One City Uses COVID to Address their Housing Crisis

March 2021

Toronto is struggling with COVID-related problems.  High-rise communities are quieter as tourism collapsed and units intended for short-term rental are vacant.  As jobs disappeared and businesses closed down many have left their high-rise units as they moved home or left the downtown core.  The city is struggling with loss of business tax revenues.

Yet many continue to be employed and travel by public transit because they are unable to afford accommodation closer to their employment.  Lower cost housing remains unavailable.

Lisbon, Portugal struggled with these same challenges and found an innovative solution.  Throughout the summer of 2020, the city purchased or signed long-term leases on thousands of short-term rental properties under their “Safe Rent” program.  All have been turned into subsidized housing.  A lottery system was implemented giving preference to younger and lower-middle-class employed who typically could not afford to live in the city.  Rents were capped at a third of net income.

Landlords were saved from financial ruin while workers could now afford to live nearer to where they worked.  The city benefits by collecting taxes from both groups.  Areas once dependent on tourism gain long-term residents.  There was no need to build new affordable housing.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) has issued a report suggesting a similar approach and requesting funding for the purchase of struggling hotels.