Let it be said: On one issue, John Tory actually took a stand.
Toronto’s ex-mayor spent his political career trying to please everyone, or at least those he deemed to be important. He was risk-averse and cautious to a fault, a cable company in human form.
But when it came to housing, Mr. Tory recently showed some guts. While running for re-election in the fall, he was clear that Toronto needs to reform its planning system and make room for many more people.
“We must move quickly,” he said in December, “to change city policies and advance new programs that will create new housing.”
He is right. Having the city grow quickly and welcoming those who want to be here is the most important goal in municipal policy. But will the next mayor agree? And will they be willing to push for change?
Toronto is the fastest growing city region in the Americas. The Smart Prosperity Institute estimates the city will need to add 259,000 homes from 2021 to 2031, just to keep up with growth – which would mean increasing the current rate of homebuilding by about 50 per cent. For now, there is a large and increasing shortage of places to live.
Too many people are vying for too few homes. This has left newcomers desperate, while long-time residents flee to distant cities or other provinces. Almost everyone along the spectrum of housing is feeling the impact. For some it’s an inconvenience; for others, it means being pushed out of rooming houses and older affordable apartments as the rent goes up. The sea is rising, and only those with money can afford lifeboats.
The problem is simple: It is extremely difficult to build housing in Toronto. Apartment buildings of five stories or more are illegal on 90 per cent of land. And in house neighbourhoods full of wealthy people, large apartments are banned completely.
This is reshaping Toronto’s geography. Almost all new residents cram into tiny slivers of the city, while low-rise neighbourhoods lose population. It’s a world of half-empty houses and packed high-rises.
No one has more power to fix this than Toronto City Hall, but doing so will be hard work. Mr. Tory’s housing plan called for investment in social housing, which is critical. But the overwhelming majority of Torontonians live in privately owned homes. We need more of those. Buildings must get bigger and taller, everywhere in the city, right now.
Yet there is no sign that the staff in charge of city planning want to do that. The department has said for years, more or less explicitly, that the shortage of housing is not their fault. They are not accountable for the number of homes that are actually completed.
So who will lead the way?
Last year, when the Ford government gave strong mayor powers to Mr. Tory, they counted on him to do that work and absorb the political backlash. To his credit, he sounded ready to take his lumps.
And now? Of the leading likely candidates for mayor, two can be relied upon to favour new housing. Councillor Brad Bradford was deeply involved in Mr. Tory’s plan. Meanwhile, former councillor Ana Bailao worked hard and effectively on this issue during her years at city hall.
If the next mayor is someone else, the future is cloudier. Progressive Josh Matlow has gotten much applause in recent years vilifying the development industry. It’s unclear whether he understands the scope of the housing shortage, or that the solution will pique the displeasure of white-haired North Toronto.
Federal Housing Minister Ahmed Hussen, a rumoured candidate, should understand the issue. But would he or another transplanted MP know which buttons to push? Municipal planning is a minefield of petty politics and bureaucratic intransigence. On this file, speed is critical.
And the winner could be another wild card, such as former police chief Mark Saunders, who has zero experience with housing policy.
A mayor’s resignation provides a remarkable chance for the city to re-think its future. Toronto could, and should, be a place that has high-quality public amenities and that takes care of its most vulnerable. But it must also open its doors to change.
Mr. Tory began that work. If Toronto wants to thrive, it must not abandon it.