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The Toronto skyline on Oct. 5.Alex Lupul/The Canadian Press

Rocky Petkov is a volunteer and housing advocate with More Neighbours Toronto.

Toronto is on the verge of greatness. During the last 50 years, it has grown from an industrial city in the shadow of Montreal into an emerging centre of technology, finance and the arts, and it looks poised to continue along this trajectory.

In order for Toronto to remain attractive to top talent, it’s vital that elected leaders double down on investments into the fundamentals of what makes a good city: roads, garbage pickup, parks, schools and transit. However, this will mean little if the decade-plus increase in housing costs, which are pricing many people out of the market, is not addressed first.

This challenge is negatively impacting not just Toronto, but Ontario as a whole. According to a recent Scotiabank report, last year saw the highest level of out-migration from the province in four decades, with rising housing prices cited as one of the primary causes. While the report points out that it’s difficult to fully untangle the rise in this out-migration last year from the broader context of the pandemic, it is far from the only troubling sign.

Between 2002 and 2021, there was a nearly 11 per cent decline in the number of children under the age of five living in Toronto, even as the city’s population has grown by 12 per cent in the same time period. A similar (albeit less pronounced) trend can be seen in the 905 area, with the number of children under the age of five remaining stagnant despite record population growth. A high cost of living driven by the housing crisis is often cited as the reason families have chosen to leave the region.

Taken together, these trends testify to a truth that many in Toronto have long grasped intuitively: It’s hard for many to imagine much of a future in the city.

While campaigning across the city for several candidates endorsed by More Neighbours Toronto in the municipal election next week, I’ve been privy to some heart-wrenching stories of hard-working residents who face the difficult choice of either keeping a roof over their heads or putting food on the dinner table. Across the city, lives have been placed on hold because the cost of appropriate housing for a growing family is simply unaffordable.

There is a reason why ads beckoning Torontonians to move to Alberta have struck a nerve. For those struggling to live their best life – or any life – the city’s high housing costs are the promise of a future denied. Many will opt to move, and once they are gone, it’s unlikely they will move back and face the dire economic circumstances that prompted them to leave in the first place.

For a long time, immigration has been able to make up for any out-migration from Toronto. But will the city remain the premier landing point for newcomers when their families and communities have moved elsewhere? What future will the city have if newcomers and young people can no longer imagine building a life for themselves here?

The housing crisis is not just a question of high rents and record sale prices. It cuts to the core of whether Toronto will be able to hold on to the entrepreneurial and creative energies that have powered our growth for the past half-century.

Recent debates around preserving heritage buildings – including a reluctance to alter neighbourhood character left undisturbed since the 1960s – show that many of the city’s decision makers are not ready to address this issue with an urgency that reflects the gravity of the situation. Thus, it is necessary to elect a new generation of leaders who recognize the stakes and have the courage to make bold changes on housing.

While it will take at least a decade to build more than a quarter-million new homes – Toronto’s share of the 1.5 million necessary for Ontario’s supply to catch up with demand – the decisions made in the next two to four years will be critical in determining whether this goal can be achieved.

If civic leaders remain reluctant to act, however, Toronto may soon find that its best days are already behind it.