Letting our questions lead the way to the advances we need to fix the GTA’s housing affordability crisis

Ene Underwood
7 min readMay 16, 2023
To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks new advances — Albert Einstein

Housing availability and affordability in the GTA is not a new problem. It is a problem years in the making that has now reached crisis proportions. Not only is it undermining opportunities for an entire generation of young people and newcomers, but it is also imperiling the quality of living and prosperity of the region for everyone.

Our work at Habitat for Humanity, both here in the GTA, and on every continent around the world, is grounded in a conviction of the power of housing and home to enable individuals, families, communities, cities, and, indeed, countries to thrive. This is why, in the face of today’s housing crisis, we partnered with Generation Squeeze and the Aga Khan Council for Canada’s Future Ready Initiative on a three-part evening speaker series, on Housing in the GTA. The series is designed to raise questions and look at the problem from new angles. Most importantly, the series aims to equip members of the public with tangible actions they can take to realize a future where housing enables us to advance as a region, rather than stagnate and decline.

Left to Right: Anne Gaviola, Global News Senior Digital Broadcast Journalist, Victor Dodig, President and CEO of CIBC, Lily Cheng, Toronto City Councillor for Ward 18, Zahra Ebrahim, CEO and Co-Founder of Monumental and Paul Kershaw Founder, Generation Squeeze Lead Researcher & Executive Chair.

Last month, over 250 members of the public gathered for the second installment of this series. This time, the theme was Housing in the GTA and Immigration: What Can we Gain? — a topic especially on people’s minds given the Federal Government’s announcement last year to welcome 500,000 newcomers to Canada annually.

While there was much insight to be found in the expertise of our panellists, Victor Dodig, President and CEO of CIBC, Lily Cheng, Toronto City Councillor for Ward 18, and Zahra Ebrahim, CEO and Co-Founder of Monumental — and I do recommend you take a moment to watch for yourself — the questions we heard from the audience were particularly telling. When it comes to housing, they reveal the anxieties we all feel, but more than anything, they reflected the boldness and braveness which are critical if we are to realize the quantum of changes required.

Four questions received the most audience votes. Perhaps, by examining these questions, we may — as Einstein would suggest — tap into the creative imagination to identify new (or overdue) advances that we, as concerned citizens, should be getting behind to rein in the GTA’s affordable housing crisis.

Habitat for Humanity GTA CEO Ene Underwood speaking at Housing in the GTA and Immigration: What Can we Gain?

Should we even be talking about home ownership when it’s so out of reach for younger generations?

This question is completely understandable. We know from recent polls that young people are giving up on ever buying a home and leaving the GTA in droves for other parts of the country. We at Habitat GTA feel especially passionate about not abandoning homeownership. We are driven to help working families have a home of their own because it comes with so many benefits, including the day-to-day stability, security and self-reliance that nurtures multi-generational success.

Unquestionably, we need to focus on ways to put homeownership back in reach for younger generations in the GTA. That means my generation may have to work against our own privilege and say yes to more homes in our backyards. But it also means our ideas about owning a home should change too. We need to be open to new, creative models of what homeownership looks like, models that blend the stability of homeownership and the certainty of retaining the equity from paying off a mortgage, without the “get rich quick” expectation of double-digit appreciation. In parallel, we need to destigmatize rental as a second-best choice, and advocate for more purpose-built rental housing to result in a fuller and more sustainable spectrum of housing options.

How can we make decision-makers take young people more seriously and pressure politicians to take tangible actions? Many of us are struggling and exhausted.

Taking action. It’s not easy. First of all, it is important to note that over the past two years, we have seen governments at all levels, whether it’s the Federal Government’s National Housing Strategy, the Province’s multiple waves of the Housing Supply Action Plan, and the City of Toronto’s recent zoning changes to allow multiplexes, change is happening. Part of the issue is we collectively let the housing affordability challenge become a crisis, and addressing the effects will take time. Baby boomers like me need to stand in solidarity with young people by voting yes in favour of more housing in our neighbourhoods and by joining coalitions like More Neighbours Toronto. All of us need to stay active in our democracy: know your local representatives at every level and call them. Stay informed. And, with a Toronto Mayoral by-election coming up, vote. Repeat.

Are developers incentivized to build more affordable housing? What are their barriers?

It’s too easy to blame developers for today’s housing crisis. Unquestionably, for-profit developers need to be part of the solution and an increasing number of them are motivated to do so. However, any private builder will tell you that the greatest barrier is cost. After paying for the land, construction, materials, labour (all of which has been complicated by inflation and supply chain issues lately), marketing and more, the margins can become a challenge — and when the margins are unappealing enough, lenders and investors back away and housing doesn’t get built.

In the post-war years and up to the late 1980s, governments played a big role in enabling developers to get homes built for people who needed them. Similar levels of above-and-beyond government intervention is needed today to help developers help all of us get the housing we need. One logical strategy is ensuring every time government land is sold to developers for housing, that developers are required to include a portion — say 20% — as affordable or below-market housing. Governments can also incentivize affordable housing through density bonuses and relief from government fees.

Governments also need to rebalance where tax revenues are coming from so that they aren’t inadvertently advantaging homeowners and disadvantaging everyone else. Take property taxes as an example. After more than a decade of keeping property tax increases well below inflation while increasing development charges on new homes, the City of Toronto made headlines by raising residential taxes by 5.5% last year. Nonetheless, Toronto’s homeowners still have among the lowest property tax rates in Ontario and even Canada, while benefiting from massive gains in the value of their homes. Which leads to the ever-sensitive question of whether there should be a modest reduction in the 100% capital gains exemption on principal residences, with the resulting revenues helping to fund affordable housing. Governments could also forego HST and Land Transfer Tax on affordable units while putting a premium on these taxes for luxury units. These are some of the tools that can help deliver fair and viable solutions that enable both for-profit and non-profit developers build the homes we need.

Housing prices have increased but wages have stayed stagnant, do we also need policy changes that encourage wages to increase among middle-low income folks?

It is tempting to conclude that we need to increase wages to fix the problem; but we need to be really cautious with this argument. When it comes to housing — incomes are a problem because they have not kept up to the extraordinary rate of growth in housing prices over the last three decades. The fact is, up until the late 1990s, Canada’s home prices and income levels grew at relatively comparable rates. By the turn of the century, this relationship had been broken. Worse still, from 2000 to 2020, Canada’s home prices grew at three times the rate of those in the U.S. and two times the rate of those in the UK.

Arguably, very few — if any — employer could afford to raise wages high enough so that all of their employees could afford GTA home prices and still remain competitive. Don’t be mistaken, we absolutely need to advocate for fair and living wages but chasing housing prices isn’t the right way to get there. We need a more nuanced approach that gets the right kind of housing supply at levels people can afford.

Habitat for Humanity GTA, Generation Squeeze and the Aga Khan Council for Canada’s Future Ready Initiative are hosting a three-part evening speaker series on Housing in the GTA.

Next month, on June 14th, we’re going to go even further on Einstein’s challenge of looking at old problems from a new angle and with creative imagination. We will be focusing on the toughest and most important questions yet, questions that have been recurring themes in the conversations with participants in our first two installments in our Housing in the GTA Speaker Series: How do we get the supply we need? Should housing prices rise, fall, or stall? Who pays and who benefits as we build, buy, sell and rent homes?

Join us for our third and final discussion: Housing in the GTA: Who Pays and Who Gains?



Ene Underwood

Ene is the CEO of Habitat for Humanity GTA, which helps working families build strength, stability and self-reliance through affordable homeownership.