: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think there are some ideas out there, and you will get from me … If I am your new mayor, this is one of the key areas I would focus in, in terms of housing.
Andrew la Fleur: Great. Well, thank you very much for your time today, Olivia. I wish you all the best in the campaign, and I appreciate everything that you’ve shared with us today.
Olivia Chow: Thank you, Andrew.
Andrew la Fleur: Okay, there you go. That was my interview with Olivia Chow. Once again, for all the show notes on this episode, head over to TrueCondos.com/Olivia. Thanks for listening, and we’ll catch you on the next episode. Bye.
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