Why does Toronto exist, and what is it for?

OPINION: The recent Supreme Court decision and a shameful display at city council both call into question the kind of future we’re building here — and the interests that will shape it
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 05, 2021
Toronto mayor John Tory (left) listens to questions from the media in Toronto on March 31; Premier Doug Ford’s reflection is shown in a plexiglass divider. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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You’ll never go broke betting on the fundamental unseriousness of Toronto city council. The latest example of this truth came on Monday evening, when council voted once again to postpone taking any kind of action to legalize rooming houses throughout the city, something that is obviously necessary and for which the counter-arguments are all uniformly foolish, when they aren’t outright vicious.

To recap: rooming houses are already legal and regulated in the oldest parts of Toronto, where they offer a desperately needed form of affordable housing for some of the city’s low-income residents. Rooming houses also exist illegally and unregulated throughout the rest of the city, but precisely because they’re outside the law, the city lacks a regular, easy process to tackle them — often, tenants don’t even want to report obviously unsafe living conditions, because the only answer the city has is for them to be suddenly homeless, care of the fire marshal’s office. The obvious and only solution is to legalize these homes and formalize their operations with a licensing regime.

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So, naturally, Toronto council won’t do it. Formally speaking, the decision backed by Mayor John Tory on Monday evening doesn’t kill this item; it just defers it until next year. A number of new demands for staff (including parking requirements) could very well kill any attempt to broadly legalize these homes. And if it comes back for another vote at all, it will be well into an election year, when the same forces that have neutered this policy so far will have an even greater incentive to disembowel it in public, if they don’t simply kill it outright.

Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong did us all the favour of at least being honest about his opposition, saying, “Fundamentally, what we need to talk about, what we don’t talk about enough in this council, is homeowner’s rights, people who invest in this city, who live in stable residential neighbourhoods, the people that pay the taxes in this city. We’ve got to start talking more about that if we’re going to move forward.”

It would be hilarious if the stakes weren’t literally life and death. Toronto city council — no more or less than any other municipal council in Ontario — can barely be moved to address the needs of anybody but homeowners unless it’s faced with substantial, concerted activism. The city has paralyzed itself over more than a decade now by dogmatically insisting on keeping residential property taxes among the lowest in the GTA, and that disproportionately benefits homeowners. And this has been the cause of a slow starvation of important city departments, including bylaw enforcement and licensing – precisely the departments that Minnan-Wong blamed for not enforcing the rules against existing illegal rooming houses.

But we shouldn’t assume Minnan-Wong’s objections, or those of his fellow-travellers on council, will stop at rooming houses. There are other housing files coming through council’s tortuous committee process; one of the most important to keep an eye on is the planning department’s work to create more flexible zoning to allow small-scale apartments in areas traditionally protected as “stable residential neighbourhoods.” It’s the kind of change that, depending on the kinds of policies the city adopts, could make substantial numbers of more affordable units available to buy or rent. But if it does anything, that would only be because council decided to incrementally reduce the privileges held by those same “tax-paying homeowners” on whose behalf council’s conservatives are so terrified.

To put it another way, the opponents of rooming houses have given us every indication that they’ll oppose even minor reforms to the city’s exclusionary zoning laws elsewhere, and we should believe them.

That could almost be enough to make housing advocates appreciate the current provincial government’s fondness for overruling council decisions, except no: it turns out that, when push comes to shove, Housing Minister Steve Clark seems to have no more spine to stand up to suburban NIMBYs than anyone else does: a supportive-housing project proposed for the Willowdale area (represented by PC MPP Stan Cho, now an associate minister in cabinet) was overwhelmingly approved by Toronto council earlier this year, by a lopsided 20-1 margin.

The project requires a ministerial zoning order to move forward as quickly as possible; Clark has repeatedly maintained that, when it comes to MZOs, city councils are in the driver’s seat; this ought to have been a no-brainer, given council’s enthusiastic endorsement. So it was both disappointing and also grimly predictable that Clark decided in August to deny this project an MZO on the grounds that the city needed to conduct “further consultation” with the local community — even as his office granted an MZO for a similar project in an NDP-held riding that had survived identical consultation processes and been approved by a large margin at council.

To be blunt: Clark’s decision cannot possibly be consistent with all the Ford government’s previous explanations for why and how it uses MZOs — which makes a cynical reading of it pretty unavoidable.

If neither Toronto council nor the provincial government is currently covering itself in glory when it comes to making policy, that’s in large part because voters aren’t demanding they do any better. Clark, Tory, the mayor’s deputies on council — they’re all keenly aware that a noisy minority of voters can punish elected officials for daring to make space for new people in places where the existing landowners would prefer exclusion.

But these cases, and the recent Supreme Court decision reaffirming that the Ford government’s cuts to Toronto council were constitutional, raise a central question we need to answer at some point: What is Toronto for, exactly? Who are we building it for? What future do we want to see here, and whose interests are we going to let shape that future? How will the basic institutions of local government reflect (or not reflect) the diversity of people who call the city home — and the people who would like to but can’t?

Those questions will be answered, one way or another, by voters and the choices they make. 

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