The post-pandemic future: Modular housing can end homelessness

The post-pandemic future: Modular housing can end homelessness

Abigail Bond is executive director of the Housing Secretariat, City of Toronto

For the past few years, Toronto has experienced an unprecedented spike in residential development, with some 71,000 new condo units under construction in 2019. And yet our housing system is failing thousands of Torontonians: as rents and housing prices rose, so did evictions and homelessness. The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified the challenges in Toronto’s housing market and placed considerable strain on the shelter system. As of late July, there were 636 Covid-19 cases linked to shelter outbreaks. It’s a stark reminder of the connection between health and home: if you don’t have a front door you can close, how can you self-isolate?

As an emergency response, the city has added 30 temporary sites in hotels and community centres, and expanded shelters to allow clients to maintain physical distancing. But we know the best solution is to provide permanent homes, where residents can be secure and support services can be provided. That’s why the city’s new housing plan includes an ambitious target of creating 40,000 affordable rental homes.

Part of our response to the pandemic has been to figure out how to fast-forward this plan and deliver 18,000 of these as housing with support services. For that, we’re using a speedy, cost-effective solution: modular supportive housing. A modular home is prefabricated in a factory then assembled on-site. It’s high-quality, energy-efficient housing that can be set up at a lower cost and in a shorter time frame than traditional construction. These buildings are made of wood or steel with multiple modules engineered so they can connect horizontally and vertically to form buildings in various sizes and configurations—think of them as architectural Tetris blocks. Plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems, including fixtures and devices, are installed during the manufacturing process, and utilities such as water, gas and electric are connected just as they would be with conventional construction.

Illustration by Maria Nguyen

Toronto city council recently approved a two-phase plan to build 250 modular homes on city-owned lands as a rapid response to homelessness and to reduce pressure on the shelter system. The first phase includes 100 modular homes, with occupancy planned for this fall: 56 studio units at 11 Macey Avenue near Danforth and Victoria Park, and 44 studio units at 150 Harrison Street near Dundas and Dovercourt. In the second phase, staff will identify additional city-owned sites where we can build the remaining modular homes, with occupancy planned for spring 2021.

These homes will provide permanent, affordable rental housing for people currently experiencing homelessness—front-line staff will refer potential occupants from the street, shelters and respite centres, and clients will be matched to housing and support opportunities that best meet their needs.

The cost to build these homes is $47.5 million, including $18.75 million in federal CMHC funding and financing. It just shows how when we work together, we can build affordable homes speedily and efficiently. The new homes make good economic sense: at $2,000 per unit per month, they cost about half what it takes to run emergency shelters. Better still, they provide an enhanced opportunity for improved health and well-being. A greater supply of permanent affordable rental homes could make a profound contribution to our economic recovery: investments in residential construction deliver 10 jobs for every $1 million invested in housing.

This is just the beginning for Toronto. The current action plan includes a target of 1,000 modular homes by 2030. The city wants to speed up delivery of these new homes, which we’ll only be able to accomplish with further support from the federal and provincial governments. While broader action is still needed, the pandemic helped us realize what we can do in a relatively short time frame: a stronger and more resilient city—one where homelessness is a thing of the past.

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