Affordable housing comes with Games

There is some good news coming for people waiting for affordable housing. And they will have the 2015 Pan American Games to thank.

Who would have thought it, given the fight that went on to stop the 2008 Olympic Games from being staged here? A decade ago, the Bread not Circuses group argued that what the city needed more was affordable housing and not a colossal event that would have the economy ‘on steroids’ for a few, brief weeks. Taking their argument to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Bread not Circuses people sank any hope we might have had of hosting the Olympics. In their show of disunity with the Toronto bid, they made a convincing enough case to the IOC that the money would be better spent on the poor. These Olympics opponents did not see in the plans for the 2008 Games any specific attention to Torontonians most in need.

However, this time, things are different.

The section of the West Don Lands where the Pan Am Games Athletes’ Village will be built will be transformed from former industrial lands into a mixed-use neighbourhood with a range of housing after the games end.

What is key about the approach in this massive construction project is that even before Toronto won the bid for the Pan Am Games, plans had already been laid out for the construction of the community. With the games being held here in 2015, construction has received a boost toward the completion date. Construction on the 80 acres of the West Don Lands was planned as three phases to be completed over a 10- to 12-year period. However, with the 2015 Pan Am Games now set for Toronto, more than half of the community will be in place in time for 2015.

That it will, in part, benefit the poor is positive news since it is quite doubtful that governments will ever put up billions of dollars for public housing but they will for games events, which then could be used for the poorer among us. So, after they get their ‘circuses’, the poor might indeed get some ‘bread’.

It may seem far-fetched, but given the tremendous need, perhaps it would be in the interest of those who seek affordable housing to support Toronto’s bid for these world-class events. Perhaps what they should focus on, instead of trying to clip the wings of those who want to bring worldwide attention, tourist dollars and investments to the city, is developing working alliances with those interests so that whatever package they present in their bids will also feature capacity for creating affordable housing and other supports for the less fortunate. With collaboration, all may benefit. It is possible that we can have both bread and circuses.

After the 2015 Games, the development plans are for a community made up of approximately 20 per cent affordable rentals, five per cent affordable ownership and the rest as market value condominiums.

We have already seen such movement with the revitalization of Regent Park, the largest public housing project in Canada, and the rebuilding of Don Mount Court, a Toronto Community Housing site located at the eastern edge of the West Don Lands site.

Other affordable rental units to be operated by non-profit housing corporations will be located in two buildings. But even before those units are completed there are plans by Toronto Community Housing for 243 units in three buildings. Sitting, as it does so close to Regent Park, this THC construction is a logical extension.

Most of the people on the city’s Rent-Geared-to-Income (RGI) waiting list are seniors, at close to 50 per cent. With the first set of baby boomers turning 65 this year the urgency for creating affordable housing cannot be overstated. Most of the individuals who have applied for RGI housing have an annual income of $20,000 or less.

Realistically, all of the affordable units created within the larger project will be just a drop in the bucket for the almost 70,000 households waiting for affordable housing. But it is a step in the right direction.

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