‘We don’t take a lot of lessons on tolerance’ from Americans: Ontario housing push to avoid ‘poor doors’

Imagine two kids walking home from school. They’re heading to the same building, but they have to take separate entrances.

Handout Handout Ontario Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Ted McMeekin.

One goes up to the costly, market rate condos; the other to affordable housing units, through the “poor door.”

It’s an uncomfortable side effect of some policies in American cities — policies that require developers to include a set number of affordable units or build an equal amount elsewhere — and one that hopefully won’t be exported to Ontario.

The province announced Monday a $178-million overhaul of its affordable housing strategy (planned to be voted on before MPPs leave for the summer), including a promise to allow cities to enable inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to build a set amount of affordable housing alongside all full-prices units in all new buildings. The change will simply allow not require cities to make the change. In the United States, most recently in New York City, that has led to some buildings that create separate, essentially unequal, entrances for the lower-income residents. In that city, those separate entrances were dubbed “poor doors.”

“We haven’t contemplated the ‘poor door’ concept being part of this,” said Ted McMeekin, minster of municipal affairs and housing following Monday’s announcement. “That would run counter to what we’re trying to do.”

I don’t care what they’re talking about in New York City. We’re going to do what we want to do here and we don’t take a lot of lessons on tolerance from our American friends these days

“I don’t care what they’re talking about in New York City. We’re going to do what we want to do here and we don’t take a lot of lessons on tolerance from our American friends these days,” McMeekin said.

Inclusionary zoning is just one plank of the revamped strategy. The province will pour $100 million into as many as 1,500 new supportive housing units — living spaces that allow for independence but also access to medication or nursing or counselling. Another $45 million will bolster the existing Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative while $17 million will fund a portable housing benefit pilot project for survivors of domestic violence. That will allow recipients more choice as to where they live since the money goes to them individually as opposed to being tied to a specific building or unit.

“It is bold and it is transformational,” McMeekin said during the announcement at a Toronto shelter and community centre. He said municipal, provincial and federal politicians are aligned for the first time in decades, and the new Liberal government in Ottawa has promised a national housing strategy. So much so that the new provincial initiative is designed to be rolled into a federal plan or quickly scaled up should the feds invest a lot of money into the initiative.

(Dave Sidaway/ Postmedia News(Dave Sidaway/ Postmedia NewsOntario's move to allow inclusionary zoning — a policy where cities require a certain per cent of all new units be affordable housing — has tapped into an American debate over “poor doors.”

But among all the reforms announced Tuesday, inclusionary zoning could prove both the most effective at addressing soaring housing costs — and the most controversial.

Inclusionary zoning as a planning theory dates to the 1970s, when a number of U.S. cities first started requiring developers set aside a portion of new builds for affordable housing.

Since then it’s taken on many forms and fallen in and out of fashion. As housing prices skyrocket in cities across the continent, from San Francisco to Vancouver to Chicago and back to Toronto, it’s again in vogue. It seems like a simple premise, but it’s proven complicated to implement.

In some U.S. cities, wealthier residents have protested adding affordable units in their neighbourhoods; in others, anti-poverty groups have rallied against new condo units in poor areas and the inevitable gentrification that comes with them.

In practice, inclusionary zoning has increased access for some low or middle-income people. In some cities, the spaces go to middle class professionals — like teachers or nurses — who end up buying the mid-range units, while in others it’s low-income individuals in subsidized housing who benefit the most.

The underlying tension is often the same and is best represented by that “poor door” idea — a moniker born of a debate over a development in New York City that would have created separate entrances. It became a symbol of inequity that, despite the novelty of the name, is far from new. In that city, backlash eventually prompted a rethink of the policy and a recent move at the state level to ban “poor doors” in the future. It’s something Ontario could consider as it drafts a bill to enable cities to enact inclusionary zoning.

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Even in that province, where inclusionary zoning has been nudged from idea to promise, there are existing condo buildings in Toronto with separate entrances for, say, penthouses. Mixed-use buildings constructed under existing tax credit schemes — sometimes referred to as a form of inclusionary housing policy — already exist across the province.

But inclusionary zoning goes much further in that it requires a set amount of affordable units in all new buildings in a certain part of a city.

New Democrat Cheri DiNovo, who has championed the idea for eight years and tabled five bills to allow cities the choice to implement it, said she’s waiting to see the government actually table its legislation.

“It will only be a victory when the bill is tabled,” Dinovo said. Done right and quickly, she said, “Inclusionary zoning… would be a game changer.”

About Ashley Csanady