Toronto 2018 Municipal Election: Top Housing Issues

Toronto’s municipal election is fast approaching, with city residents heading to the polls this Monday, October 22.

It has already been one of the most tumultuous mayoral elections in recent memory, as the new provincial leadership’s move to slash the number of wards from 47 to 25 has thrown city council – and election planning – into flux. Now that the initial dust has settled, two frontrunners lead a pack of 35 potential candidates – incumbent Mayor John Tory, and former Chief City Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, the latter viewed as the progressive option for those who wish to take a stance against the province’s meddling in municipal affairs.

Affordable Housing a Top Issue

However, regardless of for whom Torontonians cast their votes, one issue remains particularly top of mind for city residents – the steep cost of Toronto real estate.

In fact, according to a survey commissioned by the Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) in partnership with Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB), real estate and rental affordability is a top issue for 40 per cent voters, on par with crime and infrastructure.

“Residents of the GTA are concerned about housing affordability and availability,” said David Wilkes, BILD’s president and CEO. “People are concerned about where young families and first-time home buyers will live, or if they will be able to afford to live in the GTA at all.”

The survey also found that 67% felt the GTA is ill-equipped to provide the needed housing for an estimated 115,000 new residents moving to the region each year, with the population forecast to hit 9.7 million by 2041. TREB has also released a list of recommendations for newly-elected councillors and mayors that include:

  • review municipal zoning by-laws and consider changes to allow for more mid-density development such as townhomes.
  • resist community opposition and work with neighbourhoods by improving communication strategies to articulate the ability of mid-density developments to be seamlessly integrated into existing neighbourhoods.
  • prevent any new municipal land transfer taxes in the rest of the GTA.
  • reform the Toronto Land Transfer Tax to adjust the first-time home buyer rebate, and the threshold price at which the higher tax rate kicks in, for inflation, so both keep pace with the current average home price in Toronto now sitting at around $800,000.
  • conduct reviews of municipal planning approval processes for new housing applications with a goal of streamlining and shortening the process.
  • recognize the importance of infrastructure as it relates to housing supply and affordability, and move ahead with critical projects and investments such as regional transit as a key part of strategies targeted to addressing housing needs.

Where Tory and Keesmaat Stand

These pressing needs have been acknowledged by both Tory and Keesmaat, who have each unveiled plans to improve housing affordability as part of their platforms. Here’s a look at what each is pledging to do if elected.

Affordable Housing Supply

With the average GTA home price hitting $796,786 in September and mortgage rates on the rise, average Torontonians are seeing their affordability squeezed tighter than ever before.

In efforts to address this during his mayoral term, Tory created the Open Door Program, which leverages city land, and offers developers incentives via property tax deferrals and development charge waivers. He counts the processing of 18 city sites among his list of accomplishments and, looking forward, he pledges to continue to earmark city lands, especially those close to TTC stations for high-density infrastructure, as well as “attract social impact investors” to support the creation of more affordable housing.

While Keesmaat also plans to “unlock” city lands for development, she has proposed new programs to address the supply of affordable housing, the boldest being a new rent-to-own program that would draw its funding from a luxury homes tax. Under the program, qualifying residents would make monthly rent installments, capped at 80 per cent of the city average, with a portion to go toward a down payment. At the end of the rental term (between one and five years), residents can either leverage their built-up equity to take out a mortgage and buy their unit, or enter into shared ownership with either the city or non-profit partner. The initiative would be funded by a new 0.4-per-cent tax on homes worth $4 million or more, estimated to bring in $80 million annually for the program. However, in order to see the plan to fruition, tax laws would need to be changed at the provincial level.

Fixing Toronto’s Rental Market

Skyrocketing rents and lack of supply have reached crisis level in Toronto – with a vacancy rate below 1 per cent, it is one of the most keenly-felt issues for city residents.

Tory is campaigning on a promise to create 40,000 affordable rental units over a 12-year time frame, averaging 3,300 per year. This is in addition to the 3,700 affordable rental units approved for development during his tenure. He also highlights ongoing advocacy efforts in partnership with other Canadian mayors to leverage the federal $40-billion National Husing Strategy to create more affordable housing.

Keesmaat has revealed ambitions to create 100,000 new affordable homes over the next 10 years, with rents capped at 80 per cent of the market average. She also plans to work with the federal government and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to ensure their rental housing construction program prioritizes affordable rentals, as well as utilize the National Housing Strategy to focus on purpose-built rental designed to stay affordable on a permanent basis.

Lowering Property and Land Transfer Tax

While both candidates have pledged to keep Toronto property tax rates – which are among the lowest in Canada– capped at inflation or lower, neither is prepared to reduce the amount new home buyers must pay via the Municipal Land Transfer Tax. That’s a main affordability hurdle for Toronto’s home buyers, says TREB, as they are the only ones in Canada to be charged this closing cost both at a municipal and provincial level, paying $25,162 in levies for the average home transaction.

However, there’s no end in sight for the MLTT – it’s just too much of a cash cow, generating $640 million for city coffers last year alone.

“We’re just not in a position at the moment when it comes to meeting the needs of the city of Toronto to build transit and to help with affordable housing, to help with child care and things like that – to talk about a tax reduction,” said Tory to an audience of TREB realtors on October 3rd.

Keesmaat concurred, telling the crowd, “It would be irresponsible at this point, without another plan in place, to be proposing that we get rid of it. But it should be something we work towards.”

Click here for information on how, and where, to vote in the upcoming Toronto municipal election.

About Penelope Graham

Penelope Graham is the Managing Editor at Zoocasa, and has over a decade of experience covering real estate, mortgage, and personal finance topics. Her commentary on the housing market is frequently featured on both national and local media outlets including BNN Bloomberg, CBC, The Toronto Star, National Post, and The Huffington Post. When not keeping an eye on Toronto's hot housing market, she can be found brunching in one of the city's many vibrant neighbourhoods, travelling abroad, or in the dance studio.