This is the third instalment of New Roots, a series from Global News that looks at how evolving migration patterns and affordability challenges have changed life in communities across Canada since the COVID-19 pandemic.
And experts say the city could risk seeing an exodus of diversity and talent if all levels of government don’t work together to fix the issue — and fast.
We “don’t have decades” to fix the problem, Matti Siemiatycki, professor of geography and planning and director of the infrastructure institute at the University of Toronto, told Global News.
“People are being priced out of housing markets, they’re having trouble finding places to rent, they’re leaving the cities where they grew up, or where their opportunities for employment are.”
While the city has been facing high costs and a lack of supply for years, the problem has only intensified since COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were lifted and immigration targets were ramped up.
And even though Toronto’s housing market slowed last month amid higher interest rates, prices have risen overall in the last year.
Housing options are out of reach for many and with record levels of immigration in Canada expected in the coming years, experts say the problem is only expected to amplify if further action isn’t taken.
It’s a complex problem that all levels of government say they are working to address, but the impacts of this crisis are already being felt, both in terms of short-term shelter and permanent housing options.
“We’re going to need all hands on deck, all different models, because we’re in a crisis and we need to solve this quickly,” Siemiatycki said.
What’s happening in Toronto?
The glaring lack of housing options in the city has compounded in recent weeks, with hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees left without a safe place to stay.
Amid the summer heat, hundreds of newcomers were shuffled between churches and hotels as private, non-profit and public workers sought to secure shelter for them.
Innocent Amuda found himself among the hundreds of people living on the streets in Toronto after arriving from Uganda.
Speaking with Global News in mid-July, Amuda said “it’s not good to sleep on the streets.”
“You can’t sleep on the streets, would you? Of course not,” he said. “Me either, but it’s the option that’s available.”
However, Amuda was optimistic about the situation.
“In every tunnel there is always light at the end,” he said.
In an email to Global News on July 31, the City of Toronto said there were more than 3,000 asylum seekers in the city’s shelter system, adding that “demand continues to be high.”
“Close to 300 individual callers seeking a bed are left unmatched for shelter space each night – 45 per cent of whom are refugees,” the email read.
In mid-July, 150 shelter beds were made temporarily available. Work was also underway to secure additional beds.
“Space has been secured at two hotels, as well as at a City emergency shelter location,” the city said.
As of July 31, the city said 245 asylum seekers had been referred to indoor space.
How immigration is impacting the city's housing crisis
The housing crisis in the city predates the current spike in immigration numbers, Siemiatycki noted.
“But now we’re experiencing even greater pressure,” he told Global News. “The number of immigrants of all types has increased – including refugees and asylum seekers – and this is putting additional pressure on all of the systems here in the city.”
Siemiatycki said as the city continues to grow, it’s “imperative that we find housing for everyone who’s both living here already and those who are coming too.”
Jason Mercer, chief market analyst for the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board, said in the Greater Toronto Area there has been a “strong demand for ownership and rental housing” over the last decade, as the population continues to grow.
“But we haven’t seen the supply of homes keeping up,” he said. “When I talk about supply, I’m talking about new home construction, but also the ability to see people sell their existing home and move into something that better meets their needs.”
As a result, Mercer said there are “very tight market conditions.”
“There’s a lot of competition between would-be home buyers and would-be home renters,” he said. “And a lot of that’s built up over the past number of years because we haven’t seen the supply keep up with population growth.”
Mercer said because of this, there has been an “upward pressure” on both home prices and rental prices.
With the federal government’s goal of resettling almost half a million newcomers in Canada each year, Mercer said it’s important that the housing supply keeps up with population growth.
“There’s an economic development imperative to attain immigration,” Mercer said. “Over the long term, you need to see your population grow in order to see the economy grow, and so it’s important that we continue to see new households coming to the Greater Toronto Area.”
What’s more, Siemiatycki said high levels of immigration can be part of the solution to the housing crisis.
“They can be part of some of the people who build the units, they may be in the skilled trades, or in various parts of the housing system, whether it’s in finance or insurance or in other parts of the housing system based on their experiences and skills or engineering,” he said, noting the current lack of skilled labour.
Mercer said affordable units are important to build for newcomers to give them the opportunity to settle in and seek employment, but overall, he said polling has shown the propensity to purchase a home is higher for those who immigrate to Canada compared with those who were born here.
“It’s a goal of a lot of newcomers to purchase that brick-and-mortar investment,” he said.
Mercer said if those looking to immigrate don’t feel they can plant roots in Canada’s large metropolitan areas like the GTA, they may look elsewhere.
“To a certain degree, that source of population growth, that source of economic growth could slow,” he said.
Building more homes
Mercer said the lack of supply in Toronto has already caused an expansion outward beyond the Greater Toronto Area, with more individuals looking for a place to live in the wider Greater Golden Horseshoe. But there, too, market competition is now present.
And the recent rise in interest rates won’t have a long impact, Mercer said.
“Over the long term … housing demand is really driven by population growth,” he said.
When it comes to building more housing, Siemiatycki said Toronto should “really focus” on publicly owned lands, saying there are “huge opportunities to intensify.”
He pointed to Victoria, B.C., as an example, where housing has been built on top of a fire station.
“There are libraries with housing up above, there are schools with housing up above, and there are shopping malls – a number of shopping malls in this region are now being reconceived with housing and park space at their core as well as retail, so that’s where I think we can we can really have an impact at scale, as well as all the infill types of projects and missing middle that’s getting built as well.”
Along with cutting red tape to expedite housing starts, Siemiatycki said we need to ensure the units that are approved actually get built, are adequately financed and have a workforce in place to build them.
“This is a really tangled and complicated sector,” he said. “It crosses the public, private and non-profit. And in those spaces, things can be difficult, but we need to bring them together and much quicker because of the urgency of the crisis.”
In an email to Global News, Victoria Podbielski, a spokesperson for Ontario Housing Minister Steve Clark, said the province is “taking bold action” to get 1.5 million homes built by 2031.
Podbielski said the ministry has introduced a “range of measures” geared toward increasing the province’s housing supply and speeding up approvals through its housing supply action plans.
“With more than 500,000 people arriving in the province over the past 12 months, Ontario is growing at an historic rate – yet in recent decades, Ontario’s housing supply has fallen far short of existing demand,” Podbielski said.
Podbielski continued, saying progress is being made, but that “there still is more work to do.”
She said tackling the housing supply crisis needs to be a “joint effort that takes all levels of government, including our municipal partners.”
“In Ontario, social and affordable housing is administered by local service managers (SMs), such as the City of Toronto,” Podbielski added.
“The province provides funding to SMs that gives them flexibility to design programs based on local needs and priorities in order to address and prevent homelessness in their communities, such as rent supplements.”
The City of Toronto said in an email on July 31 that it looks forward to supporting the federal government’s immigration goals, but “in a constrained housing market, it is imperative that immigration policies go hand-in-hand with new and enhanced investments in affordable housing.”
The city said it has two housing action plans that, together, “will enable housing creation that will meet or exceed the province’s target of 285,000 homes over the next 10 years” and also supports the federal government’s National Housing Strategy.
The Housing Action Plan 2022-2026 includes on removing policy and zoning barriers and leveraging public land to “unlock housing supply across the full housing continuum,” among other initiatives.
“The plan includes housing initiatives which allow for gentle density in all Toronto neighbourhoods such as the introduction of permissions for multiplexes (up to four housing units) across Toronto neighbourhoods,” the city said.
“Increasing the ‘right’ supply of housing in Toronto with the necessary infrastructure to support growth requires new policy, program and financial tools from all orders of government, as well as participation from the Indigenous, non-profit and private sectors.”
A spokesperson for the federal Office of the Minister of Housing and Infrastructure and Communities said that there is “a real need for additional safe and affordable housing” in the city.
“That’s why, since 2015, we’ve invested nearly $5 billion to build, repair, and subsidize nearly 100,000 homes in Toronto, including a $1.34 billion investment in partnership with the City of Toronto to renew and repair more than 58,000 affordable housing units managed by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation,” the spokesperson said in an email.
The spokesperson said cities like Toronto are “on the front lines” when it comes to addressing homelessness and “while services for this vulnerable population is the jurisdiction of provinces and territories, the federal government recognizes the urgency of the issue and has stepped up.”
Federal homelessness funding for cities has been doubled, and through the Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy, the feds are investing over $290 million to address homelessness in Toronto, the email said.
“In July, we launched the $4 billion Housing Accelerator Fund (HAF), which will provide funding to cities like Toronto to develop innovative measures to unlock new housing supply and fast-track the creation of 100,000 new homes across Canada,” the email continued, adding that all levels of government must work together to solve the housing crisis.
“We know that closing our doors to newcomers can never be the solution to the housing crisis. It is crucial that we recognize that immigration is key to helping us build the housing we need, because newcomers are undeniably part of the solution,” the spokesperson said.
'All-hands-on-deck' approach needed
Siemiatycki said amid these stock and cost issues, it needs to be an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to ensure large projects and secondary suites, multiplexes and laneway housing are completed faster.
Along with building more homes, Siemiatycki said public transit investments must be intensified, too, as people are being priced out of the city.
“We really need to be going quicker, and this requires deep collaboration across all orders of government, and with the private and non-profit sectors who ultimately are going to build most of the housing,” Siemiatycki said.
Mercer echoed Siemiatycki’s remarks, saying all levels of government, “from a policy perspective,” have acknowledged the need for an uptick in home construction but they are “not acting quickly enough.”
“We have seen great strides from all three levels of government in terms of policy direction over the past few years,” Mercer said. “But now that policy direction needs to translate into shovels in the ground as we move through 2023 and into 2024.”
When it comes to building more stock, Siemiatycki said the city “needs to be building all housing types across the spectrum.”
“We certainly need homes for people who are employed and have income and means that are still being priced out of the market,” he said. “And there’s also a huge segment of people whose incomes just haven’t kept pace with the price of housing and are being priced out.”
He said there also need to be more affordable units.
“Things like co-ops and community land trust, and non-profit housing, as well as public housing — you’re seeing a whole bunch of models — and the private sector certainly has a big role in our housing system.”
But Siemiatycki said the private sector isn’t going to provide the “deeply affordable” units that so many people need.
What have Toronto's mayor, the province said about the immediate need to house asylum seekers?
In July, Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow met with some of the asylum seekers who were being temporarily housed at a north Toronto church.
Chow apologized to the asylum seekers and refugees, saying there are “absolutely no excuses” and that it is “not acceptable” that they arrived in Toronto and did not have a safe place to stay.
The mayor called upon her federal government counterparts to meet with the asylum seekers.
“Please, join us, partner with us,” she said. “Help us come up with a long-term plan.”
Chow also called on the federal government for additional funding, and for money to create a reception centre close to Pearson Airport to provide services for newcomers arriving in Toronto.
In a joint statement emailed to Global News on Aug. 2, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Chow said “it’s never been more important for all levels of government to work together to fix this crisis.”
The leaders said they welcome a recent federal government investment, calling it a “great first step,” but said it is not enough to shelter and care for the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers that have arrived in Toronto.
“That’s why we are calling on the federal government to build on its stop-gap funding by fully funding the supports needed to shelter and care for these refugees and asylum seekers in the city,” the statement said.
Ford and Chow said Ontario and Toronto are each funding a one-time top-up of the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit to “help move more people into permanent housing and quickly free-up spaces in the city’s shelter system.”
The province and city are each spending $6.7 million to support 1,350 people and families in the city.
“Historically, the federal government contributes two-thirds of the cost of this program,” the leaders said. “To meet this commitment to help even more people move into permanent housing, we strongly urge the federal government to provide $26.7 million in funding.”
The leaders also called upon the federal government to “immediately dispatch” dedicated resources to help refugees and asylum seekers to complete paperwork and process their applications so they can secure work.
What has the federal government said?
In an email to Global News on Aug. 2, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said since Jan. 1, 5,856 asylum claimants have been transferred from Quebec to Ontario “in an effort to equally disperse the responsibility of housing asylum claimants across Canada.”
IRCC said the provision of housing and services to asylum seekers “are generally a provincial and municipal responsibility,” but added that the federal government will continue to work with provinces and municipalities to ensure asylum seekers are housed.
IRCC pointed to the Interim Housing Assistance Program (IHAP), which provided funding to provincial and municipal governments on a cost-sharing basis to “address extraordinary interim housing pressures resulting from the increased number of asylum claimants.”
“The government has disbursed almost $700M overall, including approximately $215M to the City of Toronto,” the email read.
IRCC said in July, the government also announced an extension of IHAP through to the end of March 2024, with a “one-time injection” of around $212 million.
IRCC said it also provides direct support via temporary accommodations and services to asylum claimants.
“As of July 24, 2023, IRCC has a total of 3,861 hotel rooms in six provinces across Canada. In Ontario, IRCC has a total of 2,737 rooms in 17 hotels, and 50 dorm rooms in one dormitory,” the email said.
“The Department also continues to explore options for long-term support to provinces and municipalities who accommodate asylum claimants and other vulnerable foreign nationals.”