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Jennifer Keesmaat

December 14, 2017 by Speakers' Spotlight

It’s Time to Review Housing in Canada

Jennifer Keesmaat is passionate about creating places where people flourish. Named one of the “most powerful people in Canada” by Maclean’s, and one of the “most influential” by Toronto Life, she spent five years as Toronto’s Chief City Planner, where she was celebrated for her innovative and collaborative approach to city-building. Now a Distinguished Visitor in Residence at the University of Toronto, Keesmaat shares her vision for cities of the future, and her belief in inspired leadership.

Keesmaat, writing in Maclean’s, says we need to take a closer more critical view of how our cities work:

A city’s success depends on its adaptability. The ones that reinvent themselves prevail, while the ones that resist change collapse. Look at Detroit, Mich., the city that served as a point of entry to the American dream during the industrial revolution. By 1920, it was the fourth-largest city in the United States, with a population of 990,000, peaking in 1950 with a population of 1.8 million, riding a wave of immigration fuelled by job opportunities in the automobile industry.

But city leaders made a critical mistake: they treated the economy as static, and did not anticipate change or adapt to diversify from manufacturing toward knowledge-based industries. The city lost nearly half of its population in the second half of the 20th century, and in 2013, it filed for bankruptcy. Success today in Detroit is still measured by taking things down, instead of building them up. Government documents proudly claim that “thousands of vacant homes have been removed at a more rapid pace than ever before in Detroit’s history”—as if this is a good thing.

This may seem too dramatic a cautionary tale for Canadian cities. After all, we dominate the Economic Intelligence Unit’s list of most liveable cities year after year; Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary ranked third, fourth and fifth respectively in 2017. But we are smug about our growing brand of urbanism at our own peril.

Cities, and how we live, have always been in a state of evolution as driven by political, social, cultural and technological considerations. So as much as I would like to credit urban planners for advocating for and advancing denser urban living in our cities as key to those excellent rankings, the stability of our banking and education systems, as well as the comprehensiveness of our health care delivery, all play a central role. Good governance at all three levels of government makes our cities work.

On the one hand, housing is about social justice if we agree that housing is a human right. Everyone in our country needs to be housed—full stop. On the other hand, it is also about the overall economic sustainability of our national economy. Both interests matter and ought not to be played one off the other. As a stark example, in its callout for proposals to lure its second head office, Amazon identified affordable housing for its workers—despite boasting that it would offer more than 50,000 high-paying jobs—as a key evaluative criterion that it would use to assess whether cities were a good fit. This example, explicitly, shows how access to housing for workers is an economic development driver—and it’s no longer assumed, as it may have been a generation ago, that people with high-paying jobs didn’t need affordable housing. In our biggest markets like Toronto and Vancouver, where housing prices recently detached from both demographic change (like household growth) and wages, affordable housing matters for everyone—not only vulnerable populations.

Vancouver and Toronto, despite their successes, need continual reinvention like any other city. As both of these cities’ real-estate markets have become truly hot over the past decade, they have also become less accessible for the key workers that make them tick. Many households simply cannot afford appropriate housing. Families are burdened with a long commute precisely because they cannot afford to live close to work. Young people are bounced from rental to rental at the mercy of investors, unprotected by the price stability that comes from rent controls. Seniors, for whom the cognitive benefits of living in walkable communities is well-established, end up enclosed in suburban long-term care facilities disconnected from the fabric of everyday life. Many more of those perceived to be in the middle class in Canada live with well-founded insecurities: what if interest rates rise a point or two and mortgage payments become out of reach? What if my landlord decides to sell, and I’m forced to find a new place in this aggressive rental market? We’ve gotten this far precisely because we have been willing to embrace change.

Read the full article at Maclean’s.