School of Cities series: Another way to collaborate on the city’s eventual recovery

May 21, 2020 by By Emily Mathieu

Canadian cities are facing a complex recovery in the wake of COVID-19, and academic institutions will be a vital part of that process, according to a leading housing expert.

“Conversation is key, understanding the beast and engaging diverse thinkers in this conversation is super important,” said Leilani Farha, global director of The Shift, an international movement seeking worldwide recognition of housing as a human right. “Universities play a huge role in crafting a body of evidence and knowledge base.”

Farha shared her own deep knowledge on housing and human rights as part of “Coronavirus and the City: One Question,” an initiative developed by the School of Cities at the University of Toronto.

The weekly series puts one question about COVID-19 to urban leaders from a range of disciplines and posts their written responses. To begin, public health experts weighed in on the importance of clearly communicating early findings about the disease. Since then experts have offered insights on work, transit, housing, neighbourhoods and how cities could emerge as more equitable places to live. 

Participants include Barbara Gray, general manager, transportation services, for the City of Toronto; Dr. Kwame McKenzie, professor of psychiatry at U of T and chief executive officer of the Wellesley institute; epidemiologist Dr. Ashleigh Tuite, adjunct lecturer at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health; and Mary Rowe, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Urban Institute.

Originally, the School of Cities asked the public health experts to take part in a panel on campus, moderated by Toronto Star science and technology reporter Kate Allen. But as warnings about the virus increased in early March, the conversation shifted online – and the series was born.

“It wasn't clear at the time when we were developing this event how extensive the impact would be on our city, and how rapidly the changes were coming,” said series creator Shauna Brail, associate director, partnerships and outreach, at the School of Cities.

When doors across campus closed, said Brail, the series presented another way to collaborate on the city’s eventual recovery.

“It’s going to be a very long process, and there is a lot to learn and a lot to understand. It’s constantly changing,” said Brail.

Farha’s expertise includes her previous position as UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, a watchdog role that relied on academic research and allowed her to use her skills as a human rights lawyer to push for change.

The COVID-19 pandemic has “laid bare and stark how important housing is to human life,” said Farha. All levels of government should root out the systemic failures and legal loopholes that allow inequity to breed. 

Toronto is already using “this opportunity to evolve” by addressing some housing issues in a “slightly accelerated and slightly different way,” said Farha, pointing to the city’s decision to acquire hotel rooms for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. City council also voted in late April to fund and speed the creation of 250 modular homes for a similar purpose, a plan detailed in a city staff report. 

Premier Doug Ford promised early on that tenants unable to pay rent could not be pushed from their homes. But as housing advocates have pointed out, landlords can still file online applications to evict with the temporarily shuttered Landlord and Tenant Board.

Julie O’Driscoll, spokesperson for Ontario Housing Minister Steve Clark, confirmed that eviction orders and hearings remain suspended, unless the situation involves illegal activity or poses a serious safety threat.

“We’ve been clear that landlords have to be flexible with their tenants – because we are all in this together,” wrote O’Driscoll in an emailed response to questions.

Farha said the problem isn't just the current housing law but a banking and tax system that makes housing an attractive investment. Economic strife means the owners of smaller buildings will struggle to remain solvent and those properties will become vulnerable for purchase by real estate investment trusts, hedge funds, and asset management firms, she said. 

“That is a business model that is not about housing for social good,” said Farha. Rather, it “is about returns on investment and leveraging capital.”

City leaders should monitor each potential sale with the goal of accruing those assets to preserve and expand affordable housing, she said. 

Canada’s leaders have shown that they can step up during a crisis and that a real solution to the country’s affordable housing shortage is ultimately within reach, wrote a U of T collective as part of the series.

The Affordable Housing Challenge collective, in its response, called on all levels of government to “ensure that we have the robust affordable housing infrastructure that vulnerable populations will need in the future.” 

“Let’s take this opportunity to create a truly sustainable and equitable housing system,” the collective wrote. 

As U of T plans for an uncertain future, the School of Cities is also using an existing internal grant program to bring together students, researchers and faculty to find new ways to share information virtually during the COVID-19 crisis.

“What is next is living in this environment and working out how to live in this environment,” said Brail. The goal is to study these challenges in real time, continue to engage students and civic leaders and “help cities move forward as we reopen and reimagine the future.”