Hey Olivia Chow, John Tory, or anyone else who wants to take a stab at running this town: Here are five big (and 21 small), incredibly smart ideas to build your campaign around. On the house.
The last few years have been difficult for Toronto—what with the incompetence, recklessness, criminal connections, and angry divisiveness that have defined the mayor’s office at City Hall, and at times threatened to define the city. As we head towards an election this fall, I, for one, long for leaders who will—as urban designer Paul Bedford is fond of saying—make passionate love to our city. So, here, I humbly present 26 ideas—five big, 21 small—to make Toronto a better place. They are free to any candidate. So if you’re running, or thinking about running, or know someone who is, here you go. No charge.
1. Raise taxes
Toronto is a bargain. We have the highest level of community services in the region, vast amounts of parkland, and the city is consistently ranked as one of the most livable places in the world and among the best spots in the world to do business.
And yet our taxes are very low. Toronto has the lowest residential property tax rate in the GTA, which is also about 20 per cent lower than the average for large Canadian cities. In the U.S., New York City’s property taxes are about 20 per cent higher than ours, and New York, like virtually all large American cities, also gets revenue from road tolls, local sales taxes, and a municipal income tax levy. None of which we have in our city.
So, despite the gravy-train rhetoric, we’re not overtaxed compared to other municipalities. And this current bargain-basement tax rate cannot support top-level services and infrastructure. City manager Joe Pennachetti has told council that there’s no more fat to cut. If we want to invest in the city, he says, we need to increase revenue. How? Here’s how:
a) In recent years, we’ve received a bump in income from the land transfer tax, but it isn’t enough and we can’t ask the small group of people who buy houses and condos each year to shoulder more of the burden. In fact, candidate David Soknacki has already proposed indexing land transfer rates to housing inflation, which is a good idea.
b) The vehicle registration tax—modest at $60—was cut by Mayor Rob Ford at his very first council meeting in 2010, and it should be reinstated, as unpopular as it was. Regular TTC users each pay more than $1500 every year, so a $60 annual per-car fee is not unreasonable.
c) A local sales tax of 2 per cent—which would bring our total sales tax rate up to what it was in 2006—would be an ideal source of revenue. It’s manageable, broad based, and lucrative: It could bring in more than $1.2 billion per year. A rebate to low-income citizens would make the tax more progressive. The city doesn’t have the power to levy a sales tax, so this one is up to the province—but mayoral candidates should advocate for it.
d) We could also raise property taxes moderately, bringing them in line with the regional average. If our property tax rate were equivalent to Markham’s (still lower than Mississauga, Ajax, and Brampton), the cost to the average homeowner would be an additional $15 per week. For the city, that would add up to about $400 million per year.
2. Build more housing—way more
The most significant component of affordability for most people is the cost of real estate. The average sale price of a home in Toronto has risen almost 75 per cent in the past decade, while rents over the same period are up 16.6 per cent (and vacancy rates continue to remain low). Although there are a lot of factors driving housing costs, like interest rates, at the base of it all we have a supply and demand problem. The solution is simple: build, baby, build.
We’ve already been doing this with condos downtown and it has been working: Rentals of condo units in 2013 were up 39 per cent over the previous year. Condo research company Urbanation credits this with keeping Toronto’s rate of rent price increases under 2 per cent between mid-2012 and mid-2013. But growth has been concentrated in a small area. Much of downtown has become a glass-walled Manhattan, and the rest of the city sprawls along like a two-storey Newark.
One tool to encourage construction outside the core is already under consideration by council: the creation of a new system that would make it easier for developers to get permits and approvals for mid-rise buildings. If we also deliberately upzone muchof the city—to allow more residential units (and height) automatically—we’d be on our way to seeing more broad development. The process could be expedited by creating other incentives, such as preferential tax rates for those who construct buildings between six and 12 storeys and communities of affordable townhouses.
We also have an untapped—albeit frequently discussed—opportunity in the laneway network that runs through most of the older parts of the city: Small homes facing onto lanes offer an easy way to increase the supply of living units, and create an income opportunity through rental or sale revenue to current owners.
Meanwhile, the city’s lower-income population urgently needs subsidized units. This could be accomplished by forcing high-rise and large building developers to either set aside 10 per cent of their units for affordable housing or by taxing them (through permit fees or otherwise) and using the cash to build or provide affordable homes.
3. Get on the bus
Much of the mayoral debate will centre on subways and light rail transit, and who doesn’t love a debate about rail technology? But the vast majority of Torontonians struggle with bus routes that are becoming more crowded and offer less frequent service. Making buses more frequent, plentiful, and comfortable could provide the biggest boost to most transit riders’ quality of life. Better yet, the city could upgrade bus travel for pennies on the dollar compared to subway construction. Toronto already employed this idea with great success in 2003, when a growth strategy focused on bus service led to record increases in ridership.
In the places around the world where transit has most dramatically improved (just Google “Bogota transit transformation”), the key has been rapid bus transit. Buses run in reserved lanes, with fewer passenger stops and traffic lights. The cost for this is a tenth of that of subways and less than half as much as LRT, and the operating costs are far lower, too. In our case, for about the same price as a three-stop Scarborough subway extension, a BRT service could run along Steeles, Finch, Ellesmere/York Mills, and Lawrence. Add some north-south routes (for instance, Don Mills, Jane, and Keele) and fast, comfortable, reliable transit would be within walking distance of everyone in the city. Best of all, the entire network could be in place in a few short years.
4. Hire a customer service czar
Everyone—particularly the mayor—likes to talk about customer service. So why do parents have to rise before dawn with multiple phones and computers at the ready to desperately try to register their kids for public parks programs and summer camps? Why is it impossible to buy TTC tokens with anything other than cash? Why is the Toronto Island Ferry so crammed every summer weekend?
Many of the city’s programs and services are run as if citizens are a hassle to be tolerated rather than the very reason those services and programs exist. Ombudsman Fiona Crean has reported that bureaucratic nuisances and red tape are a giant problem and complaints are spiking. A city doesn’t fix this by having its mayor give out his cellphone number. Instead, for starters, the mayor could appoint a customer service czar to streamline the processes required to navigate life and business in the city.
Mayor Ford promised to increase community consultation but never delivered. How about setting up ward assemblies with the power to make local spending decisions and advise their councillor on major policy issues? A couple years back, activist Dave Meslin presented a set of 36 easy, practical ways to make government more responsive to citizens, and while a few have been embraced, many other great ones—from participatory budgeting to better advertising and communication—are still up for the taking.
5. Quit yapping and Just do it, already
The decades-long battle over food carts and food trucks, which is finally approaching its conclusion, handily illustrates one of the most frustrating aspects of Toronto’s government. A simple idea finds itself debated and redebated to the point of standstill.
New York transformed itself into a pedestrian-and-cyclist-friendly paradise in a fraction of the time by trying out ideas as low-risk short-term pilot projects. Want to see if Times Square can become a pedestrian plaza? Put up barricades and haul out patio furniture and let citizens try it out. Want to test out bike lanes? Paint a stripe on the road and see what happens. Wondering if extra seating will draw people to city parks? Spend a thousand bucks on lawn chairs and check out the response. In each case, changes were made quickly and with little investment. If the idea sucked, it was easily undone. If everyone swooned, it became permanent.
We’re not strangers to this concept. We turn a giant parking lot at Exhibition Place into a temporary entertainment village for three weeks every summer. Celebrations like Pride and Caribana transform neighbourhoods all over the city for a day or a weekend every year. Last year, Yonge Street relinquished lanes to patios and pedestrians for a few weeks.
Toronto could go even further in becoming a pilot-project city. King Street could be closed to car traffic for a month or two to see if a transit-and-pedestrian corridor there makes downtown travel better or worse. Flea markets and fruit stands could take over suburban strip-mall parking lots on weekends to see if they make the streets friendlier. A bike lane could get a trial run on Bloor Street over the summer. That’s just for starters: Whenever people have a great idea, just let them test it out.
And here are 21 more small ideas—help yourself
6. Raise the first-time-buyer exemption of the land transfer tax to be the same as the average price of a house in the city. The rebate newbie buyers get on this tax has not risen in years, even as housing prices have skyrocketed. (The rebate is available to those who buy houses worth less than about $375,000; the average price is now over $550,000.) Those entering our competitive real estate market should get a break that reflects this climate. And the rebate should be re-evalutated each year, and pegged to the average housing price.
7. Set up every TTC station and vehicle to accept credit and debit cards.
8. Tear down the Gardiner Expressway east of Jarvis, then impose tolls on the remaining section of the road to cover its maintenance costs. Drivers who use it should fund it.
9. Toll the Don Valley Parkway, too.
10. Put at least $100 million a year for the next 10 years into Toronto Community Housing to address its capital repair backlog.
11. Establish a debit card for low-income residents that gives them free access to city recreational services and attractions like museums, art galleries, and the zoo.
12. Abolish the permit fees that are charged to groups trying to maintain and improve parks. Such groups make parks great community assets wherever they are formed. They shouldn’t be paying for the privilege.
13. Go ahead and build the downtown relief line, already.
14. To really connect the city to the waterfront, put a giant green roof over the railway lands just north of the Gardiner, and turn the whole stretch into parkland.
15. Fix the stupid registration process for city recreational services so it isn’t a crazy frenzy for a couple days a year.
16. Develop transponders for cars and smartphone apps to allow people to pay automatically for parking. This would virtually eliminate parking tickets and the cost of giving them out.
17. Cease the enforcement of municipal standards on the length of grass on lawns, along with all those other persnickety bylaws.
18. Have you seen the little businesses run out of shipping containers at Bathurst and Dundas? See how they’ve allowed local entrepreneurs to do well while livening up the streetscape on that corner? Let’s line the edge of every parking lot in the city with them.
19. Allow residents to set up neighbourhood associations on the Business Improvement Area model, which would give them the power to raise their property taxes for local public use, and to decide for themselves what they want to finance in their local community.
20. Participatory budgeting—allowing regular citizens a say in how we spend our money and balance our books—in general cannot come soon enough.
21. Take a cue from the “Toyota Way”: Make it a responsibility of every staff person to suggest ways to serve residents better and more efficiently. Make it a rule that no one will lose their job because they suggested a way to do things better.
22. The city government has a persistent gap of about 2,500 staff jobs that are budgeted for and officially approved by council but remain vacant year after year. Either hire to fill those jobs, as council has directed or eliminate them. The staffing budget shouldn’t be a slush fund.
23. Follow Calgary’s lead and pledge to end homelessness within 10 years. Six years in, their plan is showing results, and has housed more than 5,000 people.
24. Extend last call until 4 a.m. Or, better yet, eliminate it altogether.
25. Allow people to drink alcohol in public parks. Adults should be free to have a glass of wine or a beer while they’re having a picnic.
26. Keep the subway running until at least 4 a.m. on weekends and start service at the usual time on Sundays. Toronto is open for business seven days a week, our transit system should be too.
What idea do you think should be on the mayoral agenda? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.