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Q&A with Jennifer Keesmaat: Sustainable Housing in Toronto

Ahead of our Building a Sustainable Toronto: Plans for a Better City by 2030 virtual panel event, we chatted with Jennifer Keesmaat, an urban planner who spent five years as Toronto’s Chief City Planner. Ms. Keesmaat joined us to share some of her insight into how Toronto could tackle challenges when in comes to affordable housing.

Why do you believe there needs to be more affordable housing in the Greater Toronto Area?

As an urban planner, I’m preoccupied with the evolution of places and how we can be increasingly making them more sustainable, resilient and inclusive. We’re going through a phenomenal moment in history where we are accelerating change that has, historically, taken much longer to bring to the forefront. There is an increased awareness around the need to plan our cities differently from the perspective of social infrastructure, mobility and affordable housing.

Over the past several decades, there has been a fundamental break between average income and the average cost of housing in Toronto. Historically, we used to be able to calibrate housing supply to population demand. We wanted to ensure we were building a new house for every new family arriving in the GTA, ultimately ensuring we were providing sufficient housing for everyone. More recently, certain events changed that dynamic. Among them is that there are incredibly low interest rates, resulting in many people treating housing as more of a financial tool and investment than as a home. This can result in things like vacant homes. So there has been a break between supply and demand.

For example, online vacation rental properties have taken housing off the market for short-term rental use. This means a house that may have traditionally been a rental unit in the housing market where someone could live and raise their family, is now being used more like a hotel. These kinds of changes have obscured how people access housing while driving up the cost of housing overall. This now means we have to mitigate those implications and think about how we intentionally, and very carefully, provide access to affordable housing.

What steps do you believe need to be taken to see this vision of sustainable housing come to fruition?

One of the biggest things we need to do is build affordable—usually rental—housing that is earmarked for average-income earners, and we need to ensure that that housing stays affordable in perpetuity.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect sustainable housing in Toronto?

This is an interesting question because it has been great in some ways and horrible in others. In dense urban centres, having excellent access to public transit is a fundamental part of creating sustainable spaces. It has been an incredibly difficult time for public transit as we have all been staying home during the pandemic, and because our transit system’s operating revenue is funded by people paying fares. On the flip side, precisely because we have been staying home, our environmental impact, resulting from long commutes, has decreased. This demonstrated, in a profoundly vivid way, the impact that designing our cities around cars has had.

Can you speak to any community engagement challenges faced by sustainable housing organizations in Toronto?

I think the tide is turning on this. Historically, we did not do a good job of carefully integrating affordable housing into mixed-income communities.

One of the good things is that there is a broadening and growing awareness that people who need affordable housing are our neighbours, colleagues and families, and might even be us at various points in our lives. There has been a real shift over the past five years and, as that awareness has grown, some of the stigma surrounding affordable housing has decreased. It has also resulted in the awareness that we really need affordable housing for middle-income earners. In some ways, precisely because access to housing has become such a concern and such a pervasive issue in Canadian society, communities are becoming more open-minded and open-hearted towards redesigning communities to specifically accommodate affordable housing.

UNACTO is hosting a virtual event on the topic of sustainable housing. What do you think is most exciting about the way the event is structured?

The event is structured to link a variety of critical and necessary objectives to build a sustainable city. We cannot build a sustainable city if we’re not building affordable housing. We cannot build a sustainable city if we’re not talking about vulnerable communities and how to create inclusive communities. We cannot create a sustainable city unless we talk about economic activity and how to drive it in a sustainable way. The panel has been structured very specifically to link those issues and address these questions and topics in a powerful way.

Edited by Ali Shahrukh Pracha


Interested in learning more about sustainable housing in Toronto? UNACTO is hosting Building a Sustainable Toronto: Plans for a Better City by 2030, a virtual event on 4 February 2021. We will be joined by a respected panel of thought leaders, innovators and academic researchers to hear their insights and expertise on Toronto’s approach to urban planning, affordable housing and sustainable living. All registered attendees will receive a personal link to join the event via Zoom. Register here.


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