Deeply affordable housing is mostly infeasible to build.
This is why you don’t see the market naturally building this kind of housing on its own. It, for the most part, doesn’t make any economic sense to do so. So this is also why the US has fabricated things like low-income housing tax credits. They are a way to make up the economic shortfall that exists with low-income rental housing and get the private sector building this kind of housing.
We sometimes try to convince ourselves — or maybe it is a way of shirking responsibility — that there can be such a thing as no-cost affordable housing through things like inclusionary zoning. But I think we all know that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody is ultimately going to need to pay. The big question, of course, is who should that be?
By definition, we acknowledge that the people who will ultimately live in these affordable homes cannot afford to pay market rates. So by default, the subsidies will need come from somewhere else. But again, from where and from who? Should it be specific people who pay or should it be mostly everyone who pays?
If we return to the Toronto building industry’s favorite topic right now — development charges — you’ll see that under the current rates, every new 2 bedroom or larger apartment that is constructed must pay $3,727 toward affordable housing. Under the proposed rates, this will increase to $12,545 for every new large apartment. It’s by far the largest proposed percentage increase (237%) and also one of the largest service items.
This raises two interesting philosophical questions.
One, should the buyers of new housing be responsible for contributing to affordable housing in this way? Because what we are in effect saying to these people is, “Hey, you can afford to buy a new market rate home, so we’re going to collect some additional money from you — $12,545 to be exact — so that we can try and help those that aren’t in the same position as you. We’re also going to mandate additional affordable homes within your building and we’d like you to subsidize those too.” This is one way to redistribute wealth.
But if the goal is to try and create more broad-based affordability, an alternative approach might be, “Hey, you already own a home and it has gone up a lot in value, so we’re going to collect some additional money from you over time so that we can try and help those that aren’t in the same position as you.” This would be the property tax approach. It’s probably not perfect, but might it be a more fair and equitable way to redistribute wealth?
The second interesting philosophical question has to do with whether this is consistent with the dogma that growth should pay for growth. The idea behind development charges (also known as impact fees in some parts of the world) is that they should pay for the cost of new development. This makes complete sense. When you build new housing you certainly need some additional stuff — everything from additional school capacity to emergency services.
But the question here is whether the construction of new housing in and of itself creates a direct need for more affordable housing, and therefore should be charged for it. Asked in the opposite way, if you weren’t building this new housing, would you then no longer need this affordable housing, just like you no longer need that additional school capacity?
This is definitely not the case. In fact, I would argue that the opposite is true. If you don’t build any new housing in a growing city, you actually exacerbate the problem of affordability. So here’s a provocative thought. Rather than a charge, should this affordable housing line item actually be a credit towards each new project given that it benefits affordability?
While it may not make any economic sense to build affordable housing, I think that many of us would agree that it makes a lot of social sense to build affordable housing. We know that our cities are at their best when they are both diverse and inclusive. The problem is that we can’t agree on who should pay for it.