If you build it, they can come.
Rather than solving the housing problem, maybe government just needs to get out of the way
As the current story goes, we are in a housing crisis. But recently, I have begun to wonder if that’s the whole story.
That housing prices in Toronto are incredibly expensive is undeniable. That we have a growing number of people living without a fixed abode is evident to anyone who spends time walking through our city streets and parks. And that people we depend on - like teachers, artists and nurses - are sprawling outside the city to cheaper land is also apparent. But all of that is not a crisis, it’s just the current state of affairs.
A crisis is a raging fire we need to escape from. A state of affairs is something that’s going along as is. If we are unhappy about a state of affairs, we have the opportunity to change it if we act thoughtfully. As with any of the other urban issues facing us - like safety, or environmental degradation, panic isn’t the way forward. The tone of the conversation around housing tends to be alarmist which doesn’t serve us. And with the passage of time and an observation of what works and what doesn’t, I have begun to question whether expecting government to house people is the right approach at all.
When it comes to housing, what can government do, and what can’t it do? I think it’s time for someone to admit that what government can’t do is house everyone. Ultimately, where we each live is up to us individually. We are the only ones who we can hold fully accountable for whether we have a roof over our head. We need to start with individual responsibility and find a role for government that supports individuals finding their own solutions. So I see government as less about creating housing for people, than it is about supporting the ability of people to create housing for themselves, and those they care about.
So what would a government that supports the ability to create housing look like? First of all, it would look like a city that allows the possibility of housing everywhere the ground has already been covered (ie, not parks, ravines, waterfront - more on green space to come in another essay). We have more than enough property covered in asphalt or structures to accommodate housing units for more people. So we start by making clear that housing is allowed wherever people want it.
Secondly, it means we remove the complicated, time consuming and expensive regulatory regimes that dramatically slow the creation of new housing, that slow housing improvements, that stop people from renting out rooms in homes, and that prevent people from living in their workplaces. I suggest a transition to a city free of most of these rules. But a city with few rules around housing must involve a recalibration of our expectations of both what government can do, and what level of safety it can provide. As long as we expect government to reduce risk to near zero - be it housing or anywhere else - we are going to be weighed down by bigger and bigger bureaucratic systems. Those systems may not measurably improve safety, but they do cause delays, expense or outright abandonment of new housing projects. Of course, I want housing that will not encourage fire to rage through the entire city, and condos that will not collapse on neighbouring properties. But there must be ways of ensuring we maintain the most essential safeguards with a small fraction of the regulatory system we have now.
The third way that government can act is through tax policy that ensures more housing. Government can discourage speculation and hoarding in real estate through taxation. And it could overhaul the property tax system so that built spaces are taxed according to land, not property value. If we as a society are genuinely serious about finding housing for more people, all that we would need to do is to tax based on the land that’s built on, not on the number of units that are there. This would mean the virtual elimination of single family homes since one family would not be able to bear the tax burden of valuable Toronto land. But perhaps this extremely wasteful use of land does deserve to go the way of the dodo. The loss of single family homes, if done in conjunction with expanding green space and supporting civic amenities, could result in compact living spaces where we get our entertainment, recreation and green space from outside of our house, rather than basement rec rooms and backyard pools.
I’m open to other potential opportunities for government to support the creation of housing, including encouraging co-ops, creating supportive housing for those with mental health or addiction issues, accessible housing for seniors or people with physical disabilities, and other types of housing that an unfettered private market might not naturally provide. But I’m not sure that we should be spending billions of tax dollars on building housing, or incurring the massive environmental cost of new construction. And I’m not sure that government has the time or staff to manage, monitor or maintain new housing units when we are doing such an apparently terrible job with current public housing. So my housing vision does not involve championing the expenditure of new money or creation of new housing administrative departments.
When we ask government to solve our housing problems we are forgetting our own agency, as well as that of everyone else in the city. We have options like buying or renting housing from others, creating housing with our own hands or hiring builders, or forming co-ops or co-ownerships. Then there are the less attractive options - moving outside of Toronto and commuting in, or in the worst case scenario, sheltering under a bridge (not an option I want for myself or anyone else by the way). The more we have a government that allows more of the former options, the less chance there will be of people being forced into the latter ones. When we focus on government being the sole solution for where people live, we give government much power but get little in return. Isn’t it time to try another way?
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