Joe Cressy is the chair of the Toronto Board of Health and the city councillor for Spadina-Fort York.
Cities around the world have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Toronto, our Emergency Operations Centre has been working around the clock for months to limit transmission and help our most vulnerable while still providing services. But as mitigation continues, we have to turn our minds to the next big challenge: recovery.
When we emerge from this, we will be left with an economic crisis. As a country, we lost a million jobs in March alone. Almost seven million people have applied for federal assistance through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit over the past month. Entire industries have been decimated. Thousands of families are struggling.
Back in the Great Depression, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt faced a similar challenge. With much of the country out of work, the economy ground to a halt. The way out was not to tighten government spending and cut services but to “prime the pump” – invest in jobs, industry and people. The New Deal, wherein the government spent millions on public-works projects, employment plans and social programs, became the most famous recovery program in U.S. history, paving the way for decades of prosperity.
In Canada, the federal and provincial governments have made commendable efforts to provide immediate relief. But we need a more sustained, long-term investment if our economy is going to truly recover. It’s time for a COVID-19 New Deal for cities – not only to stimulate the economy, but to simultaneously address 21st-century challenges, including inequality and climate change.
Cities are among the largest employers in the country. We run the subways and buses that take people to work, fix roads so trucks can deliver goods, provide waste collection, drinking water, emergency services and much more. We also manage shelters, libraries, community centres and parks. We are uniquely positioned to take the lead when it comes to infrastructure projects and managing public investments. We also have the chance to use this historical turning point to address some of our biggest challenges.
The pandemic has exposed the extent of our affordable housing and homelessness crisis. In Toronto alone, more than 100,000 households are on the wait list for housing assistance, and around 8,000 people are sleeping in shelters on any given night. If you didn’t feel a moral imperative to address poverty before, COVID-19 has exposed the negative health effects of poverty for our entire society. We need to invest in affordable and supportive housing while also exploring new ideas such as modular housing and changes to zoning to increase density. Public investment in housing works as an economic stimulus, not only by creating jobs in construction and development but also by providing people with a place to live and better health outcomes.
We also need to take action on climate change and sustainability. Around the world, other cities are considering recovery in conjunction with sustainability. We have a chance to pioneer projects that get people back to work while reducing environmental impacts, such as energy retrofits of public and residential buildings, improvements to transit systems, design projects to prioritize walking and cycling, and investments in parks and green spaces. We can employ more people to build a new, greener economy. This is an opportunity to finally address climate change.
There’s a catch: The COVID-19 response has wiped out many cities’ budgets. In Toronto, due to increases in services and lost revenue, the pandemic is costing $65-million a week.
Unlike federal and provincial governments, municipalities are not permitted to run deficits during recessions to get the economy back on its feet. Cities also have the lowest source of revenue of any level of government, and we can’t adjust sales or income taxes to account for increased spending. We know cities have been struggling with increased responsibilities without adequate revenue for years. But this pandemic has left our municipalities with huge needs, which will only grow as the economic impacts become clearer. Cutting services just when our residents need them most is not an option.
That’s why we need our federal and provincial partners to step up and sign a New Deal for cities. Local governments are uniquely prepared to implement public investments in jobs, infrastructure and social services immediately.
We have to take the lessons we’ve learned from history, the New Deal and progressive economics and apply them to today’s challenges. Our cities can lead the way to recovery and become stronger and more sustainable than ever before – but only if we invest in them.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.