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Toronto exploring use of underused school lands as help to address housing crisis

Some Toronto councillors are pushing the province to change a “deal-crusher” rule, one they say prevents the city from buying land from the public school board to build housing.

Mayor Olivia Chow’s executive committee is asking Premier Doug Ford’s government to make a key change to rules which govern how the Toronto District School Board sells off surplus land. Right now, the board must follow a tight process which includes a clause requiring all land be sold for “fair market value.” 

Budget Chief Shelley Carroll told the committee that single clause often scuttles deals that would serve the public interest, making them unaffordable.

“It’s been a deal-crusher for a long time on exactly these types of things, where you can meet a social good that we all agree on except for this one problem,” Carroll said. 

“We’re not going to demand that we be sold these places for $1. But where fair market value turns out to be $55 million because it’s next to a subway, you’re just not going to meet the social good. And so this is a great thing if they just embrace it.”

The TDSB owns more than 600 properties, or 5,000 acres of land, making it one of the city’s largest landowners. As Toronto looks for space to develop new housing projects amidst a deepening affordability crisis, Chow says that public land could be repurposed to address the problem. Chow stressed that instead of selling the surplus school land, it should be made available for housing at a lower price. 

“Why are we selling public land in the middle of housing crisis?” she said. “We should be using public land to build housing, community centres and community spaces.”

Cooperation between the board and city on real estate projects isn’t new. In a letter to city council, Chow notes that a city-led development on the site of Davisville Junior Public School has produced a new aquatic and multi-use community centre. It’s a model she said should be replicated to build housing.

“Don’t just go and sell off land,” she said. “Because once you’ve sold it, that’s it, it’s gone.”

A woman looks away from the camera.
Toronto District School Board chair and trustee Rachel Chernos Lin says the board relies on the sale of surplus schools to fund infrastructure upkeep and repairs. (Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC)

TDSB relies on surplus school sales: Chernos Lin 

TDSB chair Rachel Chernos Lin said the board is open to further partnerships with the city. But it’s projecting a $26.5 million deficit this year and has an estimated $4.4 billion repair backlog. 

“At its essence, it’s important for us to still consider fair market value, because that’s the piece that allows us to modernize our own system of aging infrastructure,” she said.

The board recently asked the provincial government to lift a ban on closing and merging schools, saying it would help address its budget deficit by eliminating costs of maintaining underused facilities.

At a special board meeting earlier this month, trustees voted unanimously in favour of a motion requesting the Ministry of Education end the moratorium put in place in 2017 by the previous Liberal government. The motion also asks that if the province is unwilling to lift its ban the TDSB be given an exemption to “consolidate up to four schools” each year.

“We have schools that are 100 plus years old, many of them, the largest part of our portfolio, is well over 60 years old,” Chernos Lin said. “And the condition of repair and backlog is significant. It doesn’t always make sense for us to continue investing in buildings that really need to be outright replaced.”

Coun. Parthi Kandavel, who served as a TDSB trustee for eight years, said the board is facing a challenging situation with its surplus schools. He said he’d like the city to focus on a review of its own surplus properties, including Green P parking lots, to find new spaces to build housing.

“I think advancing the work there is an obvious clear priority, in my opinion, over school board lands,” Kandavel said. “I think it’s a conversation to be had, but we’ve got to recognize the needs of our students.”

Former TDSB chair Bruce Davis appeared before the mayor’s executive committee on April 9 and said the school board should consider using surplus land to provide affordable housing for its own staff. Many board employees can’t afford to live in Toronto and that’s now affecting recruitment and retention, he added.

“The affordability crisis and the crisis in education workers and teachers, they are colliding,” Davis said in an interview with CBC Toronto.

“It is absolutely doable to provide more housing, either on vacant school sites — and there are many of them — or on sites that have some school operations,” he said. “They don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”

Davis, who now works as a consultant, said the board owns more than 600 pieces of property across Toronto, positioning it well to add housing in nearly every corner of the city.

“That’s why it’s gold,” he said. “Because when you’re adding affordable housing, or key worker housing, I think it’s really important that those housing sites be neighborhood scale, in neighbourhoods where we have services, where we have shopping, where we have transit.” 

A spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government has moved to help build joint-use projects between communities, municipalities and school boards.

“This legislation also allows for the disposition of school board properties at fair market value with proceeds remaining with the school board to be reinvested in the repair and renewal of existing schools,” said Isha Chaudhuri in a statement.

City council will consider endorsing the request from Mayor Chow’s executive committee at a meeting that starts Wednesday.

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