Jennifer Keesmaat

Photo: Kerrisa Wilson

Toronto’s former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat has registered to run for mayor of Toronto, making her the only high profile candidate to challenge incumbent John Tory.

Keesmaat was the city’s chief planner from 2012 to August 2017, when she resigned and began teaching at the University of Toronto. In her time with the city, she gained a wide following for her passionate advocacy for innovative urban planning.

Now that Keesmaat has officially thrown her hat into the mayoral ring, it’s worth considering her stances on housing policy. Read on for 4 of her positions on the Toronto housing market.

Dedication to purpose-built rental

This spring, Keesmaat was named CEO of the Creative Housing Society, an independent not-for-profit group established by West Bank founder Ian Gillespie. The group proposed the creation of 50,000 units of affordable purpose-built rental housing in Toronto and Vancouver, as part of the federal government’s national housing strategy.

“It’s dedicated to building affordable, purpose-built rental housing at a scale that’s really never been done before in the Canadian context,” Keesmaat told, in an interview earlier this year.

Purpose-built rental units accounted for only 1,000 of the 15,000 apartment units constructed in Toronto in 2016. Keesmaat explained that, in order for the 50,000 proposed units to become a reality, the government would have to provide land at a reduced price.

“Our biggest challenge is going to be accessing land, because our model doesn’t work if we have to pay market prices for land,” Keesmaat said. “The role for the government here is to use an asset they’ve already purchased, because there’s a public interest in affordable rental housing.”

Mid-rise development on Toronto’s avenues

In the ongoing debate about where to increase density in Toronto’s downtown core, Keesmaat has said that its avenues are the logical choice for further housing development.

“We also see [the opportunity for development] on many of our avenues, because many of our avenues have great transit, two-storey (zoning), they’re adjacent to neighbourhoods that have great parks and schools,” she told the National Observer, in an interview last spring.

As for what type of housing should be built, she said that mid-rise developments made the most sense for established neighbourhoods.

“We can accommodate density on those avenues in a relatively gentle way: mid-rise, between six to eight storeys,” she said. “Those are the places where we can accommodate this growth, while enhancing the walkability of the city, enhancing the transit-oriented nature of the city.
That’s our goal. As we grow, we want to become more and more sustainable over time.”

Inclusionary zoning

Inclusionary zoning is often tossed around as a solution to Toronto’s affordable housing woes. Keesmaat offered her support for it when speaking with the National Observer last spring.

“One of the things that we’ve been pursuing, and have been working very closely with the province on, is inclusionary zoning,” she said. “Inclusionary zoning exists in over 500 cities in the States – in New York, in Washington. Inclusionary zoning puts a requirement to build affordable housing as part of every market housing project. That’s a way of having a public policy that piggybacks off the market to ensure that the housing needs of everyone in the city are in fact going to be met.”

She acknowledged that not everyone would be a fan of the policy, while saying that no one solution is ever the perfect answer for a wide-ranging problem like housing affordability.

“That’s one example of a tool. Could it kill the market? Well, interest rates going up by two per cent could kill the market,” she said. “There are a lot of variables when it comes to the housing market, which is why there’s no sweeping solution.”

Decline of the single-family home

In a speech for the Toronto Board of Trade last June, Keesmaat described the likelihood that her own children would never own a low-rise home. She said that she encouraged them to consider the idea of living in an apartment.

“If they choose to stay in the city those are the odds — that they’ll raise their family very differently from how they were raised, just as I’m raising my family very differently from how I was raised,” she said.

According to Keesmaat, the idea of a low-rise starter house will likely become a thing of the past for many, which she sees as a positive, as it will limit households’ environmental footprint.

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