It's all fine and good that promi nent members of the federal and provincial cabinets are coming to City Hall to participate in Mayor David Miller's affordable housing summit this morning (Thursday, February 26). Increased funding from both Ottawa and Queen's Park is critical to solving the growing homelessness crisis that plagues Canada's largest municipality. The likes of Andy Scott, federal minister responsible for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and provincial housing minister John Gerretsen will undoubtedly get an earful in this regard when they sit down in the council chamber with a panel of economists, community activists and housing advocates.
But the crowd of local politicians who hang out at 100 Queen West have an equal responsibility to pay attention to the proceedings. According to folks all too familiar with the city's affordable housing file, city councillors are as much a cause of the dilemma as the lack of cash from senior levels of government.
"Our biggest problem still is, and I think will remain, the fact nobody really wants affordable housing in their neighbourhoods. This is especially true of many local councillors," one well-placed city bureaucrat tells me this week.
"Maybe these provincial and federal guys are going to come down and make it rain money for the city, but until council gets its own act together and makes affordable housing enough of a corporate priority, we're not going to get the stuff built."
Sure, somewhere in the range of 2,000 affordable housing units were initiated during the last term of council. But, according to my source, that's a drop in the bucket compared to what could have been done if councillors - particularly those representing suburban wards in Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke - hadn't prevented development proposals from being submitted to council for consideration, never mind approval.
"The community councils are ridiculous," this veteran municipal government insider insists. "Anything that requires any sort of land-use approval has to be filtered through them. Some very innovative projects are getting the thumbs-down at the mere whiff of community opposition. Whatever a local councillor decides is going to happen is what happens. If they don't want a project in their ward, they don't get a project in their ward, and other councillors won't mess with them for fear they'll get messed up on an issue in their ward as retribution later on."
That's local politics for you. It's a problem that was pointed out in the Toronto Report Card On Housing And Homelessness released by the department of community and neighbourhood services last year.
"Successful housing development requires more than capital funding and rental assistance," the Report Card says. "A key element is the community acceptance of new housing projects across the city. In recent years, there has been much opposition to the integration of low-income housing and services into neighbourhoods.
"Promoting inclusive communities must be a priority for the city and will require the active leadership of Toronto council," the report advises.
Joe Mihevc says he can sympathize with the concerns being raised within the housing bureaucracy. "The NIMBY (not in my back yard) factor can be brutal," the councillor for Ward 21 (St. Paul's) concedes.
Mihevc points out that during the last council term, 32 affordable housing, shelter and transitional housing projects were submitted to council and "every last one of them was approved." But he's also well aware that many, many more never made it through the community council process.
"It's a major problem and absolutely a concern for City Hall," Mihevc says. "It's a matter of councillors developing a spine. It's been my experience that if you show leadership, the broader community in your ward will usually understand and support the position you've taken."
According to Sean Goetz-Gadon, the mayor's special housing adviser, this is an area where Miller is prepared to "step up to the plate."
"I think there's a tremendous amount of public energy to tackle this problem head on," Goetz-Gadon says, noting that response to today's summit has been overwhelming.
While the man who was once called upon to advise former mayor Mel Lastman on housing maintains that council's overall record on the issue is "actually very good," he agrees that "there's clearly more that could be done by individual city councillors" to move the agenda along.
"It's absolutely clear that council can't be sucking and blowing on this issue," Goetz-Gadon stresses. "On the one hand, it's great for the city to have a progressive position on affordable housing. But if on the ground it's not being implemented, then we have a problem."
And it's a problem that will take more than a summit to solve.