On June 12, the six frontrunners of the Toronto mayoral byelection participated in a debate at U of T’s Innis Town Hall, hosted by the School of Cities. The debate was themed around housing affordability, and candidates took questions from student leaders and community advocates.
The debate included Ana Bailão, Brad Bradford, Olivia Chow, Mitzie Hunter, Josh Matlow, and Mark Saunders. Only candidates who polled seven per cent or above between May 15–29 inclusive were invited. The event was moderated and livestreamed by CBC Toronto.
Torontonians will head to the polls to vote on June 26.
Ana Bailão, former deputy mayor and chair of the Affordable Housing Committee, said that she “led the city” in adopting its current definition of affordable housing — housing that charges rent below 30 per cent of an income close to that of the average household. She stated that she believed the housing debate was about the social and economic health of Toronto, which would affect the city’s ability to attract skilled workers.
Bailão proposed to add purpose-built student housing to protect students from competing with others for units, and she also promised to work with universities to build more housing units on university-owned lands. In addition, she emphasized the importance of engaging both private and non-profit developers to increase the overall supply of housing — a position around which she clashed with Olivia Chow later in the debate.
Brad Bradford, city councillor for Ward 19 Beaches—East York and urban planner, said he believes affordability means different things to different people. He said that Toronto needs to depart from the regulatory status quo, including the zoning bylaws, to supply more housing for students. Although he acknowledged the genuine desire of some homeowners to renovate their homes, he also promised to fight against “renoviction” — which is the practice of landlords evicting tenants for the purpose of renovation.
Bradford stressed the importance of a whole-government approach to address the housing crisis in the city and promised to work with both the provincial and federal governments to build more units. He mentioned that it is necessary to ensure non-profit developers have access to capital, and he would work with the federal government to make that possible. He also criticized the lack of support for refugees, who, he pointed out, make up approximately 30 per cent of shelter occupants.
Olivia Chow, former New Democratic Party Member of Parliament for the federal riding Trinity—Spadina and the current frontrunner of the race, argued that housing should not cost more than one third of a household’s income and no one should need to use food banks after paying their rent. Her solution for the housing shortage put a strong emphasis on adding cooperative housing instead of privately-built properties.
Chow told The Varsity there were good cooperative student housing plans at Toronto-area universities. She said the city needs to step up and partner with those cooperative housing programs to help secure funding and land. “[Student cooperative housing] has been done for a long time. So what you can do is, the city can partner with the student co-op and find the land, [and] help you get the [Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation] funding,” said Chow.
Mitzie Hunter, a former Liberal Member of Ontario Provincial Parliament for Scarborough—Guildwood, said she believed housing is a human right, and young talents are leaving the city because of the lack of affordability. She plans to make changes to city zoning, promising to create “student zones” near campuses to allow more student housing.
Hunter also suggested the city should step up and build more affordable units, and she proposed to create a new Toronto Affordable Housing Corporation to develop housing on city-owned lands. She promised that 77 per cent of those developments would be affordable rental and home ownership units. In addition, she stressed the importance of addressing housing injustices, saying that she would work with non-profit organizations to identify members of historically marginalized communities who are in need of housing and offer them below-market rents.
Josh Matlow, City Councillor for Ward 12 Toronto—St. Paul, acknowledged the need to work with and incentivize private developers to increase affordable housing supply, but he said the city should not rely on the private sector’s altruism. He proposed a “Public Build Toronto” initiative to build housing on public lands and underutilized city properties such as parking lots. He added that he would work with universities to direct a portion of those public-developed housing specifically to students.
“I’m going to move forward with a ‘Public Build Toronto’ initiative to work with student unions, colleges and universities… [and] work with [students] to make sure that students are in mind as part of those plans,” Matlow told The Varsity after the debate.
Matlow also said the city should go after predatory landlords to hold them accountable, and he would negotiate with the provincial government to create policies that offer better protection to tenants. He mentioned that creative initiatives such as cooperative housing and homeshare should also be included as part of the solution.
Matlow explained to The Varsity that the homeshare initiative, which he helped create, allows university students to stay with participating seniors who live near university campuses. Under the program students pay ultra-low rents, while the amount offers a significant boost to hosting residents’ retirement income at the same time. “It’s a great intergenerational opportunity for both the older adult and the student to be able to just make ends meet month to month,” said Matlow.
Mark Saunders, former Toronto Police Chief, said that with the rapid growth of population in the city, the current housing supply cannot keep up with the increasing demand. He added that as a police officer, he saw lots of residential buildings that were in extremely bad conditions. He said he would work with the federal government to help create more affordable housing across the city.
Saunders also suggested creating a “navigation system” to accelerate the development approvals. “These approvals can be done within a year and not the average of three to five years that was taking place right now,” said Saunders.
Regarding city-built housing, Saunders said he “fundamentally disagree[s]” with the city building housing. He said that existing city-built initiatives do not meaningfully address the issue of housing, and similar proposals by other candidates would result in significant tax increases. “[Government-built housing] continuously gets in [its] own way,” said Saunders. “When you look at ‘Housing Now,’ they had their own property and there is still not a shovel in the ground.”
Students and Community
Aidan Thompson, the Vice-President, Public and University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), sat down afterward to discuss the debate with The Varsity. Although the union was not one of the main organizers of the debate, it has been running a “shadow campaign” on Twitter that highlights issues affecting U of T students, including housing.
In an interview with The Varsity, Thompson said he found the debate relatively positive, and thought that candidates tried to be consensus builders. “We really need to take a ‘Yes, and…’ solution. And by the end of the day, it seemed like most people were unanimous on that. So that was positive to see,” said Thompson.
Thompson said that although U of T has been a local leader in housing development, given increasing enrollment numbers, the university needs to act faster than its current pace.
“The issue is that we upped registrations and enrollment at the university by five per cent last year. That translates to a change of about 41,000 students to 45,000 students,” explained Thompson. “That’s 4,000 new students on campus, and when you spent the last five years building 560 new units, [it means] we need to move a lot faster.”
Speaking on the low turnout among students in the recent elections, including the UTSU’s own election, Thompson said that oftentimes candidates have failed to engage students and the union has been working to address the issue for years. He said when students tune into mayoral races or higher level elections and realize the candidates are not listening to their concerns, it is likely students will think their votes are irrelevant.
“I think [candidates] really need to focus on actually talking to students and listening to students… When students see results from their votes, they actually will be engaged on an ongoing basis because they see that they can claim agency in their environments,” said Thompson.