Urban Land Institute report urges Toronto to improve its aging housing towers

The Urban Land Institute (ULI) has released a report based on recommendations from an Advisory Services panel of sustainability and affordable housing experts. The report addresses how the city of Toronto can retrofit its aging apartment buildings to reduce their carbon emissions and be resilient to climate risks, while maintaining affordable rents. 

The recommendations build on the city’s existing Tower Renewal efforts to transform Toronto’s publicly owned stock of aging apartment towers with deep energy retrofits—an effort that is currently underway, with $1.3 billion in funding. The ULI’s report addresses how such an approach could be extended to the city’s privately owned apartment towers.

The panel’s visit, which took place from February 23-28, 2020, included interviews with a variety of stakeholders in the community. Initial recommendations were made at the time of the panel visit, which have now been followed up in more detail in a comprehensive report.

“The City of Toronto must take action now and develop a long-term housing strategy to retrofit more than 800 private rental towers to create sustainable buildings,” says the  real estate organization.

The panel recommended that the city:

  • Own the issue: Currently, the Tower Renewal Program has been located within various departments of the Toronto city government. The panel recommended that the program be elevated to reside in the city manager’s office with a clear point-person to execute the program;
  • Develop a long-term strategy: The panel strongly affirmed that the towers must not be Toronto’s de facto affordable housing strategy, but must be part of a comprehensive plan. The panel emphasized the importance of removing barriers to new rental apartment development and construction by making the approval process faster and more predictable, and encouraging the development of mid-rise buildings focused on a more mid-market demographic;
  • Build community resilience: The panel recognized strong opportunities to capitalize on the spaces in-between the towers by animating disused spaces, and updating the “tower in the park” concept to be relevant to current lifestyle needs and trends. Specifically, the panel recommended the creation of tower enhancement districts (TEDs)—a form of building owners association that would connect local stakeholders and take the lead in accelerating positive change through public realm improvements, soft programming, small business development, and emergency preparedness;
  • Balance priorities and accelerate uptake: Panelists identified that it was possible for tower renewal to achieve affordability, sustainability, and resilience, but the public and private sectors would have to partner to make it happen. In order to ensure safety and create a path for the future, the panel recommended certain policies, including owner assurance of building safety, a public energy benchmarking program for transparency and to track progress, and mandatory audits; and
  • Take action now: the panel encouraged aggressive goals to create a pilot program for ten private building owners to build industry capacity and demonstrate what is possible. To catalyze this action, the panel recommended that the city create a competitive grant program for early adopters who commit to high-performance/resilience goals and are willing to share lessons learned, to create a roadmap for how to cost-effectively execute deep retrofits within the private sector.

The panel was led by ULI member Jim Heid, founder of UrbanGreen, Healdsburg, California. “This Advisory Services panel was a complex and timely endeavor,” said Heid. “The role these towers play in housing so many of the city’s moderate income families, and the need to assure they are safe and healthy places to live means renewal is a necessity, not an option. Like so many other complex legacy built environment issues, success will require strong and steady leadership, a long term view, and the commitment of significant public and private financial resources.”

Heid was joined by Brad Dockser, chief executive officer, Green Generation, Bethesda, Maryland; Billy Grayson, executive director, Center for Sustainability and Economic Performance, Urban Land Institute, Washington, D.C.; Purnima Kapur, former executive director, New York City Department of City Planning and Adjunct Lecturer at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Planning and Architecture, New York, New York; Bill Lashbrook, retired former senior vice president, PNC Real Estate, Hopewell, New Jersey; Laura London, associate director, real estate development, Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing, Arlington, Virginia; and Elizabeth Propp, senior vice president, investments and acquisitions, Community Preservation Corporation, New York, New York.