3 key issues ahead of Toronto’s 2022 council elections

As a muted Toronto municipal election campaign draws to a close, experts say the issues of service delivery and affordability are at the top of the ballot.

During previous election campaigns in Ontario’s capital, sparks have flown, and major promises have been unveiled. The polarizing figure of Rob Ford hung over Toronto’s 2010 and 2014 mayoral races, with the latter seeing a record turnout of roughly 60 per cent in Toronto.

But the 2022 election has been quieter, as incumbent John Tory seeks a third term.

Read more: Runners and riders: Toronto mayor candidates, policy positions and background

Experts believe that after more than two years of the pandemic, and in the face of growing financial worries for the city, reliable service delivery rather than high ticket projects could be on the ballot.

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“It’s interesting, the order of government that is closest to you, and upon whom you depend for most of your services, is actually the one that brings up the least number of voters,” Mary Rowe, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute, told Global News.

Below are three key issues and how they could impact the upcoming mayoral race.

Housing affordability

The cost of living, both for homeowners and renters, is top of mind for many as they head to the polls.

Many city services in Toronto are funded by property taxpayers, while the city is responsible for key housing decisions ranging from homeless shelters to specific local zoning laws.

A recent report by Rentals.ca found the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto was $2,474 per month in October — up 27.5 per cent from 2021. The Toronto Regional Real Estate Board said the average Toronto house sold for $1.1 million in September.

Read more: Toronto mayoral candidates clash on housing, transit, costs in board of trade debate

Tory, Toronto’s incumbent mayor, has said he wants a mandate to update zoning rules in the city he believes are holding development back.

In particular, he has promised to allow medium density housing — known as the missing middle — on major transit routes. The two-term mayor has also promised to keep property taxes — a key source of municipal revenue — below the rate of inflation.

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“You always want to up choices for people in neighbourhoods and across cities and regions,” Rowe said, outlining the key issues Toronto’s next council will face on housing. “And that means finding new ways to remove the obstacles and new ways to incentivize really great, healthy, beautiful urban development”

Gil Penalosa, who is running one of the most high-profile campaigns against Tory, has also focused on densification.

The challenger has pitched a “renovation revolution” which would give any homeowner in Toronto the right to divide homes into up to six units and build up to four new floors. The move would end so-called exclusionary zoning, which limits the kind of housing that can be built in certain neighbourhoods.

Stephen Punwasi, another challenger, has suggested building new rental homes on land owned by the Toronto Transit Commission.

Click to play video: 'Battle over Toronto’s Willowdale council seat defined by supportive housing gripes'

Battle over Toronto’s Willowdale council seat defined by supportive housing gripes

All three policies offer to increase housing supply in an attempt to lower costs.

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For candidates ahead of a municipal election, housing supply can be a delicate rope to walk: offering policies that increase density without alienating voters who oppose significant changes to their neighbourhoods.

“The benefits of increased density far outweigh the things that people are anxious about —  so much of this is about anxiety,” Rowe argued.

Maintaining Toronto’s parks

Matti Siemiatycki, a professor at the University of Toronto, has noticed the focus on affordability in Toronto’s municipal election campaign permeating the discussion — alongside a second debate.

“The two issues that have stood out in this election are the parks and affordability,” he told Global News. “Affordability, obviously, the big one and its ripple effects out from housing, into cost of living and all sorts of other aspects.”

He said parks have risen to the top of the discussion “as a symbol of a sentiment (around) where the city is going, or a feeling of where the city is going.”

The maintenance of parks in Toronto was a flashpoint in the spring, in particular, when warmer weather increased their usage while washrooms remained locked and water fountains switched off.

City council directed staff to aim for the end of May to get fountains, washrooms, outdoor pools and splashpads up and running.

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Read more: Toronto posts new request for private security firm to ‘patrol and monitor’ parks

Critics of the incumbent mayor blamed low taxes and city policy for issues in Toronto’s parks.

“That’s both a literal issue about (park) usage, but it’s also very much being used in the election as a symbol of a question about whether city services are deteriorating,” Siemiatycki.

A virtual announcement about Tory’s platform to improve parks on Twitter was met with derision from many.

The announcement was retweeted just 14 times, while it received roughly 250 “quote retweets,” many calling out the candidate. Critics shared the tweet, citing how Toronto has handled housing encampments, washrooms and water fountains as a few concerns.

Click to play video: 'Questions about police tactics during Toronto park evictions'

Questions about police tactics during Toronto park evictions

With Tory pitching property tax rates below the rate of inflation during his potential third term — and the city facing a growing funding gap — parks could be a symbol for the tension between higher costs for better services or lower taxes and cuts to the amenities city hall provides.

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“In part it’s very literal, like that people want to have access to water fountains and washrooms,” Siemiatycki said. “I think it’s (also) clear that it’s being tied to something much broader around questions about austerity — questions primarily about effectiveness of actually providing those services.”

Transit and COVID recovery

The COVID-19 pandemic, stay-at-home orders and a migration to remote work wreaked havoc on Toronto’s subways, streetcars and buses.

Ridership on the Toronto Transit Commission, according to data from July, remains below pre-pandemic levels, reducing the revenue collected from fares and hampering service.

Meanwhile, long-awaited construction projects are slowing drivers, cyclists and transit users.

The Eglinton Crosstown LRT has been delayed indefinitely past its 2022 completion deadline, while streetcar and bus service along large portions of College and Gerrard streets has been cancelled until at least next year.

Click to play video: 'Eglinton Crosstown LRT fails to meet target completion date'

Eglinton Crosstown LRT fails to meet target completion date

Rather than the promise of new long-term, higher order transit projects, one expert says reliability must come first.

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“I think we really need a strong focus on TTC reliability,” Jonathan English, transit policy director with the Toronto Region Board of Trade, told Global News. “There have been a lot of issues, many though not all of them construction-related, that have made TTC service less reliable.”

Different candidates have offered different visions for how the city’s transit service can thrive.

Penalosa, for example, has pledged to build tens of kilometres of painted rapid bus transit lanes that would separate TTC buses from general traffic and give them priority. Tory, meanwhile, is promising he will be a strong hand on the tiller.

“I’m committed to continuing this work and championing the TTC’s five-year plan that focuses on enhancing customer service and service reliability, prioritizing service transit and accelerating the integration with other modes of transportation,” the incumbent mayor’s platform said.

Others have pushed for changes to how the public pay for transit to increase its usefulness. Sarah Climenhaga is one such candidate, promising to abolish transit fares and fundamentally change how Toronto’s transit is funded.

Read more: ‘Dangerous and illegal’: TTC investigating after video appears to show men train surfing

According to English, success for Toronto’s next mayor on the critical transit file will be straightforward to see.

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“Success is getting riders back on the TTC, improving reliability, and having a clear plan for fare integration that can attract funding from higher levels of government,” English said.

“It’s also about delivering key state of good repair projects while disrupting riders’ service as little as possible.”

Toronto’s municipal election will be held between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Oct. 24.

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