Placemaker and author Jay Pitter knows all about the discomfort of being an outsider.
A child of public housing, her mother got the education and income she needed to move her family to the suburbs when Pitter was in her mid-teens. She went from having friends who were having children or even dying in public housing, to a middle-class community where kids her age had tennis lessons and aspirations for the future.
At 47, Pitter no longer sees herself as vulnerable. But her work as a housing justice advocate is rooted in her experience, and she still remembers vividly how unsettled she was by the changed circumstances of her youth.
“It was impossible not to feel profoundly uncomfortable and profoundly uneasy with my new-found privilege,” she says.
Today, Pitter said she feels similarly discomfited by living in a city with such stark differences.
“We have so much wealth here, we pride ourselves on diversity and Toronto being a city for everyone. At the same time, my lived experiences suggest Toronto is a really amazing city for some of us, not all of us,” she said.
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On Wednesday, Pitter will again be bringing an outsider perspective to a panel of experts discussing the city’s housing crisis for a business audience at the Toronto Region Board of Trade (TRBOT). With a provincial election less than three weeks away and a municipal election in the fall, the moment is right, she said, to talk about the housing of those who are underemployed, precariously employed and unemployed.
“Even the notion of what professional means today is quite different than 20 years ago. It implies a certain loftiness and security that simply does not exist,” she said.
The Board of Trade wants to be a leader in the discussion of housing. It’s an issue that impacts the city’s prosperity as companies court Toronto’s talented labour force. But last year, TRBOT’s own research showed that 42 per cent of young professionals would consider leaving the Toronto region because of the sky-high cost of housing.
If the challenge is severe for relatively well-paid people, it is dire for lower-income workers who help the city run, board CEO Jan De Silva told the Toronto Star in February.
The business group has published a Housing Policy Playbook in advance of the June 7 election. It recommends loosening the supply of homes by cutting the building permit processing times and other measures designed to loosen the short supply of housing.
It also wants rent controls rolled back, saying those restrictions discourage big investors such as pension funds from financing rental buildings because the return on their investment is too low.
Pitter doesn’t support reduced rent control, but she thinks the board has the right idea when it comes to increasing the supply of housing and broadening the mix of available housing units.
Pitter says her “incredible sense of spatial entitlement” allows her to feel she belongs in rooms such as the Board of Trade discussion. But she says it’s time to stop talking about housing and build some — and not just shelter for young, high-income workers.
She is pushing a more holistic approach, one that considers the need for more intergenerational housing, larger families, newcomers and seniors and their caregivers.
A Torontonian who went to York University and has a Masters in Environmental Design, Pitter lives in a Kensington Market loft.
She has recently been working with Lexington, Ky., a mid-sized city, helping create an inclusive public park — a space that supports children with disabilities, seniors and less traditional uses. She has also been working on a Lexington project that she calls “fraught and beautiful” — a reimagining of public spaces that once held Confederate monuments.
Pitter’s latest book, Where We Live, being published by McClelland & Stewart Penguin Random House Canada in fall 2019, is based on her travels across the country. It chronicles how housing policy and provision differ regionally. In Newfoundland, she says, people frequently referred to her as being from Canada because they didn’t see themselves in the national conversation.
“One of the things that I feel extraordinarily passionate about is the arrogance in framing national housing conversations around Vancouver and Toronto,” Pitter said.
The Toronto Region Board of Trade’s panel also includes: Ontario Real Estate Association CEO Tim Hudak; David Wilkes, CEO of the Building and Land Development Association that represents homebuilders; Allan Weinbaum, president of the Federation of Rental-housing Providers of Ontario; and Marcy Burchfield, executive director of the non-profit Neptis Foundation and an expert in Ontario’s anti-sprawl growth plan.