Toronto’s turning some of its offices into housing. Advocates say it’s a ‘model’ for other governments

City experts and housing advocates are applauding a move by Toronto council to change the way it manages city-owned buildings — and they’re hoping other cities and government follow suit.

On Wednesday, councillors unanimously passed the next phase of the city’s plan to cut its office footprint from 55 locations to 15, a move it estimates will save more than $30 million annually. Now, the City of Toronto has the go-ahead to renovate eight of its properties in the coming years to create 500 to 600 new affordable housing units while expanding services.

The plan is a clever way forward and other industries should support the city in its plans, says.Leslie Woo, the CEO of civic engagement non-profit CivicAction, who’s also worked in urban planning in Toronto.

“Now we need the city and all its partners to support this effort and not be throwing darts at it,” said Woo. 

“It’s a model that could work for everyone … so let’s see how we can apply it in other places.”

Experts and advocates like Woo say the city now has the opportunity to set a precedent for how other municipalities — and even federal and provincial governments — should use their real estate portfolios as a tool to tackle the national housing crisis.

A Toronto worker is seen here returning to the office. ModernTO’s plan to modernize the city’s buildings and offices received full support from city council on Wednesday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The plan has its roots in 2019, when Toronto Mayor John Tory launched ModernTO to help make better use of city-owned office space. The push to have more city employees work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the effort .

The eight properties proposed for renovation have an estimated land value of $450 million. The sites include: 

  • 610 Bay St., the defunct Toronto Coach bus terminal.
  • 277 Victoria St., Toronto Public Health office.
  • 931 Yonge St., Toronto Community Housing office.
  • 18 Dyas Rd., City of Toronto’s Ravines and Natural Features Protection office.
  • 95 The Esplanade, Toronto and East York District branch of the City’s Building Inspections 
  • 33 Queen St. E., a parking garage.
  • 75 Elizabeth St., city office and open space.
  • 1900 Yonge St., Toronto Transit Commission office.

The city is targeting the top five locations as the first properties slated for renovation, with public consultation on the Victoria Street., Bay Street. and Yonge Street community housing offices to begin this year. ModernTO’s report says depending on the proposed site, timelines to move existing work forces to new accommodations would start in 2023 and continue until 2028. 

The city says the public services it now delivers at these sites, including the harm reduction site at 277 Victoria St., will remain available, and it will keep heritage preservation and communication with the public top of mind before it relocates any services.

Tory says the plan is a significant step forward in making better use of the city’s property.

“This is exactly what people expect us to do here at city hall — find sensible ways to do things in the most efficient way possible, reducing costs so as to keep our city operations affordable, and creating more opportunities for top priorities like affordable housing,” the mayor said in a news release.

Housing advocates hopeful

The approach should become a more popular model for other levels of government, says.David Amborski, the director of the Centre for Urban Research and Land Development and a member of the Housing Affordability Task Force. 

He says governments have begun to take note and follow suit with their own efforts, such as Ontario’s new Centre of Realty Excellence, which the province announced as a way to help manage its extra properties with affordable housing and long-term care in mind. 

“We’ve long advocated for that kind of approach,” said Amborski.

Urban planning experts Leslie Woo and David Amborski say Toronto’s move to modernize its real estate properties needs support from as many people and organizations as possible. (CivicAction/Ryerson University)

“[But] each site is going have its own set of challenges and opportunities. Now, the question is: how can you create value? What programs can you lever? And what partnerships can deal with the public sector, with NGOs, or the private sector?”

At a local level, he says the focus is now on how Toronto executes its plans, and who will help see it through.

Jacob Dawang, a member of More Neighbours Toronto, a volunteer organization calling for housing reform in the city., says while the organization has been critical of the city’s housing plans, he’s optimistic about the proposal. He also says he understands the complexity behind renovating each site.

The Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s headquarters at 931 Yonge St. It’s one of the properties slated for renovation under the city’s plan. (CBC)

“We’re losing more affordable units each year than we’re building, so if we could have this yesterday, it would be great,” said Dawang.

“But credit where credit’s due. They’re moving faster on this than they have in the past.”

The plan is promising but the affordable units that result should be permanently rent controlled, geared to income and given to those most in need, says Ria Rinne, a member of Etobicoke ACORN, an organization that represents the interests of low-income people.

“It would be worrying if the city decides to sell these sites to private developers and we once again miss a chance for deeply affordable housing,” she said in an email.

“We’ll be watching closely to see how things roll out.”

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