Toronto mayoral candidates spar over how to pay for affordable housing

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By Michael Lewis

Special to Ontario Construction News

There was little disagreement among the six leading Toronto mayoral candidates who faced off in a housing-focused debate at George Brown College’s waterfront campus May 24 over whether Toronto urgently needs more affordable housing.

Olivia Chow, Brad Bradford, Mark Saunders, Josh Matlow, Mitzie Hunter and Ana Bailão all acknowledged that the city has failed to deliver housing sufficient to meet the needs of its growing population. They agreed that the approval process for construction of new dwellings should be streamlined, especially for multiplexes and geared to income rental options, that more resources should be dedicated to housing and that greater densification is warranted in areas such as transit corridors.

But the consensus began to fray around the question of who should pay, and over what role governments should play. The audience at the event hosted by George Brown and co-sponsored by partners including the Residential Construction Council of Ontario heard Chow, a former NDP MP, argue that the city needs to return to its role as a builder of affordable, co-op and supportive housing. Chow, who leads the race with 34 per cent of the decided vote according to a recent poll, cited the supply of municipally owned land along with available land around public institutions such as colleges and universities as possible housing development sites.

We need “to come back and do it ourselves. We did it in the past with the St. Lawrence neighborhood and Bathurst Quay and we can do it again.”

Ex Toronto police chief Saunders drew a smattering of boos from the George Brown audience when he said: “I’m not moving into housing built by government.”  He also cautioned against calling on higher levels of government to help solve the city’s housing woes. “Anyone that is adding another level of government is moving in the wrong direction,” he said, though he added that he supports mixed-income housing with non profit involvement.

Toronto councillor Matlow said he would fast-track affordable housing. “When people want to make existing homes more affordable by adding units, they shouldn’t pay the same fees as condo developers.” Matlow also said the city should focus on building liveable communities that include services, infrastructure, parkland, and a good quality of life. “If we don’t have a good quality of life companies won’t come.”

Former councillor Bailão said while she is happy that a housing debate is being held at all she suggested that “just increasing supply is never going to create the deeply affordable housing that residents need.” She said all three levels of government along with developers and non profits must work together toward a solution.

City councillor Bradford said red tape and resistance to densification have created a “broken process that that has inhibited house construction.” The answer is not more bureaucracy, he added. “There is an endless spin cycle as paper is passed from desk to desk.” As mayor, he said he would focus on removing barriers to new house building. “Speed is the key. We need to create a culture of getting to ‘yes.’”

Hunter, who said she resigned from her job as a Liberal MPP to run for mayor, said she has a comprehensive plan to build more affordable housing. “Toronto needs to be somewhere young people can live,” reiterating her pledge to build all types of housing faster if elected.

“We need to fix the Six,” she said, calling Toronto a beautiful city with challenges including a shortage of affordable housing, adding that “government needs to invest as well.”

Saunders, taking part in his first major mayoral debate, turned the discussion to property taxes, saying that “Olivia Chow is ready to tax. So, let’s stop dancing around this and get right to the point.” Bradford said Chow would introduce a 20 per cent property tax hike.

Chow said she is looking at increasing land transfer taxes or so-called  mansion taxes on $3 million dollar-plus homes and on funding affordable housing from other taxation sources including a vacancy tax hike, adding that she would aim to achieve a “fair deal” with the province for housing support.

Saunders, Bradford and Bailão have all said they would keep property tax increases at or below the rate of inflation.

The debate was one of three held on Wednesday after a debate on the arts earlier and a debate focused on Scarborough in the evening. The housing debate was sponsored by RESCON, which represents builders who construct the bulk of new housing in the province, along with several other organizations in the housing sector and was hosted by former Toronto councillor Joe Cressy, a senior vice president at George Brown.

The byelection to replace former mayor John Tory, who resigned in February after admitting to an inappropriate relationship with a member of his staff, is set for June 26.

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