Affordable housing is a problem right across the country. In Toronto, one of the candidates for mayor has suggested a solution. Edward Keenan writes:
When mayoral candidate Josh Matlow unveiled his “Public Build Toronto” proposal Wednesday — part of a larger affordable housing and rental program he’s been releasing in stages — it would be easy to say at best it looks like a good start. A $300-million “seed funding” kick-start to a program to build 15,000 units of rental housing on city land is modest — such a build-out would likely cost billions, whereas Matlow’s proposed seed funding turns out to be the cost of hosting five World Cup Games, give or take.
But it was noteworthy to me because it proposed the city government tackle the housing crisis in part by building new affordable housing on land it already owns. Not give the land to someone to build on. Not sell it to someone to build on. But build on it ourselves, with the city acting as a developer. That’s the kind of proposal we haven’t heard a lot of in recent decades from governments around here.
Sometime around the 1990s, the prevailing wisdom moved away from direct government construction of housing — and direct government construction and operation of virtually anything. Looking at actual evidence of cumbersome or inadequate public infrastructure projects, we all rode the pendulum to the other extreme, enamoured suddenly of the idea that the private sector was the best and only purveyor of such work, and where the public couldn’t privatize a whole area of service entirely, it should hire companies to do the work for it in “public-private partnerships.”
The results are everywhere around Troonto -- huge homes that only a fraction of us can afford -- and no new public housing:
The city’s open data portal offers information on Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) units by the date their construction was completed: you see hundreds and often thousands of units per year constructed from the 1960s through the early 1990s, and then virtually nothing for more than a decade, and then only a handful of units over the past 10 years or so. We used to build lots of public housing as the city grew, and then, while the city continued growing, we just stopped.
This is a crisis of our own making:
As with so many things, much of the blame for this can be placed at doorsteps other than the city’s own — Mike Harris at Queen’s Park and then Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien in Ottawa pulled the funding and made the regulatory changes that virtually ceased the construction of public housing and co-op housing in Toronto. But virtually cease it did.
And meanwhile, a few decades later, how are those public-private partnerships looking in general? Well, the Eglinton Crosstown LRT may open someday, maybe. If we’re lucky. It’s hard to tell, because no one in the provincial government is saying much about it at all, after years of budget increases and years of delays. This follows a model of provincial project management jobbed out to the private sector that has become the stuff of horror-story legend in the city of Ottawa after that city’s own still-unfolding LRT construction nightmare.
It's clear that neo-liberalism has been an ugly failure -- and that government, when properly supervised -- can do good work.