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John Tory’s affordable housing plan is in trouble. Blame Doug Ford, not city council

City council has never been an obstacle to the mayor’s affordable housing plan, but the province’s new housing bill certainly is.
Nov. 22, 2022
Matt Elliott

Big number: 30, the number of significant votes taken at Toronto city council meetings during the 2018-2022 term related to Mayor John Tory’s affordable housing plan. The mayor went 30-0, winning every vote in a lopsided fashion.

Mayor John Tory’s promise to add 40,000 new affordable rental homes in Toronto by 2030 is looking like a promise that will be really hard to keep. HousingTO, the mayor’s signature housing plan designed to meet that goal is facing big delays, big financing challenges related to rising interest rates, and -- in a new twist -- big uncertainty thanks to changes foisted on Toronto by Premier Doug Ford.

None of these roadblocks, you should note, have anything to do with Toronto city council.

That’s important to understand because, when asked last week about his justification for asking Premier Doug Ford for new legislation that would allow the mayor to pass bylaws with just one-third support at council meetings, Tory suggested the change was necessary to ensure progress on housing.

But a review of council votes reveals that council has never been anything close to an obstacle for the mayor in pursuing his affordable housing plan.

Of 30 council votes I looked at related to advancing HousingTO initiatives, Tory was on the winning side of all of them. His record is spotless: 30 wins, no losses.

And none of the wins were nail-biters. Tory was posting lopsided Ws from the start. The initial vote, in December of 2019, to approve the HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan, passed 24-1, with only curmudgeonly Ward 2 Etobicoke Centre representative Stephen Holyday opposed.

A couple of months later, a plan to create supportive housing opportunities passed with no objections at all -- a 22-0 result.

Phase two of Tory’s Housing Now program -- a plan to use city-owned land to develop projects with affordable rental housing -- also carried 24-1. (Holyday, again.) Phase three carried 22-0. And modular affordable housing projects in Scarborough, East York and North York were approved 21-1, 20-1 and 20-1, respectively. (In all three cases: yes, it was Holyday. You detecting a pattern?)

Tory did face strong opposition on one housing-related issue: his push to legalize multi-tenant housing -- also known as rooming houses -- across the city. The mayor opted to delay two scheduled votes on the matter, so it obviously isn’t part of Tory’s 30-0 record. But even on this controversial issue, the opposition was nowhere near intense enough to justify a change allowing Tory to pass bylaws with only one-third support.

A council insider told me there were 13 votes, including the mayor’s, ready to pass the new, more permissive rooming house bylaw in October 2021. With a full house of 26 possible votes, Tory needed just one more vote to ensure victory, as council votes lose on a tie.

Given that many of the councillors prepared to vote against Tory were appointed to posts like deputy mayor or budget chief, Tory had an opportunity to play hardball and threaten to impose consequences -- like losing those titles -- on those who went against him. He decided not to.

Tory also later endorsed and campaigned with some of the same councillors who weren’t willing to back him on the rooming house issue. Go figure.

But, speaking of campaigns, following the October election Tory’s new council is a lot different than the old one, with nine councillors who weren’t around for last term’s housing debates. Vote projections today suggest there could now be up to 15 “yes” votes to legalize multi-tenant homes -- a clear majority.

Even if that proves optimistic, Tory could have at least given the new council an opportunity to demonstrate their position on housing issues before running to Premier Doug Ford in search of powers to overrule two-thirds of them.

The mayor going to Ford for new powers is especially weird because Ford is directly responsible for some of the big troubles facing Tory’s affordable housing plan.

A new report from interim city manager Tracey Cook on the agenda for this week’s city council meeting -- the first of the term -- outlines all the ways Ford’s proposed Bill 23, the “More Homes Built Faster Act,” threatens to undermine the HousingTO program by removing an estimated $200 million in annual funding for housing services by imposing changes like reductions to development charges.

“This change would impact the City’s ability to: provide affordable housing; invest in new shelter services; meet the 40,000 affordable rental approval target outlined in the HousingTO 2020-2030 Plan; and continue to deliver the Open Door, Housing Now and Multi-Unit Residential Acquisition programs,” writes Cook.

In other words, virtually every significant program the city has to provide affordable housing is at risk. And the power for Tory to pass bylaws over the objections of two-thirds of Toronto’s elected council will do nothing to fix that. When it comes to getting truly affordable housing built, Tory’s most significant roadblocks aren’t in the council chamber. They’re at Queen’s Park.