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Condo towers dot the Toronto skyline on Jan. 28, 2021. According to 2021 census data released last month, 48.1 per cent of the city’s residents live in rental housing.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The current crop of Toronto city councillors is more white and more male than the citizens they govern. But there’s also a less obvious lack of diversity on council: Toronto is led overwhelmingly by homeowners at a time when nearly half the city rents.

As Toronto prepares to elect its next crop of local politicians in the city’s municipal election on Oct. 24, critics say a majority-homeowner council can’t properly represent the people it leads. This is underlined by the fact that anti-renter bias often seems the last acceptable prejudice at city hall, where tenants are routinely portrayed as disruptive, bad for neighbourhoods and possibly criminal.

Montreal and Vancouver are the only big cities in Canada where most people rent. But Toronto has been edging for years toward majority-renter status. According to 2021 census data released last month, 48.1 per cent of the city’s residents live in rental housing.

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“One of the things I think I can relate to, as a tenant, is that it’s really hard to imagine that things can even change, you know, when you’ve been disappointed by elected officials year after year after year,” said Chiara Padovani, who is running for city council in York South-Weston.

Ms. Padovani, one of two renter candidates who have been endorsed by the advocacy group ACORN Tenants Union, is trying again to unseat veteran politician Frances Nunziata, who serves as council speaker and has been in office for 34 years.

John Tory, who is running for his third term as mayor, owns a large condo. He has promised to put in place several renter-friendly measures if he is re-elected, including faster development approvals for rental housing and higher density limits in neighbourhoods. His most prominent opponent in the mayoral race, urbanist Gil Penalosa, who also owns a condo, has pledged a variety of tenant protections, including rent control for buildings that receive city funding.

But the interests of renters have played a minor part so far in this race.

Tenant advocates have raised a number of concerns about the current city council’s approach to tenant issues. There was outcry when councillors voted against a measure that would have required apartment buildings to post signs warning prospective renters about building maintenance and quality issues. Council has twice deferred a vote on regulating rooming houses citywide, which supporters argue would force illegal operators to meet higher safety standards. And councillors have refused to mandate maximum indoor temperatures for apartments in summer.

Critics also say inattention to tenant needs has been feeding into problems such as insufficient park maintenance, because councillors have their own backyards, and therefore have less need than renters for public space.

The growing prevalence of renting reflects both the surging cost of buying a house in Toronto and the city’s strict rules about what sort of housing can be built, and where. Much of the city is protected from any serious housing development, but a few areas have seen massive growth of condominiums. Many of the owners of those condos rent them out.

And yet the rise in renters has not been reflected on city council. Inquiries to councillors and a search of public records confirmed that a large majority of them own property in the city.

“We do know one thing from studying representation: if people aren’t at the table, it’s much more likely their issues are not going to be given the importance that other issues are,” said Dennis Pilon, an associate professor of politics at York University.

“I always say to my students, ‘Look, the problems of our society all fall on the municipal doorstep … and if local level representation isn’t good, then it means that whatever policy you try to work with is not going to be effective.’”

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The lack of renters on council may have to do with the fact that many councillors have been in office for extended periods of time. At today’s prices, a newly elected councillor entering the real estate market would struggle to cover a home’s carrying costs on their municipal salary alone. But long-time councillors were often able to buy homes when prices were lower. Now, they are protected by a strong incumbency advantage. There is little turnover on council.

Also, breaking into Toronto municipal politics requires resources that renters may not have. There is no party system for up-and-comers to join.

Having more renters on council could change the city’s political discourse and priorities.

“Many good, awesome communities around this planet, whether it’s New York or London or Berlin, they have much more of a rental culture. Great. But that hasn’t been the Canadian way,” said University of British Columbia assistant professor Paul Kershaw, founder of Generation Squeeze, an organization that advocates on behalf of young adults.

“I think we are evolving in a way where renting is going to become more common.”

Such a rise could lead to broad recognition that renting is not necessarily a transitional stage prior to buying a home. Toronto’s city council may eventually reflect that.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly that Gil Penalosa owns a house. He owns a condo.

With a report from Stephanie Chambers

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