Proposal calls for adding 230 affordable housing units to Lawrence Heights renewal

TORONTO STAR

A new proposal for the multi-decade revitalization of Lawrence Heights could see 230 new affordable rental units added over the next 17 years at an estimated cost of more than $90 million, with some city officials pushing for even more units to be added.

The initial development proposal for phases two and three of the four-phase Lawrence Heights project was released this week, calling for 130 affordable units to be built in those phases and another 100 in the fourth phase.

Lawrence Heights is Toronto Community Housing’s largest Revitalization project and almost double the size of Regent Park. Through Revitalization, this 100-acre site (40.5-hectares) south of Yorkdale Shopping Centre will be transformed into a vibrant, mixed-income community. Revitalization will include replacing 1,208 Toronto Community Housing units and building over 4,000 new private market units, along with new parks, retail space, and roads connecting Lawrence Heights to the surrounding community. This plan for Lawrence Heights reflects years of input from residents, neighbourhood organizations and the City of Toronto. (source: Toronto Community Housing Corporation)

A confidential cost estimate that says those 230 affordable units could bring the project’s shortfall – their costs less anticipated market proceeds – to $130 million from about $38 million without them.

Under a 2011 plan for the site, which called for a mix of social housing and market-priced units, Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) isn’t obligated to construct any new affordable housing beyond replacing what was already there. That decision was made so it could focus on rebuilding the aging social housing units, according to Vincent Tong, chief development officer with TCHC.

Lawrence Heights, constructed in the 1950s, is TCHC’s largest renewal so far – nearly twice the size of the Regent Park revitalization.

Abi Bond, executive director of Toronto’s housing secretariat, said the new proposal aligns with the city’s 10-year goal of creating 40,000 new affordable homes.

”Big picture, it’s the city looking at the ways we can use our land most effectively to get as close to those goals as possible,” said Bond.

The plan for the next two phases may change considerably between now and final approval after a developer is selected, Bond cautioned. She’d like to see more affordable units than 230, and noted that they’d be asking for funding from both Ottawa and Queen’s Park.

The idea was to allow a diverse mix of incomes in the neighbourhood – ”not just maybe people who can afford a condominium, or people who have a low income and need (rent-geared-to-income) units.”

The new proposal estimates that the second and third phases will cost the city approximately $221.6 million over a 13-year period beginning in 2023, plus average annual funding of roughly $17.8 million.

If Lawrence Heights were not overhauled, it would cost TCHC an estimated $51 million over 10 years to maintain the existing buildings

An estimate provided confidentially to the city’s housing committee members for next week’s meeting pegged the cost of affordable housing at roughly $400,000 per unit. That adds up to a $130-million shortfall for Lawrence Heights by the end of phase four if all 230 affordable units are built, when also factoring in infrastructure costs and the replacement rent-geared-to-income units.

Without the affordable units, the project’s shortfall would be roughly $38 million by the fourth phase.

Tong said that delivering affordable housing in Toronto through assets the city already owned is still cheaper than purchasing land elsewhere.

”While there may be a shortfall in Lawrence Heights, the important thing I think is that it still makes more financial sense,” he said.

The team reviewing proposals from developers for the next phases will look for approaches that reduce the city’s upfront costs to construct affordable housing.

Before issuing a request for proposal, staff plan to also look for ways to offset costs for the affordable units, for example, by increasing the density of market housing on the site.

Mike Colle, the councillor for the Lawrence Heights area, believes that the 230 proposed affordable units are a ”good start,” and is hoping for more in the final plan – especially units designed for seniors.

But he also fears that tweaking their plans too much could cause the project to be caught up in delays. ”That’s the balance that we’ve got to find,” he said.

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