Op-ed: The city balances its budget on the backs of students

UTSU VP External on the postsecondary metropass fare increase and the growing disconnect between students and the city
JACKY LAI/THE VARSITY
JACKY LAI/THE VARSITY

It is hard to hide from the fact that the City of Toronto is facing an ever-increasing crisis of affordability right now. This crisis is affecting everything you could possibly need — rent, food, transit, and more.

Toronto City Council knows this. But some members of City Council seem to barely care.

In fact, highlighting student concerns around members of City Council feels futile. They either have no idea about it, no idea how their actions have impacted it, or no desire to fix their mistakes.

I’m going to focus on something that could be perceived as incredibly ‘minor’ in the grand scheme of things — postsecondary student transit costs. Students at U of T have a sordid history when it comes to negotiating lower transit costs, twice failing to pass referendums that would have introduced the UPass and greatly benefitted student transit across the city.

Unfortunately, the City of Toronto saw the UPass as their solution to a larger problem of affordable transit for students, and really hasn’t considered anything else since then. This is despite the fact that the Post-Secondary Student Metropass is only available to full-time students, and that many students don’t commute enough to warrant the already high cost of the pass.

After University of Toronto Students’ Union members first rejected UPass in 2008, the City of Toronto introduced the Post-Secondary Student Metropass the following year in order to ensure that full-time students from various institutions received some form of discount to use the TTC.

In recent years, City Council has approached public policy through the means of austerity, service cuts, and cancellations of necessary projects. Due to budget constraints, the City  of Toronto cannot be in a deficit, and as such some services increase in price every budget cycle.

This year they chose students to be their victim. Specifically, the 2020 TTC Operating Budget singled out the Post-Secondary Student Metropass, raising the price from $122.45 to $128.15. This may seem like a measly sum of an extra $5.70 per month, but think clearly about the implications of this. This increase is proportionally larger than any other TTC increase that has been proposed this cycle. Additionally, the rising cost of living in Toronto continues to push students and other residents into substandard, illegal, or dangerous housing situations.

City Council has the power to levy various increases in other areas too, from a revival of the $60 vehicle registration tax — which would generate over $55 million — to minor increases in the property tax that amount to the cost of a few coffees per year. Funnily enough, City Council generally rejects these proposals, but is fine asking students to pay an extra $68.40 per year to use our public transit system.

These actions are despite a motion that was passed by City Council in consultation with Councillor Mike Layton and Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam to begin a study on the reduction of postsecondary student fares on the TTC in October. This change also prompted me to reach out to Councillor Josh Matlow, who has started a petition against unjustifiable increases in student transit prices in response to this increase.

Students have been viewed as temporary fixtures of neighbourhoods across Toronto, often changing where they reside year by year. Increases in transit costs force students to make tough decisions about where they live. On one hand, a student may choose to live with their family, or in a location further from school to save money on rent. On the other hand, they may decide to live close to campus despite the skyrocketing costs of living downtown, including the rising cost of their commute.

For some students, the financial benefits of living further from campus can be suddenly outweighed by the new cost of their commute. The question becomes whether it is worth commuting. While rent remains high, increasing transit costs may no longer justify time spent commuting. These decisions can lead students into the hands of predatory landlords who promise cheaper rent downtown, but often leave very little protection for their residents.

So let’s be real. The City of Toronto’s actions tell students that they don’t matter, that our voices aren’t heard, and that they see us as ‘temporary’ residents of the city, so who can blame us for taking actions that they City of Toronto deems unacceptable? It is no wonder that in 2017, 40 per cent of students surveyed responded that they dodge fares on public transit, or that students live in substandard or outright dangerous situations which could lead to preventable tragedies.

It is time for City Council to get their act together — listen to students and actually consider our situations when creating widespread policies.

We need to make our voices heard as well — attend community meetings, email city planners, go to City Council, do deputations. Speak on the issues that you care about, otherwise City Council will remain ignorant to our concerns. We aren’t just temporary residents. We are the future of this city, and if Toronto wants to retain the talent and experience of its students, they need to make it worthwhile for us to stay.

Lucas Granger is a fourth-year student at Innis College studying History and Urban Studies. He is the Vice-President, External Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU).

Disclaimer: Lucas is a candidate running for Governing Council Constituency 1 – Full-time Arts and Science students.

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