To leave or not to leave Toronto in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic? It's a debate that has been not just on the minds -- but also on the lips and in the actions -- of many city-dwellers for the last several months.

But, according to a new report from the Toronto Region Board of Trade and WoodGreen, the trend isn't new (despite what increased conversations surrounding the topic might have you believe).

In fact, Housing a Generation of Essential Workers 2: Modelling Solutions states that essential workers, who earn between $40,000 and $60,000 annually, have been pressured to leave the region since well before the virus arrived. According to the Board of Trade’s Economic Blueprint Institute, there are approximately 330,000 workers in Toronto earning within the range mentioned above; approximately 90,000 of those individuals would be classified as "essential workers."

Considering the aforementioned range of earnings, for someone making $50,000, one-bedroom rental unit affordability only exists in three Toronto neighbourhoods.

"In 2018 alone, home prices went up four times faster than income," reads the report. "Rent increases doubled wage increases."

READ: Toronto’s Former Chief Planner Launches Affordable Housing-Focused Development Group

While the problem has existed for individuals in this earnings range for years, the pandemic has served to highlight the impact these workers have on Toronto's functioning. The report describes the roles of health-care workers, cooks, custodians and social workers -- all people with positions which require leaving home despite the associated risks.

Not only are these workers forced to physically attend work, the Board of Trade says, but doing so could be particularly hazardous for them, as they often live in neighbourhoods with some of the highest COVID-19 transmission rates.

"These same workers are being priced further and further out of the city," the report says.

"One in five Toronto renters live in overcrowded units, where there are more people than bedrooms. When going to work or riding transit increases one’s risk for transmission, being underhoused becomes a legitimate health risk for workers and their families as well."

The Board of Trade and WoodGreen released Housing a Generation of Workers: Defining the Problem in January; an attempt, this document says, to "sound the alarm" on both these workers leaving Toronto, and the impacts of their exodus.

Nine months later, the Federation of Rental-Housing Providers of Ontario (FRPO) released a rental market report warning that Ontario is positioned to face a shortage of 200,000 rental units, further adding to the province’s already deepening rental crisis. The company’s president and CEO, Tony Irwin, said the document should serve as a “wake-up call” to those who influence the development approvals process.

In the Board of Trade's initial report, workforce housing was posed as a viable solution to the problem.

Described as a housing format that captures the needs of households earning above traditional social housing program thresholds, but which still struggle to find suitable accommodation within their budget, workforce housing tends to be dedicated to certain groups of workers. In the new report, the solution sees a doubling-down.

Per the document, workforce housing can prevail with consideration of the following six factors: purposeful building; land maximization; financial scalability; long-term affordability; model replicability; and strategic partnerships.

Various case studies highlight successful transitions toward this form of residence; Artscape Bayside Lofts, Local 75 Hospitality Workers’ Housing Co-op, and Options for Homes (Options) are rated along the aforementioned six factors, and the report comes away with the following suggestions for amplifying workforce housing opportunities:

Leveraging Government-Owned Lands

  • Cost of land is reported as "one of the highest barriers to building affordable housing." As such, government-owned lands provide an opportunity, oftentimes near transit and amenities.

Getting Housing Density Right

  • HousingNowTO reportedly estimates that an average density of 200-250 units per acre is required, at minimum, to achieve affordability for 99 years on an urban site.
  • Using a 3-5 year period for regular development, the data analysis group estimates between 100 and 125 individual project sites would need to be in the development pipeline by 2025-26 to potentially be welcoming residents by 2030.

More Mixed-Income Projects

  • Before its cancellation, Sidewalk Labs' Quayside project proposed 40% of their residential units would be offered at "below market rates." In that case, 20% would be affordable rental housing, 15% would be mid-range rental units, and 5% would be for purchase through a shared equity partnership (which is ideal for those priced out of the housing market).
  • "While this framework stands out as an ambitious affordable housing model that may not be feasible for most developers without subsidies, it is still instructive for assessing the potential of mixed-income projects in Toronto," says the report.
  • According to the Board of Trade, if this formula were applied to all 18,877 apartment and condo units that saw construction commence in 2019, there could be as many as 7,500 new below-market units, including almost 1,000 "deeply affordable" units (typically, rents that are at or below 60% of average market rent).

The document also goes on to highlight the importance of putting resident needs first, leveraging density for mixed-income developments, and creative partnerships -- all of which calls to mind the recently-announced Markee Developments, aimed at affordable housing solutions and founded in-part by Former Chief Planner for Toronto, Jennifer Keesmaat.

Alex Mather, Vice President at Markee, said the development group hopes to influence Toronto's broader rental sphere through leading by example. And The Board of Trade insists such change can happen.

"Addressing unaffordable housing in the city, and quickly, might seem impossible – but if the response to COVID-19 has proved anything, it’s that things previously thought impossible can happen overnight," reads the report.

"Essential community workers are the often-invisible backbone of our city. The pandemic made clear just how much we need them. We must protect their ability to live and work in Toronto. Our recovery depends on it."

Affordable Housing