Top developer says Toronto’s new housing plan needs private support

Last month, the City of Toronto approved a $30 billion new housing plan that positioned the city as a public builder and called for significant funding from the provincial and federal governments, voting in favour of building 65,000 rent-controlled units by 2030. Jennifer Keesmaat, developer with Markee Developments, gives us her take on the viability of the housing plan. 

Is the new housing plan a good one?

The plan is, to me, less relevant than the mechanisms that are put in place to ensure successful implementation. This plan requires phenomenal amounts of federal and provincial money, which I do believe needs to be allocated to housing in the city of Toronto. But if those monies don’t materialize, which is a real possibility, is the whole plan a wash? 

The plan mentions a few asks of the provincial and federal governments, including reintroducing rent control and putting restrictions on house flipping. Are there any other legislative asks that you think are missing?

In addition to things like rent control, which are absolutely critical, we also need a ban on Airbnb, because it’s being used in such a way that they are taking rental housing off the market. The initial concept with Airbnb was the idea that if you had an extra room in your house, or for a period of time you weren’t using your home, that we could create a more efficient economy by allowing others to use that space for a period of time. But the opposite has happened, which is that housing has been taken out of the rental market, and is not being used as efficiently because the majority of time it is sitting empty because it’s more profitable to be using it periodically. There have been attempts to put legislative measures in place at the municipal level, including attempts that that I made when I was chief planner, that have truly not been successful. It’s very clear that we need we need some type of regulation, I would argue at the national level, to ensure that every home that gets built in this country serves as housing as opposed to a primarily a financial asset.

Now, restrictions on flipping is kind of funny because it’s too little, too late! That would have been valuable five years ago or three years. But it’s irrelevant right now. No one is flipping homes right now, the math simply doesn’t work.

What about the idea of turning the city into a public builder again?

In the housing crisis, the objective should be to have all hands on deck. Now the question becomes, does the city have a strategic advantage in some way in being able to deliver housing? We don’t have any indication that that’s the case, but if the City of Toronto can structure themselves in some way to be an effective developer of housing, that would be a good thing. I think it’s fair if Torontonians are skeptical, because the City of Toronto has not been able to do something much more simple than that, which is to simply partner with developers on their land. We have an industry that is exceptional at building housing, and in an ideal scenario, we would be recalibrating with that industry to ensure that they don’t have any roadblocks to being able to build new housing, which currently we know there are a lot of public sector roadblocks to building new housing.

What do you think about the plan’s minimal references to the private sector?

From my understanding, the city’s objective is to complement the private sector by taking a more active role in building housing. If we were to successfully implement the building of housing through a public agency, but we stymie the private sector — who has built, in my lifetime, 100 per cent of the housing that we’ve had — if we make it difficult for the private sector to build housing, this crisis will only get worse, even if the public agency is completely successful: because it’s impossible for any public agency to replicate the scale of housing, even just from the perspective of access to land — the vast majority of land in the city is privately owned. Given that being the case, ensuring that we continue to advance collaborations between the public and the private sector to deliver affordable housing specifically, that is going to be foundational to the success of the future of the city.

What would that collaboration ideally look like to you?

The good news is that part of this housing plan recognizes the importance of the City of Toronto partnering with the private sector on city-owned land, in particular, to deliver affordable housing. That’s the sweet spot. That’s bringing together the asset that the City of Toronto has, the public interest with respect to affordable housing, and the expertise of homebuilders. 

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO