A Toronto city councillor is slamming the Crown corporation that helps sell federally-owned properties for trying to sell a prime parcel of downtown land without ensuring the redevelopment will be used to create new affordable housing.
Councillor Joe Cressy is now trying to make sure the Canada Lands Company pumps the brakes on any sale of its property at 200 Queens Quay West to ensure that mandate can be included.
The federal government says the property was initially transferred to Canada Lands by the previous Conservative government, and now its hands are tied — leaving two levels of government pointing the finger at each other while the city remains starved for cheaper housing.
“We have an affordable housing crisis,” Cressy told CBC Toronto.
“In that context, no level of government — municipal, provincial or federal — should be selling off publicly owned land for residential housing without the inclusion of affordable housing.”
Councillors voted unanimously last week to instruct the city manager to write the federal government and all members of Parliament representing Toronto, requesting the sale be put on hold.
Right now, the property on Queens Quay houses an eight-storey parking building that opens onto Lower Simcoe Street. Records show the Canada Lands Company officially bought the land in 2016, when it was valued at $22.9 million — though Adam Vaughan, the Liberal MP for Spadina—Fort York, said that process started back in 2013.
Canada Lands has tapped TD Cornerstone Commercial Realty for the marketing and sale of the property.
In a video advertising the sale, TD called the half-hectare piece of land “one of the last major redevelopment parcels in the area.” Cressy went a step further, calling it one of the most valuable pieces of land in the country.
Making affordable housing a priority
According to TD, the property could house a two-tower development with a 10-storey mixed use podium, with dual 55-storey and 45-storey towers on top.
“The process continues, and the future purchaser of this site will be subject to City of Toronto policies and regulations, which often include requirements related to affordable housing and/or other community benefits, as part of the rezoning approvals,” Canada Lands spokesperson Marcelo Gomez-Wiuckstern said in an email.
Cressy called that response “a cop out,” and said there is nothing to stop the federal government from intervening, as it appoints the organization’s board.
“The national housing strategy that this federal government put in place directly spoke to the need to use federal lands for new affordable housing, and the Canada Lands Company is even named as a partner in that effort,” he said.
“You can’t on the one hand say affordable housing is a top priority and we’re going to use federal lands to help achieve that objective, and then on the other hand, go off and sell them to the highest bidder to build a few condos.”
Housing waitlist just keeps growing
Vaughan accused Cressy of grandstanding, and said if the city is looking for land to build on, Cressy has two vacant sites that have been zoned and approved for housing in his ward that haven’t been touched.
“If you’re looking for parking lots to convert, I can show you about 10 in the riding that the city owns that they’re content to draw parking revenue from, but not build housing on,” Vaughan said.
“There’s lots of land down there to build on, he just hasn’t been building.”
Vaughan said once a federal property is declared surplus and sold to Canada Lands, it sits there and gains value over five years. “I can only imagine what the value is now,” he said. When he was a city councillor, the city tried to acquire the property for Harbourfront Centre, Vaughan said, but that never worked out.
“If the federal government wanted to buy it back now, by law they would have to do so at market value”, Vaughan said.
“It would be better to spend the money on the vacant pieces of property the city does own than spend millions of dollars acquiring a piece of property, and then millions of dollars building on it.”
According to Cressy’s motion on the issue, the city’s affordable housing waitlist now tops 181,000 people and on any given night, over 8,000 Torontonians are using shelters, emergency respites and overnight drop-ins to find a safe place to spend the night.
But Toronto’s auditor general said in a recent report that the city’s shelter, support and housing administration division found there are over 100,000 applicants on a centralized waitlist, comprised of about 195,000 people.
According to a Toronto Housing Market Analysis report from earlier this year, the city’s residents are grappling with a housing crunch that’s on track to get worse if there’s not enough government action, thanks to low rates of social housing and purpose-built rental construction, coupled with rising population growth.
Researchers from the Canadian Urban Institute and the Canadian Centre of Economic Analysis predict Toronto’s population will hit 3.5 million people by 2031 — and nearly four million a decade later. Similarly, the number of households on the social housing wait list will spike, increasing nearly 30 per cent to just under 120,000 by 2031 and to more than 135,000 by 2041.
In its promotional video, TD says Toronto is “continuously rated one of the most livable cities in the world.”
Kemba Robinson, chair of the York West chapter of the anti-poverty group Acorn, says statements like those don’t resonate with all Torontonians.
“Livable for who? If you go down the street and ask 100 people, 99 people will tell you Toronto is too expensive,” Robinson said.
“Toronto is a great city … but if you don’t have somewhere to live, how great is it to you?”