John Tory’s four years in office have been pretty calm — at least relative to the four that preceded his election as mayor. Under the pugnacious (and scandal-plagued) Rob Ford, city council was frequently the scene of unfriendly fire. Under the more sedate Tory, many formerly acrimonious disputes have subsided, and we now have something more like a cold war.
When it comes to the transit file, for example, Tory’s critics (most notably, Ward 22 councillor Josh Matlow) have repeatedly used what little leverage they have to remind people that the Scarborough subway extension is bad policy — but they’ve done nothing to substantially reverse or even delay the project. So what’s the lightning-rod issue going to be as Tory heads into an election he’s heavily favoured to win?
If Jennifer Keesmaat gets her wish, it’s housing affordability.
At her first formal campaign event, on Tuesday, the former chief city planner — who jumped into the mayoral race at the last minute not quite two weeks ago — made housing affordability the centerpiece of her campaign.
“Rental housing in Toronto is at a crisis point,” she said. “The issue of affordability is too important to ignore for another four years.”
But affordability comes in different flavours: when John Tory spoke at a news conference last week, he pledged to keep property-tax increases at or below the rate of inflation — doing so, he said, would help young people afford a new home and help seniors stay in their existing one.
(It’s notable that Keesmaat emphasized she was speaking to and for renters on Tuesday. They make up 47 per cent of city’s residents but do not directly pay property taxes.)
The policy proposal Keesmaat announced on Tuesday is ambitious: she wants to see 100,000 new units of affordable rental housing built in Toronto over 10 years. The city has been averaging fewer than 20,000 units of housing annually in the last five years, and only a fraction of those were rentals, and only a fraction of those were “affordable” by Keesmaat’s definition (rents one-fifth cheaper than market rates). So what Keesmaat is proposing would mean either a substantial increase in building overall or a dramatic shift in what the industry is building.
How does a mayor do that? Keesmaat was short on details, but what she’s suggesting seems similar to what she was proposing to do as CEO of the Creative Housing Society: create a partnership that would see the city and developers build housing on city-owned land — TTC stations, parking lots.
I raised some concerns about the Creative Housing model when she started there, and I think they’re still valid: it’s not clear that Toronto city council actually wants affordable housing more than it wants cheap parking lots, and given the hoops advocates had to jump through just to get laneway houses allowed in one part of the city, I’m not optimistic that even modest mid-rise buildings would be an easy sell.
But if she were mayor, Keesmaat would have a larger platform from which to advocate for her plans and a number of political levers she could use to try to win approval at council. She would still, though, be only one vote.
And Tory’s comments shouldn’t pass without scrutiny. It’s curious to say that keeping property taxes low helps new homebuyers — such taxes are an ongoing cost we pay over time, not an up-front cost at the time of purchase. What is paid up front is the municipal land transfer tax, which Tory and a bipartisan council majority voted to raise last year. The city has a rebate program to help defray those costs for first-time homebuyers, and programs to protect seniors on low incomes from property-tax increases.
Then there’s the elephant in the room: a newly elected Progressive Conservative government, whose own housing policy (which has yet to be determined) will be more consequential than whatever Toronto city council does.
Nevertheless, for housing advocates, the prospect of an election focused on the issue is somewhat exciting. Voters would be able to weigh two competing arguments for housing affordability in Toronto, ones based on two starkly different ideas of what that affordability looks like. That said, given how prior elections in this city have gone, such a scenario fills me with anxiety: homeowners dominate the inner suburbs (especially Etobicoke and Scarborough), while renters are clustered in downtown Toronto — so this could very easily become a geographical wedge issue in a city that already has several.
And even if their vision carries the day on October 22, there’s no guarantee that advocates will love the results. Elections fought on transit gave this city the Scarborough subway: Can Toronto also figure out a way to spend billions on housing while accomplishing little? Stay tuned.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Jennifer Keesmaat as the former CEO of Housing Matters. She is in fact the former CEO of the Creative Housing Society. TVO.org regrets the error.
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