Toronto, the biggest city in one of the fastest growing countries in the world, is facing an unprecedented housing availability and affordability crisis. Will the federal and provincial governments finally help?
This fall, I've had a chance to see Olivia Chow speak at length in her new role as mayor of Toronto.
In each appearance, calibrated to very different crowds, the first a way-too-early breakfast meeting for the keeners at the Toronto Board of Trade, the second, a stuffy room full of university-age teen spirit at a Dais event at the Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU; formerly Ryerson University where Chow has recently taught), Chow showed why she's been one of Canada's most enduring high-profile politicians since first being elected as a Toronto school board trustee in 1985.
Having thought of Chow in a rather static way up to now, a particular brand of NDP party left-wing, bicycling-riding politician, I found myself impressed by - and also once again wary of - that stardust political ability to shift - yet stay - in one's unique skin.
At the Board event, she sat back in her chair during an onstage Q/A, rattling off of figures and bottom lines like a canny independent business woman negotiating with an anachronistic landlord. At TMU, she rose to her feet and the edge of the stage with blazing Robin Williams eyes to extoll students to take up their rightful place in politics.
I saw Chow speak at TMU the day after she'd just announced an extremely ambitious housing plan on Oct 24, with its many risky moving parts, and I wondered what was the one thing she was really hanging her (hard)hat on - what was the one thing her failure to get right would doom the entire plan, like others before it, to something worse than failure - the nothingness that bureaucratic filing cabinets are made of.
Mistaking me for a student (I think), she looked deeply into my eyes and bestowed on me an intense "what a fantastic question" when I asked her (Dear reader, it was flattery and I was there for it).
Her response, which I am paraphrasing here, was admirably clear: "If I can't get the federal and provincial governments to come to the table with their money, I will have failed. Because it's not just their money - it's their sign-on that there is hope in an area where there is so little right now."
Now, it is true that her answer is very politically convenient in a federal country like Canada, which has elevated jurisdictional football to its second national sport.
But Chow's underlying complaint, that the accusation that 'Toronto just can't manage its budget (a $1.5 billion budget shortfall is projected this year) and get stuff done for itself' is not fair, is not wrong just because it's familiar.
Toronto, is the forever feckless child, in the eyes of Mom - the city exists through and its powers are delineated by the Province of Ontario which provides some funding to cities afforded by provincial taxes - and Dad - the federal government oversees the large standing transfers of funding and policy inducements to provinces it affords through its own federal taxation powers.
But Toronto is also their most popular child.
Chow has taken to repeatedly reminding us that Toronto is unique amongst other national 'magnet' cities like New York, London and Paris in not having full control of all financial tools such as being able to tax the commuters that pour into it daily to work, study and play. To remedy this, Chow is proposing, among other things, that the Province upload responsibility for maintaining the costly Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway (DVP) highways which are central to connecting the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), the most economically important region in Canada.
Of course, Chow is not unique amongst Toronto mayors in pointing these things out.
But something has happened in the many years since the federal and provincial governments downloaded more and more responsibility including the financing of many social services to Toronto in the massive belt-tightening exercises of the 1990s, when Canada was in a deficit fiscal crisis, and many argue, has continued since "by stealth."
That thing is a unprecedented population boom which Canada is currently generating, and that the Toronto area is uniquely impacted by. Stats Can reports that the Toronto area takes in 30% of new arrivals; other studies suggest that the true number of individuals and families eventually settling here is even higher when longer periods are tracked.
As my colleague John Pasalis has well-documented here at Move Smartly, since the election of the Federal Government of Justin Trudeau in 2015, this population boom policy, which has seen the unprecedented target of 400,000 Permanent Residents (PR) reached in 2021, set to rise to 500,000 in 2024 (a figure which does not include foreign student numbers, which have similarly expanded rapidly, temporary worker and refugee numbers), has had a catastrophic impact on housing availability and affordability.
Given Chow's own status as an immigrant to Canada, Chow is perhaps understandably not making this immigration boom a key part of her call-to-action, but she's not shying away from its truths either - days after her election, with refugees sleeping rough on Toronto streets, she told Trudeau that the federal government needs to provide funding for the refugees the country welcomes.
Leaving aside the case for such high levels of immigration (and there is one that reflects future economic concerns in countries with naturally declining populations), the failure of Ottawa (and its provincial and municipal counterparts) to foresee the impacts of such acceleration has been profoundly dismaying.
When asked why Chow thinks Ontario and Ottawa will come to the table in some kind of "new deal for Toronto" when they haven't before, I've now heard her repeatedly talk about her ability to get along with other politicians behind closed doors, telling us how she bonded with Ford over the death of his brother, Rob Ford, who like Chow's late husband, Jack Layton was also a well-known politician in Canada. Of Canada's Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland she says less, noting that they both "bicycle to work."
Though I've recently been unexpectedly charmed by Chow myself, I cringe at the prospect that our well-being as the subjects in one of the greatest experiments in 21 century politics - the aggressively growing, multi-national country that is Canada, most exemplified by its biggest city, Toronto - depends on such niceities.
While political biographers have long claimed that human relations are behind some of the most seismic agreements reached, I'd also argue that the larger political changes we're currently experiencing in Toronto and Canada as citizens are making their fears for housing, the environment, healthcare and education known to both Trudeau and Ford governments, also increase the chances that Chow may be able to pull off what others couldn't before.
So Chow, for now, definitely has my attention.
The first test for Chow will come right now, on Nov 21, when the Federal Government announces its Fall Economic Statement - if Freeland doesn't include a big funding announcement for Toronto housing, will Chow register a failure?
The second test comes later this month when the provincial-municipal working group recently announced by Ford and Chow (who have also asked Ottawa to join) will unveil its first move towards a "new deal for Toronto."
And I'm here for it.
Top Image Credit: Pamela Hackett - Olivia Chow speaks at The Dais event at Toronto Metropolitan University on Oct 25 2023 in Toronto, Canada.
Urmi Desai is Founding Editor at Move Smartly, a leader in Toronto housing and real estate news & analysis, and is Realosophy Realty's Chief Content Officer with responsibility for Realosophy.com and all consumer education and tools.
Urmi holds a B.A. in Political Science and English from the University of Toronto and an M.A. from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (Trade Economics) at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada).