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'Lost opportunity': UTM expert suggests Mississauga push for affordable housing in Square One development

Patricia Lonergan

Plans for a large mixed-use development in Mississauga’s City Centre are based on mistaken assumptions that increasing the supply of rental units will lead to more affordable housing in the city.

According to a study co-authored by U of T Mississauga associate professor Tara Vinodrai, mixed-use developments decrease affordability and price out certain segments of the population.

That conclusion comes after Vinodrai and her co-authors examined long term change in Toronto, where mixed-use zoning is actively used, in the context of labour market changes.

“We’re seeing people priced out of the city,” says Vinodrai, who is also the director of UTM’s new Master of Urban Innovation professional graduate program.

Part of the problem is the loss of the middle class, she says. Manufacturing is declining in favour of a growing technology-based economy with higher-earning jobs that require higher education. What is emerging is a division of the labour market, where people either have a lot of resources for housing or they have very few, Vinodrai explains.

Those in lower-earning jobs are increasingly unable to afford housing, particularly in these mixed-use developments that are often in desirable locations with access to amenities and transit.

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Tara Vinodrai, UTM associate professor and director, Master of Urban Innovation. (Drew Lesiuczok)

“Even in the mid-sized cities we’re starting to see a push on housing prices that makes it unaffordable, particularly for people in the lowest brackets,” Vinodrai says.

What makes the Mississauga development interesting is that developers have explicitly stated they are not setting aside units for affordable housing and, to date, it doesn’t seem the city is pushing back, Vinodrai continues.

The 37-tower Square One District, unveiled by Oxford Properties in January, will include community buildings, green space, office space, retail, a transit hub and 18,000 residential units that are a mix of rentals and condominiums. Conspicuously absent are any plans for affordable or below-market units.

Vinodrai calls this a “lost opportunity,” adding there’s an irony that these developments exclude the very people who need to be close to transit hubs or those who work at local retail shops.

One of the concerns Mississauga employers have is attracting young, bright minds because of the challenges in finding housing. This newest development addresses an issue that helps with the labour market, Vinodrai says, but the city also needs housing for people who work lower-wage jobs.

“Without deliberate intervention I don’t think you’re going to have a desirable outcome, which, from a planning standpoint, would be to ensure some form of equitable development,” she says.

Ontario municipalities already have planning tools at their disposal to address affordability, such as density bonuses, where developers can build more units or taller structures than permitted if, in return, they set aside affordable or below-market housing.

Or there’s the more heavy-handed approach being taken by Montreal. Starting in 2021, developers in Montreal will be required to set aside 20 per cent of new housing units for social housing, 20 per cent for affordable housing, and 10-20 per cent for family-sized units, or pay compensation to the city in land or cash.

“Mississauga has an opportunity to show leadership in the GTA and beyond in terms of considering these types of policy and planning tools to address housing affordability, and it doesn’t have to be at the expense of attracting the best and brightest minds to the city’s downtown,” Vinodrai says. “I would hope the city could push back either through regulation or some kind of deal, I would hope they could think about requiring that the developer set aside even a small proportion of units for below-market.”