John Tory has launched his re-election campaign for Toronto mayor, and his focus is on the issue that has everyone’s attention: Housing. This week, he announced a “five-point plan” to encourage the construction of more homes in the city.
The question remains: Is Mr. Tory serious? Is he actually ready to make dramatic change?
Housing policy is very complex and very political. While Mr. Tory’s plan sounds promising, he will need to push hard, and be very savvy, in order to achieve real progress.
The good news is that Mr. Tory is at least promising reform. The housing plan is the first major announcement of his campaign. He is taking the position that Toronto has a severe shortage of homes, and that the city’s planning processes are part of the problem.
Mr. Tory’s plan includes allowing “missing middle” small apartment buildings across the city, and allowing “greater mid-range density on major roads an in areas served by transit.” It also includes a “Development and Growth Division to streamline the process to get housing built faster.” And it calls for more affordable housing on city land, and policies to incentivize rental housing.
These are basically sound ideas. But if he’s serious about them, then where has Mr. Tory been for the past eight years? The housing shortage in Toronto has gotten worse and worse. High rents and prices have sent tens of thousands of residents into exile each year, helping drive up costs across the country.
Mr. Tory is right to argue that building much more housing, in more places, is necessary. But that means standing up to some residents, some councillors and probably some senior members of city staff.
Under Mr. Tory, Toronto’s planning department has responded to the housing crisis with mixed impulses: one part reform, one part defensiveness. Today, apartment buildings are still illegal in much of Toronto; zoning rules preserve many of the city’s most comfortable streets for million-dollar houses.
It’s clear that at least some members of the city’s planning department want reform. Last year, it put forward some policy to open up so-called “neighbourhood” areas to small apartments. This sounds incredibly obvious, but it’s contentious.
At the same time, the city dramatically increased taxes on new housing. And city planning continues to churn out detailed plans that interfere with new growth, even in obvious places such as above a subway station on Danforth Avenue. It’s a confusing time. Under Mr. Tory’s leadership, City Hall’s machinery has been pushing in two contradictory directions.
It’s worth noting that housing politics have shifted dramatically. Across the country, reform of land-use planning laws has become a mainstream issue, touted by B.C.’s probable next premier, David Eby, and baked into the federal budget. Five years ago, not a single Toronto councillor would have said that city planning needed radical change. Now the centre-right, hyper-cautious Mr. Tory is making that a central tenet of his campaign.
If he wins, as is likely, it’s unclear whether he will follow through. To fix planning policy is like untying a knot of barbed wire while standing in quicksand. It’s one thing to say “mid-range density” should be allowed on major roads. It’s another thing to say that a particular 10-storey building can go up in somebody’s backyard, especially when the local councillor – perhaps a Tory ally such as Jaye Robinson or Stephen Holyday who is furiously anti-development – is complaining, too.
The volunteer group, More Neighbours, which espouses a pro-housing agenda, have put out their own platform this week. One of its tenets is, “Make Rules That Make Sense.” They would eliminate policy about “neighbourhood character” and change urban design rules that are often poison pills for new development. Will Mr. Tory sign on to that sort of rhetoric? I doubt it. But that kind of resolute common sense is what’s needed.
The charitable reading of this situation is that Mr. Tory is using the campaign to give himself a mandate. Councillors Brad Bradford and Ana Bailao, probably the two most pro-housing members of council, appeared at his campaign stop. Ms. Bailao is not running again, but Mr. Bradford – a former city planner – has tied himself to a pro-housing agenda.
By running on housing reform, Mr. Tory gives himself political capital to make change. And remember that the province is about to make him (and Ottawa’s new mayor) much more powerful; the new “strong mayor” legislation could, as Premier Doug Ford’s government promises, really lead to more housing being built.
But Toronto needs dramatic change, in every neighbourhood, and quickly. To make that happen will not come easy. Campaign promises are one thing. Fighting an army of entrenched interests is something else, and John Tory doesn’t have the aspect of a brawler. Yet he is likely to be the one we get.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.