City wrong to choose roads over community housing
TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – For Mayor John Tory money was no object for an ill conceived subway expansion and repairing the Gardiner expressway, even if we had to borrow it. But on housing the mayor is crying poor.
Jan. 19, 2017. By DESMOND COLE
When I was a kid and my parents took me to the mall, I usually kept my mouth shut. On the few occasions that I begged for the latest Nintendo game or that slick GT Snow Racer many other boys had, I already knew the answer: we can’t afford it.
This never seemed to add up. If we could afford our big suburban house with a garden in the backyard, how could we be too broke for a measly Super Mario game? Today, I understand that my parents didn’t pay cash for that house, but borrowed money from the bank and slowly paid off their debt over the years.
“We can’t afford it” was my folks’ way of saying toys were not worth the cost of going deeper into debt. But they always kept that big roof over my little head.
Today, I live in a wealthy city that lets people’s roofs crumble onto their heads, even as it borrows billions to fix a highway. Toronto’s housing crisis is now forcing hundreds to leave city-owned, subsidized units that have become too decrepit for humans to live in. Our politicians say “we can’t afford it,” but the truth is that basic housing has never been their priority.
Toronto Community Housing is planning to close 425 subsidized units this year because it can no longer afford to maintain them. TCH told the Star an additional 17,500 units — 30 per cent of the corporation’s total housing stock — are in critical disrepair. For now, people still have to live in these defunct spaces with rotting ceilings and broken appliances. For decades, successive local, provincial, and federal governments have let social housing deteriorate while they invested in people who can already afford homes.
The other real estate market — the one for people who can afford to own property — has been booming in Toronto for close to a generation. People from all over the planet with money to invest have chosen to do so here, in large part because taxes are relatively low.
A 2014 report by the financial services firm KPMG rated Toronto as the most tax-competitive major city in the world. This is the formula for prosperity, we are always told. But the immense wealth that has poured into our city hasn’t been used to build and maintain affordable housing; much of it has been given back to property owners in the form of tax breaks. How can we house the poor if we can’t lure investments, the politicians moan, and the cynical cycle continues.
Mayor John Tory inherited this legacy of housing neglect, and has made it worse with his own empty rhetoric of low taxes. Tory has taken on billions in debt to build a small extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway. Under his direction, council rejected a much cheaper, provincially funded light rail option for the same area. Tory has also invested billions to maintain the Gardiner expressway instead of tearing it down. In these cases money was no object, even if we had to borrow it. But on housing the mayor is crying poor.
When Tory was asked about the city’s housing investments this week, he said, “We have put in now pretty close to a billion dollars of city taxpayers’ money, and we cannot go on just doing that because we can’t afford it.”
Yet when the voters who put Tory in office want costly roads and subways, he goes to the bank. Tory is right to say the property tax base was never meant to fund housing, and that Queen’s Park and Ottawa aren’t paying close to their respective shares. But these governments use Tory’s rhetoric against him. They similarly claim a responsibility to fuel prosperity by keeping taxes low, even if people are thrown from subsidized housing as a result.
Metro columnist and city budget enthusiast Matt Elliott told me bluntly this week, “I don’t have any time for politicians at city council who say the city is broke.” Elliott pointed to debt-financing for transit and roads as proof the city is choosing some investments over others. “The money is there if they want it to be, it just comes with trade-offs,” said Elliott.
The cost of borrowing money in Canada has hardly ever been cheaper than it is now. In 1991, the Bank of Canada’s interest rate was 16 per cent; today it stands at 0.5 per cent. Even so, Tory and his ilk seem so afraid of the political trade-offs of low-income housing investment that they are watching as TCH literally falls apart.
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