On September 28, the School of Cities, a U of T research hub focused on urban studies, appointed Ana Bailão as a Canadian Urban Leader focusing on housing. Her duties in the School during her one-year term will include conducting research, leading events, and sitting on its External Advisory Board.
Following the decision, the hub has faced controversy from tenant rights activists and researchers.
Bailão was a Toronto city councillor for 12 years and deputy mayor of the City for five years, during which critics say her voting record did not go far enough in supporting housing affordability.
From January to March this year and again from September to the present, Bailão has been Head of Affordable Housing and Public Affairs for Dream Unlimited, a real estate consultant agency based in Toronto. The company is facing a rent strike of over 200 tenants that started in June about rent increases above standard provincial guidelines.
Controversy has also played out online around her appointment; in response to the School of Cities announcing Bailão’s appointment on X — the platform formerly known as Twitter — 45 users had left comments, all of which — as of October 22 — were negative.
In contrast, the School of Cities’ X posts announcing the appointment of the other three current Canadian Urban Leaders — Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty, former Toronto City Manager Chris Murray, and former Mayor of Edmonton Don Iveson — had not received any negative comments as of October 22.
City Council voting record
In an interview with The Varsity, Jeffrey Ansloos, an affiliate faculty member of the School of Cities and associate professor at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, said the think tank appointing someone with Bailão’s history shows it’s headed in the wrong direction.
“I thought it was very disturbing that somebody with a vested interest in private housing development would be setting an agenda for a housing research community,” he said.
“My question for the School of Cities is: what actual solutions for housing that address the most precarious and marginalized people in our city does Ana Bailão’s record speak to?” he added.
In 2022, Bailão voted against rent control measures on housing that the City partially funded. As the City Council’s housing chair, she failed to gain enough votes to legalize rooming houses — a generally affordable housing option where landlords rent individual rooms that share facilities like washrooms or kitchens — in what she called her biggest regret during her time as chair. According to Ansloos, her time in office showed “a pattern of voting against affordable housing.”
In a statement to The Varsity, a School of Cities spokesperson said the think tank selects Canadian Urban Leaders based on government service, experience managing a portfolio with an urban focus, an ability to promote the School of Cities’ work, and “a proposed project for their term which aligns with the School of Cities’ objectives.”
Bailão has also taken some action on affordable housing. In her first term as city councillor in 2012, she convinced the mayor to retract a plan to sell off 600 units of social housing. More recently, in 2022, she spearheaded policies to relax zoning bylaws to allow laneway homes and garden suites and promoted student housing in her recent mayoral campaign, including at a debate that the School of Cities hosted in June.
Dream Unlimited employment
In an interview with The Varsity, Bruno Dobrusin — an organizer at York South-Weston Tenant Union, which includes residents of two buildings on a rent strike against Dream Unlimited — said the School of Cities appointing Bailão is equivalent to having an oil executive direct climate change research.
“You’re aligning yourself with… a representative of a developer that is filing to evict hundreds of tenants. We’re in a housing crisis. How can you take the advice and the research of a person who is actually part of a mass eviction process?” he said.
Residents taking part in the rent strike on 33 King Street and 22 John Street properties are on their fifth month of not paying rent, while Dream Unlimited has threatened to evict them.
In a public statement, Dream Unlimited wrote, “We are concerned that the tenants are getting bad advice as they are responsible to pay rent, and will need to pay rent, to stay in the buildings.”
The statement read that the above-guideline rent increases at 33 King Street were put in place by a previous owner, and so Dream Unlimited should not be held to account for them. It added 22 John Street was built after 2018, so government rent control does not apply, since provincial legislation from 2018 struck down rent control for apartments built or occupied after November 15 of that year.
Overall, Dubrosin believes that solutions for affordable housing issues come down to leadership, especially at institutes like the School of Cities. “We cannot get the people that created [the housing] crisis to be the ones to fix it,” he said. “It’s only going to make it worse.”
Ana Bailão and Dream Unlimited did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment.