Russ Ford's Blog

Why Mimico is Important to All of Toronto

This week the City released the secondary plan for the area in south-west Toronto known as Mimico.  This lake front community is currently dominated by a number of low rise, affordable rental housing units.  Directly to the east stands Toronto's  waterfront condo wall and if some have their way a similar future awaits Mimico.

Not surprisingly the Planners' plan  did not strike a chord with everyone.  The developers with the support of the local councillor,  see the plan as unworkable.  They say they  cannot afford to build if they have to meet the requirements of the plan.  Local homeowners  also oppose  it.  They say it  allows the developers to build too much.  The tenants who live on the site are trying to ensure that they are allowed to remain in their community  rather than being pushed off to a less desirable location somewhere else.

Three groups and  three very different agendas. No common ground  but politics dictate that two of the three groups will  have to be satisfied for this to move forward.  History tells us which one will be left out.

At the conclusion of the meeting one councillor tried to bridge the divide by  attempting to build consensus.  Consensus meaning not what  anyone necessarily wants,  but something everyone could live with.  Her "consensus" was to move some of the affordable rental units off site, thereby reducing developer costs which in turn could  reduce the need for a higher density.

Consensus?  I do not think so. Requiring  developers  not to replace all of the rental units on site does increase  their bottom line and means they can still be  very profitable without going to extreme densities. That is a consensus that may fly  between the developers and the homeowners  but it leaves the tenants having to uproot their families.

It is however a marked improvement from a plan  by the local councillor, Mark Grimes, who proposed earlier at council that developers be provided with incentives to build condos in Mimico.  Such a notion is not only completely unnecessary,  but it walks all over the city's planning guidelines.  His motion was soundly defeated but at the meeting last week he kept referring to Mimico as a unique place that really needs  its own  planning rules.  In other words, not the rules that govern development in the rest of the city.  It reminded me of the Prime Minister tearing up Kyoto and saying we need a "made in Canada solution to the environment."

Mimico is unique.  It is likely the only area left on the city's waterfront  that has a large amount of affordable rental housing on it.  The rest  is dominated by high income housing often in the form of condos. Mimico is also unique  because unlike other tenant communities , this one is engaged. The local tenants' organization, W6CAT, boasts over 500 members. They have drawn over a 100 people to their meetings. Yet their political influence is still marginal.

I am not against giving incentives but governments should give out incentives  in order to promote positive social change that market mechanisms are not or cannot provide.  The market is providing high end condos, no incentives  are needed  to build more on the waterfront.

What the market is not providing is affordable housing.  Developers say they cannot make economic sense of it.  They say they cannot build and then rent at a price that people would consider affordable. From the research I have done for this blog, it appears they are correct.  Construction and land costs does make building affordable housing not economically viable.

So if incentives for development is on the table, why not provide them for the  right reason which is to protect existing affordable units and build new ones.   That is what we need as more and more people find themselves unable to make ends meet because of high housing costs. If  incentives were sufficient the developers would likely be ambivalent as to what type of housing they build as long as it makes money; the homeowners would get the density they are comfortable with and the tenants get to remain in the community they have lived most of their lives.  Win-win-win.

The City is  hardly in the position to provide such a level of incentives. We have to turn to the two other levels of government which have both embraced the ill conceived  austerity agenda, a plan right out of the Margaret Thatcher school of economics.  Our federal and provincial governments are not now in the business of economic stimulation.  They are both  bent on cutting government expenses at a time of market decline. In other words,  lets further destimulate an already slow economy. 

I started this blog by asking the question why Mimico is important. It is important to the city because if some get their way,  precedent will be set and our planning policies will  be worthless. If Mimico were ever to get some special planning status,   it will turn into the  wild west  of development.

If tenants are displaced to another community, it may conform to the city's rental replacement policy guidelines but violates its intent which is to protect tenants.  It further  violates any notion of a mixed income community and clearly sends the message that Toronto's waterfront is not for tenants.

Unlike the future condo dwellers, these tenants already exist in Mimico.  They have been there for many years. It is their community.  They shop in local stores; their children attend local schools.

In the broader sense Mimico provides an opportunity to open up the discussion on the role of government in development.  Toronto has an affordable housing crisis and Mimico provides an tantalizing opportunity for a public response to the market's inability to address this concern.

The provincial  government can do what the citizens of this city require, facilitate the development of affordable housing  or it can stand back, be true to its relatively recent adoption of austerity and let the market decide.

If they choose the latter, the future of Mimico is clear. The developers will build their luxury condos, the homeowners may win some concessions on density and the tenants will be dispersed and displaced.

That's not a future most want and it is certainly not a consensus.  The alternative is for the provincial government to do what they did previously under the leadership of David Peterson and Bob Rae-invest in housing.  Get people back to work by providing good paying construction jobs. And in doing so help create a real community in Mimico.

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