Amid provincial out-migration and growing concerns that Toronto could become too expensive to attract people, housing has emerged as one of the top issues in the campaign ahead of Monday’s municipal election.
The two leading candidates for mayor have promised to build a lot more housing. But there are questions about whether they would be tough enough to push back against local neighbourhood opposition – and whether they are thinking big enough.
John Tory is running for a third term as mayor in the Oct. 24 vote. His main opponent on the crowded slate is Gil Penalosa, an urbanist and consultant whose campaign is considered a long shot to unseat the incumbent.
The winning candidate will be the first Toronto leader to govern with stronger powers put in place by the provincial government that allow the mayor to override council on matters deemed important by the province. Premier Doug Ford has cited the need to quickly build significant amounts of new housing as he argued for the changes.
“This is going to be hard and there’s no way of solving the affordable housing crisis that does not involve upsetting the neighbours,” said Mark Richardson of the group Housing Now, which advocates for affordable rental.
“Both of [the leading candidates] are incredibly timid and I understand that’s how you get elected in politics. But if this is a crisis, you don’t solve a crisis with timidity.”
Housing in Toronto is often called a crisis. But Mr. Richardson pointed out it’s not just one. The issue is complicated because it is actually several distinct crises.
There are long waiting times for affordable housing, pointing to the need to build more for people who might otherwise be homeless. And then there’s another form of affordability, which has some middle-class people, even with good jobs, unable to buy a home in Toronto. And rents have soared even as real estate prices have faltered, pushing that option out of reach for many.
Not all of this can be tackled by a mayor, but the leading candidates have made promises that could move the dial.
Mr. Tory says he would build on the city’s progress toward allowing what’s known as gentle density, such as laneway housing, and vows to cut red tape that can delay projects for years. He would explore with the province a still-undefined “use it or lose it” concept that might force developers who move too slowly to reapply for building permissions.
“People can’t sit on land indefinitely, because we do have instances where people have sat on land for a long time,” he said during a recent meeting with The Globe and Mail’s editorial board.
“I recognize the fact that’s driven in fact by marketplace-related decisions, which I respect. But at the same time we have an urgent situation in hand here with the need for an increased supply of housing and so we’ll have to work out what [such a policy] means.”
Mr. Penalosa vows to push for publicly built affordable housing on public land and create a role of city architect. He would also end exclusionary zoning, which designates by law vast swaths of Toronto for only single-family homes, and pledges to allow development of up to six units per lot everywhere in the city.
“We have more than enough space with a friendly density to have a really, really good city,” he said during his own visit with The Globe’s editorial board “It doesn’t have to be Manhattan or Houston, there’s a lot of things in the middle.”
The pledges to relax zoning rules come against a backdrop of politicians in Ottawa and Queen’s Park blaming cities for standing in the way of more housing. This argument has been made most prominently by federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
There is some truth to the accusation.
In cities across Canada, zoning protects neighbourhoods primarily made up of single-family homes from added density, even as many of these areas are losing people. A change as minor as adding a rear second-floor addition requires public consultation, where unhappy neighbours can voice their opposition. As a result, nearly all recent growth in Toronto has been accommodated by a relatively small portion of the city’s area.
But this is not a new situation, and Mr. Ford did not act on the recommendation of his own expert panel earlier this year to end exclusionary zoning provincewide.
Matti Siemiatycki, a professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto, says the fault lies not only with stubborn neighbourhoods, pointing as well to the situation of land owned privately by people that choose not to build.
“Some of the big retailers own huge sites that could house intensification that for a variety of reasons have remained unchanged for decades,” he said. “So you know, there’s different parts of the system that each have their own incentives and reasons for why things have been slow.”
Toronto, which is home to just under 2.8 million people, projects its population growing by about a million by 2041. If this comes to pass, access to housing, which is already under pressure, could become much worse.
Mr. Richardson, the advocate, believes the strong mayor powers could help speed housing construction, but only if the successful candidate is willing to be ambitious and tough.
He criticized Mr. Penalosa for proposing mid-rise buildings on busy streets that could accommodate much greater height. And he pointed to Mr. Tory’s decision to appoint as a deputy mayor Stephen Holyday, who routinely votes against affordable housing, as an indication the incumbent is reluctant to act decisively.
“If you’re willing to crack the whip on affordable housing, you’d be cracking it at Stephen Holyday,” he said. “And so far there’s been an unwillingness to do that.”