As members of the City Council met on the morning of February 15 to finalize the 2023 municipal budget, protesters gathered outside Toronto City Hall. They demanded that City Council prioritize housing insecurity, public transit, and the City’s net-zero commitments while diverting money away from law enforcement.
The rally was organized by the Toronto and York Region Labour Council and endorsed by 11 partner organizations. Here is what some of these groups have to say about the City’s new budget.
The Toronto Drop-in Network
“It’s a really cruel budget,” said Marianne Kozinets, training and engagement coordinator at the Toronto Drop-in Network, in an interview with The Varsity.
The Network is dedicated to helping those in precarious housing situations. Kozinets asserted that the budget ignores the basic needs of people, in favour of policing.
One of the Network’s hopes going into the rally was that City Council would fund warming centres to stay open 24/7 up until the end of March. Kozinets explained that some shelters only open if the weather drops below -15 degrees Celsius, but people still “freeze to death” even at higher temperatures.
Kozinets also pointed to the problem of limited shelter space. The city currently has a 7000-person capacity across 63 shelters, but spaces are immediately filled when they open up.
There is a “huge disconnect” between city councillors and the people who are actually experiencing housing insecurity, Kozinets asserted. She would like to see more councillors visit spaces like shelters and warming centres, and speak with the employees and people staying there. “Why do we have so many homeless people? There’s a reason and they can find out by asking those questions to the people who are experiencing it,” she said.
The Varsity reached out to City of Toronto Media Relations for comment and was directed to the City’s press release from February 15, 2023. The press release notes that the budget allocates two billion dollars to develop and protect “vital housing,” including funds to implement multi-tenant housing projects and the Multi-Unit Residential Acquisition (MURA) program. MURA is designed to provide low-income residents with affordable housing by supporting non-profit organizations to purchase, renovate and operate market rental properties.
It also includes $10.8 million to be invested in the Toronto Community Housing Corporation in addition to a $295.8 million subsidy. The corporation is a non-profit owned by the City of Toronto, which provides social housing for lower-income Toronto residents.
“The more that we cut service and increase fares… we make riders leave,” said Monica Mason, a spokesperson for TTCRiders, in an interview with The Varsity.
TTCRiders is a grassroots organization that advocates for equitable and accessible public transport. The organization went to the February 15 rally in hopes of stopping proposed service cuts and fare increases.
Mason noted that the current plan puts the TTC in a “death spiral”: cuts cause ridership to decrease so the TTC loses revenue, which in turn prompts more service cuts.
Furthermore, Mason noted that cuts primarily affect TTC service during off-peak hours like evenings and weekends, which impacts low-income riders, shift workers, women, and racialized individuals the most. Crowding limits will also be increased on buses in response to service cuts, which Mason points out becomes a problem of accessibility for those who use wheel-trans services.
Mason noted that one positive did come out of the February 15 meeting, when councillor Shelley Carrol successfully motioned to add $500,000 to a pilot program to expand mental health services on the TTC. Still, Mason believes that is still a meagre amount compared to the budget for police in these same spaces.
The City’s press release notes that the TTC 10-cent fare increase is below the rate of inflation, and the previous rate is frozen for seniors and pass holders. It also notes that the Fair Pass Transit Discount Program has been extended to make 50,000 more Toronto residents eligible. The program allows low-income riders with Presto passes to save 33 per cent on adult fares and 21 per cent on monthly passes.
Social Planning Toronto
“We would like an improved democratic process around the City Budget,” wrote Jin Huh, the executive director of social planning Toronto, in an email to The Varsity.
The organization is a charity that is dedicated to pursuing social equity in the city. Huh acknowledged that the rally outside City Hall was an opportunity for people and groups to voice their dissatisfaction with the tabled budget.
She called the amendment’s “last minute changes” insufficient to meet the city’s needs. Huh asserted that individuals and organizations should have more substantial opportunities to participate in the budget approval process.
Toronto Environmental Alliance
The budget does not come close to “addressing the scale of the climate crisis,” Sarah Buchanan told The Varsity in an interview. Buchanan is the campaigns director at Toronto Environmental Alliance — a non-profit that addresses issues of environment, health, and equity in the city.
“There is a political will to address climate change and advanced climate action. But we haven’t been seeing enough political will to actually find the funding solutions to make that climate action happen,” said Buchanan.
Some of those funding solutions are seeing support in the council. Members passed a motion to look into commercial parking levies, something that TTCRiders and Toronto Environmental Alliance have been pushing for. The vacant home tax, an additional tax on residential properties that are left empty and are not the owners’ main residence, also came into effect this year.
Buchanan also criticized the strong mayor model as undemocratic. Under the former model, the Council and the Mayor would put together the initial budget proposal in a joint process. Under the Strong Mayor model, she explained, the council and the public can simply “make comments,” but there is no obligation to take their input into account.
City Council had voted in December 2021 to accelerate their net-zero emissions goal from 2050 to 2040, a decision that she notes that former mayor John Tory had strongly supported.
The police budget is “fiscally irresponsible, and does not actually support the well-being of anyone,” said Andrea Vásquez Jiménez in an interview with The Varsity. She is the director and principal consultant of policing-free schools — an organization that works to remove police presence in school spaces.
The organization demands that money be diverted from the police budget toward addressing the “root causes” of insecurity and “social and structural determinants of health,” which include public transit, mental health supports, and the availability of affordable housing, described Jiménez.
According to Jiménez, despite the Council passing amendments that address some of these issues, the measures taken have not been adequate.
The Toronto Police Service’s Response
A spokesperson from the Toronto Police Service (TPS) noted that the service has a “legal and moral obligation” to provide core police services and keep emergency response times low, which the service is struggling to meet as the city expands and public safety issues become more complex.
Chief of police Myron Demkiw declared in a budget committee meeting on February 13th that the TPS would be focusing on providing these core services this year. He noted that the TPS is “one of the leanest policing organizations on this continent” when compared with those in other major urban centres, based on the ratio of officers to residents.
The spokesperson also noted that $18.5 million of the budget increase was required to meet collective agreements with employees, which the TPS does not control.
Finally, they acknowledged that “the Service embraces the notion that we are not the only organization in this city that plays a critical role in ensuring public safety,” as evidenced by partnerships with other agencies in the City.