New Toronto mayor lays out first steps in affordable housing plan

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow on Thursday presented what she called a “first step” in her effort to build 25,000 affordable rental homes, in addition to those already planned in the city.

In a motion supported by the city’s executive committee, Chow outlined a plan to have Toronto’s housing-related agencies work together on new public and community housing.

“I want to make sure they’re coordinating, that there’s kind of a one-stop-shop approach,” she said. “It’s the first step.”

The motion proposes revised housing targets to add 7,500 affordable homes — 2,500 of which are new rent-controlled units — and a new target of 17,500 rent-controlled homes.

That comes on top of the 40,000 affordable rental homes the city has already pledged to build by 2031.

Chow’s successful mayoral campaign earlier this year was marked by a pledge to get the city back into public housing construction, rather than leaving it solely to the private sector.

Count. Frances Nunziata expressed support for the motion on Thursday, saying approvals for affordable housing too often resulted in unnecessary application delays.

“I think it’s important that we all get together, all in one room, and talk about what needs to be done… and this way we can speed it up,” she said.

The motion, which will be discussed at a special meeting of the City Council on Sept. 6, asks staff to report by the end of the year on their efforts to align the city’s resources and identify appropriate plots for housing.

One of Chow’s first moves as mayor was to speed up discussions about the city’s long-term financial prospects and schedule the special meeting of the executive committee for Thursday.

The committee reviewed a major report prepared by the city manager and interim CFO, which describes a combined operating and capital burden of $46.5 billion over the next ten years. That includes an immediate operating deficit of $1.5 billion that the city will face as it opens discussions on its 2024 budget.

In an effort to cope with the challenging financial outlook, the report envisages several new revenue measures, including a progressive surcharge on sales of luxury homes and raising the vacancy tax from one to three percent.

A commercial parking charge was another proposed revenue tool, with public transportation advocates and industry lobby groups offering competing positions on the measure when it was discussed Thursday.

A levy of between 50 cents and $1.50 per day on non-residential spaces could bring the city between $173 million and $490 million in new annual revenue, according to estimates in a report by consultants Ernst & Young.

Vincent Puhakka of the advocacy group TTC Riders said a levy on non-residential parking could help reverse “devastating” cuts to TTC service.

“A collapsed TTC will ruin business downtown. Putting a charge on parking is not the case,” said Puhakka.

Several industry advocacy groups have spoken out against the levy, claiming it will hurt brick-and-mortar stores at a time when they are already grappling with a post-pandemic recovery and competition from online retailers.

“We ask that you look at it with skepticism,” said Michael Brooks, CEO of Real Property Association of Canada.

Brooks said that while the commercial real estate association opposes the levy, it would work with the city to push the county government to pass a sales tax in Toronto.

The Ernst & Young report estimates that a municipal sales tax, which would be the first of its kind in Canada but is used elsewhere, including New York City, could bring in about $800 million annually.

Chow campaigned with a pledge to push the state and federal governments for a new fiscal funding framework, given the city’s limited resources to generate revenue, such as property taxes, and its excessive role in providing transit and lodging services to the region.

The city manager has said that even if Toronto passed all the new revenue measures at its disposal, it would only cover an estimated 40 percent of the projected budgetary pressure.

“We don’t have revenue tools that grow with the economy,” city manager Paul Johnson told Thursday’s committee meeting.

“We, as the fourth largest city in North America, need to think about the ways major cities and major economic engines like Toronto are being treated in other jurisdictions and find ways to do that in a unique way in Ontario and Canada.”

The city council will discuss the city manager’s recommendations at its September meeting.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on August 24, 2023.

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