Chairman's Desk

Mayor John Tory could be the municipal champion Canada’s housing crisis demands

As Canada’s housing crisis deepens, touching more and more families as it does, politicians are becoming desperate in their search for solutions. The balancing act is a tricky one: the interests of existing homeowners compete with the economic outlook and raw anger among younger generations, who have come to feel that owning a home will forever elude them. To date, reconciling these positions has proven to be an impossible task.

Recognizing this growing public policy tsunami, which has quickly become very real to everyday Canadians, the federal government made housing a cornerstone of its budget. The budget sought to provide incentives for people to enter the market through a tax-free first home savings account, along with direct payments to those facing housing affordability challenges. And it went further: the government committed $4 billion over four years, in order to build 100,000 new homes.

Sounds good, right? Well, there are a couple of problems. Inflation is threatening to rob people of their purchasing power, and millennials — now the largest generation in Canada — are unable to afford the homes being built.

But never mind that the long-term ramifications of this crisis are a disaster. The short-term consequences may be even worse for our political leaders.

Cleverly, Pierre Poilievre knows this. He has decided to capitalize on this issue and make it a central theme of his Conservative leadership campaign. His latest video features him standing before a clearly overvalued Vancouver house, lamenting inflation and municipal “gatekeepers.”

And so enter another set of players in this drama: Canada’s cities. Or, as the prime minister prefers, “essential partners.” Call them what you will — it is clear that cities have a huge role to play in dealing with this mess. Any federal government will need the help of bold and effective municipal leadership to make tough decisions and fix this issue amidst a foreboding macroeconomic outlook. In short, cities simply need to move faster and more imaginatively than they have before.

And to do that, they need — we need — a housing champion.

With Ontario municipal voters set to go to the polls this fall, their potential champion is waiting in the wings.

The housing crisis is particularly acute in Toronto, and this recent wave of pressure on municipalities serves as an opportunity for Mayor John Tory to cement his political legacy and demonstrate how to solve this national problem from the bottom up.

Presiding over not only the country’s largest municipality but its largest homeless population, Tory can deliver real progress in fixing our housing market. A genuine consensus builder with plenty of political capital and experience working co-operatively with his federal and provincial counterparts, Tory can serve as a model for other municipalities.

Working with council and city staff, he will need to be willing to take risks, sometimes against the wishes of key allies, to help fast-track priority projects. Much of it will be painful in the short term, but the mayor has demonstrated the temperament, experience and judgment needed to advocate for the necessary solutions.

The support of developers has been key to the mayor’s housing initiatives and construction in the city, but there’s not enough elasticity in the market to provide affordable options for everyone. While heeding calls to stop delays, he will also have to surgically ensure that what’s being built is sustainable, affordable and livable, adapting to the needs of modern urban communities.

Tory is a determined and accomplished leader. Now he must get his hands dirty. He must be guided by the proverb “Blessed is the one who plants trees under whose shade they will never sit.”

The housing crisis gives the mayor a chance to plant those trees, to succeed where others have failed, to put his hard-earned reputation on the line to lead on an astonishingly complex issue.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 17, 2022.

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