When councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam announced this week that she would be entering the mayoral race alongside John Tory, the former MP spent some of the moments after accepting his nomination speech at the recent Toronto mayor’s debate. In response to an attack by Doug Ford on the previous mayor, Olivia Chow, he said the difference between Conservative and Liberal governments “is that with both men the voices of the housing seekers in Toronto was not heard”.
Some of the challenges are simply logistical. Until Tuesday evening, the council code of conduct required councillors to register the apartment of each of their three children at least 30 days in advance, giving developers a heads-up that a condo unit might be available. No more: an amendment passed in a 14-6 vote banned the practice, which many community groups and the Toronto office of Habitat for Humanity complained gave developers an unfair advantage in bidding for federally-regulated public-private partnerships.
But, when pressed about his position in question period, Mayor Tory was unable to explain what changes he was seeking to the code, suggesting it would be within his powers to do so. And he warned the council that it could “open itself up to a lawsuit from tenants or from developers”.
But this week’s vote marked a rare loss for the Tory team: the vote itself wasn’t about Rooming Houses. It was about releasing a list of the city’s properties classified as surplus – more than 80,000, according to estimates cited in a recent city report. The question was whether voters should have the right to see this list, and if so, whether they have a right to make an informed decision.
The chair of the council audit committee, Glenn De Baeremaeker, a Tory ally, had previously made the recommendation that empty, government-owned properties be made available to the public. He had also called for the historical registry of rooming houses to be opened up, which would involve the removal of restrictive zoning rules. His chief rivals in the mayoral race are set to launch lawsuits to force the city to release the data.
During the debate on Tuesday, Tony Vella, executive director of the Building Association of Toronto & Region, noted that “this is the first time in 30 years that rooming houses are being made a part of the democratic process in this way”.
In the past, campaign finance is one of Toronto’s real battlegrounds. This year, apartment building developer Hilton Bohbot promised to spend “hundreds of thousands of dollars” fighting a byelection on behalf of his party. But right now it’s voting that appears to matter most.