GTA Housing Action Lab

A collaborative project to address the affordability and sustainability of housing in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) led by Evergreen CityWorks and The Natural Step Canada with support from a core advisory team that includes the United Way of Greater Toronto, Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance, and The Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal.

Housing in the GTA – Can This Continue?

The population of the GTA is projected to increase to more than 9 million people by 2036. To accommodate for this growth, the region needs to create an integrated approach to housing—one that is more sustainable, affordable and equitable.

The GTA's housing system faces a triple threat to its future:

  • A social threat: there is an affordability crisis at all income levels, affecting health, education, social cohesion and many factors essential to well being.
  • An economic threat: if people can’t afford to live in the region, the GTA economy will suffer.
  • An environmental threat: excessive direct and indirect emissions from the housing sector pose a range of challenges in a carbon-constrained future.

With housing prices and rents soaring, the implementation of energy efficiency opportunities inadequate and inequality growing, the housing system is not meeting the region’s needs.

In the face of these challenges, there has been little discussion about the system as a whole. The housing sector is fragmented, with a range of organizations undertaking activities with little shared understanding of mutual interests or opportunities. There is no 'meta-narrative' of what the overarching challenges are in the housing sector, of what the public policy objectives are, or of how the incentives for private enterprise can be aligned to help address them.

Housing Action – A Collaborative Approach

By building collaborative capacity and co-creating solutions, the partners in the Housing Action Lab believe we can bring transformative change to housing in the GTA. The Housing Action Lab combines The Natural Step Canada’s Sustainability Transition Lab process with Evergreen CityWorks’ wide ranging approaches to stakeholder and citizen engagement. It is structured around three phases:

  1. Building Collaborative Capacity: Exploring shared value and shared priorities and creating the backbone to support collective impact.
  2. Co-Creating a Change Strategy: Identifying the core levers and pathways to breakthrough solutions.
  3. Implement Collaborative Initiatives and Shared Solutions: Working with formalized partnerships to collectively make an impact to transition towards a sustainable housing system.

Through the second half of 2013, Evergreen CityWorks and The Natural Step Canada designed and developed the initiative through our Pre-lab work that included designing the process, creating a shared project budget, securing the resources to get started, and mapping the participant list.

Phase 1 began in early 2014. Interviews with up to 40 people from across the system will capture a diversity of perspectives relating to the current reality of the housing system. The output of these interviews along with research conducted by the Mowat Centre will help paint a picture of the system in advance of a Foundations workshop in the spring of 2014 that will shape next steps. Meanwhile, a series of citizen engagement activities is being planned as well.

This lab is designed to be broadly inclusive, involving participants who have an agency or active role in the housing system. This includes:

  • low and middle income households (who make decisions about where to live and what they can afford)
  • the housing market actors (who decide what to build, where and in what form, based upon perceptions of profitability, policy factors like zoning, financing availability, etc)
  • various policy makers and housing sector operators (who set the zoning and planning guidelines, allocate funds, provide supportive infrastructure and social services, and regulate housing operators).

One of the biggest levers of change is through new or changed relationships. The process is designed to allow stakeholders to see and experience the system differently and from diverse perspectives.

What Might Change?

The participants in the Housing Action Lab will shape the specific outcomes through the process, but we anticipate that the initiative will affect change in the housing system by:

  • Developing and framing a systems-thinking approach to housing and related economic, environmental, governance, and income security issues (among others) for the GTA;
  • Knitting together the fractured landscape of public-private-Not for Profit actors in the housing sector, over a multi-year period, to build relationships, trust and a willingness to collaborate and experiment 
  • Creating a sense of shared challenges and opportunities that can be pursued through public policy or private market activities over both the long and short-term
  • Building out these opportunities, through research, analysis and consultation and public discussion, into a robust, longer-term ‘macro’ policy agenda to present to governments;
  • Identifying targeted, ‘micro’ interventions that can be piloted in the shorter-term, without requiring major government policy reform or investment

The Team

The core advisory team includes the United Way of Greater Toronto, Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance, and The Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal

The project team  designing and executing the GTA Housing Action Lab includes:

  • Chad Park, Executive Director, The Natural Step Canada
  • John Brodhead, Executive Director, Evergreen CityWorks
  • John Purkis, Senior Associate, The Natural Step Canada
  • Robert Plitt, Director of Sustainability, Evergreen CityWorks
  • Saralyn Hodgkin, Director of Collaboration Programs and Evaluation, The Natural Step Canada
  • Tyler Seed, Program Officer, The Natural Step Canada

The project is also supported on developmental evaluation by Mark Cabaj, President of From Here to There, and on information design by Steve Williams, President of Constructive Public Engagement.