Cities need workers. Workers need housing. But is ‘workforce housing’ the answer?

OPINION: A new report recommends that the city build more homes for the workers. Here’s why policymakers should tread carefully
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jan 24, 2020
The GTA added 325,000 jobs between 2016 and 2019 but only 102,000 homes. (J.P. Mocszulski/CP)

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Strip out the romance of urban aesthetics and lifestyle, and it’s pretty easy to explain what makes a city: people and businesses in close proximity so that companies can find customers and workers can find jobs more easily. It’s not exactly poetic, but it explains a lot about what makes cities work — and how they can stop working.

What happens, for example, when workers can’t find affordable places to live at reasonable distances from their jobs? Companies still need workers, and workers still need homes, but, in Toronto, housing has become so unaffordable that even those pinkos in the business community are becoming alarmed by the prospect of losing talent. Hence, earlier today, the Toronto Region Board of Trade released a report urging policymakers to think harder about the need for “workforce housing” — that is, homes that are affordable for the workers businesses rely on (and not just for tech and finance workers pulling six-figure salaries plus benefits).

Today’s report is just the first of three the Board of Trade will be releasing in the coming months, and one statistic more or less sums up the problem: the GTA added 325,000 jobs between 2016 and 2019 but only 102,000 homes. Workers are pitted against one another in bidding wars, and even the tight spaces in your average new condo tower are increasingly out of reach.

It’s an obvious area for policymakers to focus on — and not just in the 416. But the devil is in the details, and not all workforce housing is the same. The Board of Trade report cites such cases as Whistler, British Columbia, where local employers have to either build new housing or pay a levy so that the local housing authority can build affordable homes, and a school district in San Mateo, California, that built its own housing project for teachers who’d been priced out of the local market.

There are many different models, and the distinctions between them are important. One thing Toronto’s leadership should avoid from the outset is tying people’s housing directly to their employment status: workers already worry about losing their jobs; having to worry about that and losing their homes would be a disaster.

There’s an analogy with health care here: Canadians are rightly protective of our system, which provides a certain level of medical care regardless of our employment status — under the model in the United States, by contrast, the vast majority of people’s health insurance is provided as part of their employment, and that has serious consequences for workers and the economy as a whole.

To their credit, the Board of Trade authors are quite clear that the idea of workforce housing raises serious ethical questions.

“Having employers become landlords for workers and their families could increase the workers’ vulnerability. It could have a limiting influence on workers’ abilities to accept a better job if their housing would also be at risk, particularly if they are already marginalized,” the report notes.

Co-author Michelle German, vice-president of policy and strategy at Woodgreen Community Services, acknowledges that any workforce-housing policy would need to be structured carefully to avoid such problems.

“It’s a fine line to walk,” German says. “But what we really need to do is consider the end user. Who are we building the housing for? We need to consider what kind of life they deserve to live, in a neighbourhood where they can live, work, and play.”

“But,” German adds, “realistically, given land prices in Toronto, we’re unlikely to see projects led by one employer or dedicated to one specific group of employees.” She suggests that more flexible and co-operative models may be the way forward.

It’s still relatively early in Toronto’s debate over workforce housing, and, while questions of ethics (or even justice) should be part of the discussion, they shouldn’t shut it down. But it’s worth dwelling on the fact that, for everyone involved, this is, at best, an unsatisfactory Plan B — unfortunately, it’s also a necessary one because the city’s housing market has failed so spectacularly to meet the needs of its residents.

So, while it makes sense to consider the theoretical harms that could arise from a badly implemented form of workforce housing, we shouldn’t let that obscure the very real harms inflicted on people every day in a city where shelter is being priced out of reach.

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