City must strengthen its housing commitment
Toronto needs to allocate more tax dollars to the cause — before asking for help
One gets the impression Mayor John Tory woke up one day this spring and discovered that Toronto has a housing crisis, especially when providing affordable units for citizens on fixed income and low salaries.
Suddenly, he’s after Queen’s Park to help the city fix the crumbling social housing stock. Or else!
For a long time it has been transit; now, he’s found out that housing is as much of an “imperative.” Some 110,000 Torontonians live in subsidized housing.
Another 181,000 are on the waiting list. The current stock is crumbling, in need of $2.6 billion in repairs.
Instead of fixing them, the city has sold off $71 million worth of stand-alone homes and is closing broken-down homes at a rate of 600 this year and a further 400 next year.
It’s unconscionable — and has been a blight on our consciousness since 1998, when it became the city of Toronto’s responsibility.
The Mike Harris government dumped the units on the city as part of the damnable amalgamation download almost two decades ago.
Every mayor since Mel Lastman has groused about social housing. None has done more than raise a voice and evoke high-sounding moral arguments.
“The time for action is now. In fact it was before now, because repairing social housing is a moral, economic and social imperative,” Tory said last week.
Really? Why, then, do you not increase the city’s allocation of funds to repair the damaged buildings? Why are you promoting a freeze in property taxes instead of a dedicated 1- or 2-per-cent increase to build a fund that stops the closures?
The rehearsed answered is that the city has spent nearly $1 billion on the housing units. This claim glosses over the fact that much of that money comes from mortgage refinancing, asset sales, forgiveness of property tax and development charges. When it comes to real money — tax dollars that are in the competition for important services — housing isn’t at the top of the food chain.
So, it’s not a moral imperative at all; it’s a political one. And, as a political issue, social housing has fallen to the bottom of the heap.
In the mayoralty election leading to the amalgamation of Toronto-area cities in 1998, the eventual winner, Mel Lastman, flubbed the issue by claiming there were no homeless people in North York. The words barely escaped his lips when a homeless woman froze to death in a bus shelter in, yes, North York.
Then-city councillor Jack Layton seized the opportunity, became Lastman’s housing lieutenant, taught the mayor about the issues, and before long, Lastman had declared housing a national disaster. The housing file was at the top of the agenda. And news of a pending catastrophic social housing repair bill filled every newspaper.
The Mike Harris government had downloaded the housing units to Toronto without providing the cash to repair the units — all the while claiming the stock was in good shape and the province was handing the city a “gift of considerable benefit.” Lastman was apoplectic. “I’m saying cover the costs. Dammit, what’s wrong with saying cover the costs?” Lastman said.
Twenty years have gone by and nothing’s changed — except the repair bill is nearly 10 times bigger.
Internal documents reported on by the Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro show half the properties will fall into “critical” disrepair in the next five years, under current repair programs.
And now we hear that homeless people are dying on the streets at a rate of two per week this year. Be skeptical of elected representatives who wax loud and passionate about another level of government spending money on services and issues that the local council ignores for years — until they decide it’s politically expedient to holler and shout.
Of course, a wise politician uses election time to extract promises from governments that need public approval and votes. And Tory is doing so — ahead of the upcoming provincial election. But when he holds a news conference with Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown, who offers nothing by way of promised funding for social housing, except he wants to get criminals out of social housing, Tory risks exposing his campaign as anti-Liberal. (The NDP’s Andrea Horwath, meanwhile, has promised to fund a third of the housing repair bill).
Yes, council should send a list to all Toronto-area MPPs showing the social housing in their wards that are in danger of collapse.
Yes, city council should advocate for increased funding for social housing — push to the point of embarrassing their colleagues who are too comfortable with the crisis.
Yes, the mayor is right to call on the province to partner in putting social housing in a state of good repair.
But the advocacy will have more impact when city council commits more of the city’s own tax dollars to resolving the vexing problem.
“Let me be clear on this, any closure of such units would be a direct result of inaction of the other governments to partner with us in carrying out those repairs,” Tory says. “We have shown our leadership in good faith on this.” Only if you save the units, mayor. The people are with you on this. They will join the righteous campaign to pressure Ottawa and Queen’s Park, if they realize your actions match your rhetoric.
Better to say, “No, we won’t close the housing units when our vulnerable citizens need every one we have. We will house our poor. We will not abandon you and throw you overboard and then scream at province and federal governments to stage a rescue.
“Join us in the campaign and together we will fix the 20-year-old problem.” Royson James’ s column appears weekly
Mayor John Tory has suddenly discovered that social housing is in rough shape, Royson James writes.