“Rumours of the death of Transit City have been greatly exaggerated.” –Toronto Councillor Joe Mihevc, former vice-chair of the TTC

According to lawyer Freya Kristjanson, an expert in municipal governance, Mayor Rob Ford did not have the right to cancel the Transit City plan without council approval. In an article in today’s Toronto Star, Kristjanson says that generally, executive and legislative powers rest with full council, in a “weak mayor-strong council” system. The City of Toronto Act (2007) requires that any act approved by council must be rescinded or amended by a subsequent vote of council. That includes Transit City. The legal firm of Cavalluzzo, Hayes, Shilton, McIntyre & Cornish, who produced the report, says Transit City was approved by council in 2007 as part of the Climate Change, Clean Air and Sustainable Energy Action Plan. “After that, City Council considered and voted on the necessary elements of the program as they came before council.” So when Mayor Ford signed an MOU with the province pursuing his “subways only” alternative plan, he was acting without legal authority. The lawyers’ report says that council must vote on the MOU for it to be valid; until then, it is only an agreement in principle.

The legal ramifications of Ford’s decision, made on his first day of office in December 2010, are yet to be seen, as are the economic costs (the unofficial estimate is $65 million). When Ford announced his intention to cancel Transit City, city councillors asked the Mayor to put the matter before council, but he refused, denying that the plan ever had council approval. My Toronto readers surely remember that Ford rode a wave of local support to victory, and a provincial election was to be held a mere 10 months after the municipal election; there was significant momentum, legal issues notwithstanding, propelling Ford’s rash decision.

Transit advocates like myself are interested in any policy or procedure that might restore a more balanced transit plan to the City of Toronto (kudos to Marcus Gee at The Globe and Mail, whose frustration at the City of Toronto’s lack of transit infrastructure foresight was unmistakable in “Toronto’s transit planning: No way to run a railway”, Saturday, January 27, 2012).

“Transit planning in Toronto is a colossal, humiliating failure. It is hard to imagine how any city could make a better hash of it…A city cannot act like this and expect to build a decent transit system. Rapid transit requires long-term planning, firm, consistent leadership and huge amounts of money. Cities that do it properly come up with a plan looking decades into the future and stick to it. Toronto? Toronto plays politics, cancels projects in midstream, draws up plans only to rip them up and delays, delays, delays.”–Marcus Gee, The Globe and Mail

But at the heart of this procedural debate is how little most of us know about municipal governance in Canadian cities. All of us, whether we are city councillors, planners, electricians, teachers, service workers, or students, need to familiarize ourselves with municipal and regional governance as it concerns service provision, local by-laws, and local budgetary decisions. Without a certain level of ignorance of our most basic legal principles (or an unwilingness to defend them, take your pick) Ford would never have been able to sign the fated MOU. Yes, legal principles on governance seem dry and uninteresting, and to be fair, the City of Toronto Act is only a few years old, so residents might be forgiven for not knowing all the details. But almost every aspect of our lives, from whether we can get our children into day care centres to whether our snow gets plowed on schedule, depends upon the division of powers between municipalities, the provinces, and the federal government. While Ford’s supporters allege that the defense of weak policy is a reliance on legal procedure, the office of Mayor compels adherence to specific legal procedures. Ford knows that, which is why his decision to cancel the Transit City plan hinged on his denial of its approval by council. Presumably, provincial Premier Dalton McGuinty is also familiar with these procedures from his career as a lawyer; yet, the MOU remains.

Maybe we need a new CBC series on the soap opera that has ensued since Ford took office. “…after DaVinci’s City Hall, tune in for Ford Twinmayor: Riding the Gravy Train.”

Update: Toronto City Council will vote at a special meeting on Wednesday, February 8th on whether to tunnel the entire Eglington line or bring the eastern end to the surface, using the savings to introduce light rail on Finch and Sheppard Avenues.

The home building industry may not have recovered in the US, but apartment construction is making a comeback. Within a few short years of the foreclosure crisis, everyone from architects to developers to planners have begun turning back the clock to a time when renting apartments and living in rooming houses were affordable, socially acceptable alternatives to homeownership.

Recently, journalist Neal Peirce advocated the return of rooming houses to address the need for smaller, more affordable units for young people, who have been adversely affected by the US recession (“Bring back the rooming house?” citiwire.net, November 12, 2011). Like other notable writers (Edward Glaeser, Richard Florida, Mark Hinshaw, Joanna Pachner), Peirce argues that it’s time to turn a new page on the postwar suburban single-family home:

“Unquestionably, tens of millions of oncoming youth will disconnect from the American vision of home as a “homestead”–the self-contained units of our American forbears, translated since World War II by a suburban home occupying its own lot.”  Neal Peirce, Washington Post Writers Group (citiwire.net)

Among the reasons young people will need new, affordable housing options: lower salaries, lower employment rates, delayed marriage resulting in more single-person households, a desire to live in mixed-use neighbourhoods near transit, and lower car ownership (does this sound familiar?) In Canada, the rising demographics (youth and young adults, immigrants, single-person and single-parent households, seniors) would probably jump at the chance to live in rooming houses, worker housing or affordable rental units, considering housing prices across the country. For example, where do you live if you’re an immigrant in Canada on a temporary worker permit? Your only real choice is renting a market-rate apartment, likely sharing with people you scarcely know. Downsizing senior? Good luck finding a condo that costs less than your house once maintenance fees are added in. Young adult working in your first job? You’ll be forking over about one-third of your salary to rent, even if you live in a mid-sized city.

Hinshaw, a Seattle-based architect and planner, argues that the recession has forced cities to think about Smart Growth rather than rushing forward into new development faster than public investments can be made (“Recession is producing a needed reset on land use”, www.crosscut.com, September 30, 2011). Now, cities and counties have the time to decide how and where to move forward. Some areas where local governments have made progress, according to Hinshaw: economic development through the construction of shared public spaces, redesigning streets to encourage different travel modes, and the development of rental housing.

“For far too long, elected officials and citizen groups have treated apartment developments like a pariah, relegating them to noisy arterial streets or slamming them behind strip malls. It’s as if only decent folk are those who own single family homes. If we learned anything from the past five years it is that the American ideal of home ownership has been cruelly oversold.”  Mark Hinshaw, www.crosscut.com

Changing development conditions (stricter lending standards, foreclosures, and a rapidly growing rental market) have made investing in multi-family rental housing a safe move for developers who, just a couple of years ago, would have built high-rise condos. Increased demand for rental units has resulted in rent increases in many cities that can provide developers a reasonable return on their investments (“Demand for Denver apartments exceeds supply”, November 29, 2011, NPR). NPR reports that this could be a lasting trend; one that harkens back to an era of when renting was more common than owning in many countries. In Canada, for example, pressing postwar housing needs were met through a boom in apartment construction during the 1950s.

If only Canadian provincial and federal governments would enable developers to build rental housing, rooming houses, granny flats and other housing types that would provide alternatives for various demographic and income groups. We’d have to turn back the clock to the 1970s, when experiments like co-operative housing became popular in Canada as foreclosures and interest rates rose. It seems that during economic crises, homeownership loses its rosy glow. Renting, co-housing, co-operatives, rooming houses, and rent subsidies make more sense to policy makers, developers, and planners during economic downturns, when few can afford to buy and governments are too poor to subsidize ownership. And yet, as all the authors cited in this article point out, North Americans still display a slavish dedication to the “dream of homeownership”; most have long forgotten that the “dream” was enabled by dirt-cheap postwar mortgages, artificially-low interest rates and government incentives for first-time homebuyers. If the current rental housing trend persists for more than five years in the US, and Canada finally passes its national affordable housing strategy, we might see the beginnings of a paradigm shift to rival the one that gave us single-family suburban homeownership in the first place.

Talk about timing. A few weeks ago, in time for provincial elections in Ontario, Manitoba, PEI, and Newfoundland and Labrador, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities released a report urging the federal government to support public transit and affordable housing in cities. This in itself is nothing new: FCM has long advocated stable funding for public transit and affordable housing in municipalities, who have been struggling to pay for new infrastructure and operating costs. The twist: FCM maintains that better transit and affordable housing can actually help immigrants integrate, and that municipalities should offer them along with services such as English language training (download their report: Starting on Solid Ground: The Municipal Role in Immigrant Integration). This echoes the findings of my Ph.D. dissertation, which found that flexible approaches to housing and transportation increased community resiliency.

This week, FCM and the Canadian Urban Transit Association met with members of the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities to discuss the idea of a National Public Transit Strategy. They argued that fast and efficient transportation connections through public transit are crucial to strengthening the economy. MP Olivia Chow, NDP critic for transport and infrastructure, introduced a private member’s bill on September 30th (Bill C-615, An Act to Create a National Public Transit Strategy) calling for the federal government to work with municipalities in the creation of a national transit strategy and create a stable source of funding for municipalities. She noted the economic benefits and the disadvantages of long commute times: Canada’s big city mayors have been pushing for a national strategy since 2007. In the CBC’s unofficial poll on this topic, 88% of readers agreed that Canada needs a national transit strategy. I needn’t go into this issue here in Vancouver: this week, an Angus Reid poll of 504 Vancouver residents showed that 85% want improvements to transit service and 75% felt those improvements should be funded by the provincial government. As I wrote in my last post, the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation votes today on the adoption of the Moving Forward strategic plan, which includes a 2% hike in property taxes and the beginnings of a new provincial-municipal funding agreement to help pay for transit improvements.

It looks like public transit is becoming a hot issue among cities of all sizes. The Regional Municipal of Waterloo is in the process of constructing an LRT line (currently in the planning process) funded by the provincial and federal governments. A strong motivation for the Region, which includes the municipalities of Kitchener, Cambridge and Waterloo, was increased immigration to the area, a point they raised at this year’s Metropolis Conference on Immigration and Migration in Vancouver. It’s very humbling to see the recommendations I made in my Ph.D. dissertation being echoed at the municipal, regional and federal levels. Considering the numbers of immigrants settling in Canadian cities every year (approximately 250,000 Permanent Residents and 200,000 Temporary Workers), governments need to do a better job of helping them integrate, and that includes more housing and transportation options. Maybe after decades of research and policy innovation in municipalities, we’re finally reaching the tipping point: let’s keep a close watch on Bill C-615 and Bill C-400, the bill creating a national affordable housing strategy (Bill C-304, the former private member’s bill of the same title and wording, was scrapped after the May 2011 election).

In an article in today’s Vancouver Sun (“Seven mayors weigh in–The case for funding public transit”, October 4, 2011), seven regional mayors weighed in on the importance of public transit infrastructure to the Metro Vancouver region: Dianne Watts (Surrey), Peter Fassbender (Langley), Richard Walton (District of North Vancouver), Gregor Robertson (Vancouver), Pamela Goldsmith-Jones (West Vancouver), Greg Moore (Port Coquitlam), and Richard Stewart (Coquitlam). This Friday, the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation, made up of 22 elected officials from around the region, votes on TransLink’s Moving Forward Supplemental Plan. The proposal includes a 2 cent-per-litre gas tax that will require provincial approval, a new joint long-term funding proposal approved by the Mayor’s Council and the province, and a temporary property tax increase that will cost about $23 per household for 2013-2014. Transit improvements include the Evergreen Line construction, improvements to existing SkyTrain stations, and service improvements in Langley and Surrey. If the plan passes, Minister of Transportation Blair Lekstrom has said that he will introduce legislation this fall enabling the gas tax by April 2012.

The mayors cite increased traffic levels and the 19.6 percent jump in transit ridership from June 2010 to July 2011 (due to transportation mode shifts during the Olympics) as proof that the region is overdue for transit improvements. 2011-2012 is shaping up to be another record year. They also reflect on the vision of previous leaders, who in 1980 struggled with the concept of rapid transit lines but eventually decided in favour of them. Clearly, they see themselves in sync with the region’s early strides towards sustainability.

“We have had the debate. Now we must move from words to deeds. The decision we make on Friday will forge the path Greater Vancouver so badly needs. Passing the 2012 Supplemental Plan is the right decision for Metro Vancouver’s transportation system, economy, and future livability.” –Dianne Watts, Peter Fassbender, Richard Walton, Gregor Robertson, Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, Greg Moore, and Richard Stewart

However, the municipalities of Burnaby, Richmond, the City of North Vancouver, Delta, and Langley Township have said they will probably vote against the plan. This is surprising considering TransLink’s extensive public consultation during the creation of Moving Forward showed that 80% of those consulted agreed with the proposed improvements and 75% said the Evergreen Line was important in reaching the goals outlined in Transport 2040, the regional transportation strategy. It’s also surprising considering Burnaby and Richmond have both been big winners in terms of transit infrastructure: the three existing LRT lines have paid off for them. With municipal elections a mere five weeks away (November 16th), the stakes are high; yet the stakes for the region have never been higher.

Update: The Mayors’ Council voted to support the Moving Forward Plan with 70% support from its 22 members.

Less than four short months ago, I stood at the back of a standing-room-only crowd in a film studio in Burnaby. Two thousand people packed the building; there were still hundreds waiting outside. Suddenly, the crowd began to cheer wildly, waving orange signs and Canadian flags as a slim, well-dressed man strode energetically up to the stage. As the excitement built up, he ran up the steps, waving and smiling, shaking his now trademark cane in defiance of a recent hip replacement. This was his last stop on the campaign trail, and his party was enjoying a surge in popularity. Two days later, the New Democratic Party won an unprecedented 103 seats in the federal election, and slim, well-dressed “Smilin’ Jack” Layton became Leader of the Opposition. 

It is a sad reality that Layton, who led the NDP to its most powerful position in its 50-year history, should not live to see the next Parliamentary session. Layton lost his battle with cancer quite quickly and unexpectedly in the early hours of Monday, August 22nd, and a nation mourns his passing. Many of us were looking forward to his sharp debating tactics and keen insights while defending the working class, urging protection of the environment, and supporting urban issues in Stephen Harper’s first majority government. The NDP as Loyal Opposition was the sole consolation, many of us believed, for the unsettling Conservative majority that came about on May 2nd after polls had consistently predicted another minority government.

Layton was a true leader: charismatic, passionate, fair, and deeply committed. And yet, he embodied contrasts. Layton grew up in a home steeped in politics; his father, was Conservative MP Robert Layton and his mother, Doris Steeves, was a grand-niece of William Steeves, a Father of Confederation. Although he received a Ph.D. in political science and taught at Ryerson University, Layton moved quickly  into public life as a Toronto city councillor. From 1984 to 1991, Layton was one of a handful of left-wing councillors, known for cycling, coming to council meetings in jeans and opposing mega-projects such as SkyDome. He became head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in the mid-1990s. After a couple of unsuccessful campaigns to become an MP, he was elected leader of the NDP in 2003; he won the Toronto-Danforth seat in a 2004 by-election.

Like many politicians, Layton worked hard at refining his image, crafting his responses to the media and developing insightful critiques of policies and agendas. He made lots of public appearance and became something of a media darling in the 2000s; “Smilin’ Jack”, he had become. He wasn’t universally popular; no NDP leader could be. Yet there was something real, something of the ordinary and everyday Canadian, that remained in that calm, well-honed political persona. As John Ibbitson writes, “Always there was, at his centre, this unshakable belief in social justice, married to principled conviction that politicians should treat each other and the voters who gave them their mandate with some measure of decency and respect.” That honesty shone through this spring’s campaign trail, as Layton poured beers at a Montreal bar and sparred with Michael Ignatieff during the English-language debate. Despite his education, his political lineage, and his polished public image, Layton appealed to Canadians as the guy next door, the politician you’d most like to have over for drinks. Compared to Ignatieff, who struggled to connect with voters not just because of his Ph.D., but because he did not appear to have an unwavering commitment to Canadians or to the public service, Layton appeared dedicated and genuine.

Layton’s commitment to public service were evident even when, less than a month ago, he disclosed that he was fighting a new type of cancer. He promised to take a few months over to deal with his health and then return when Parliament resumed in September. As The Globe and Mail reports, he met with NDP staff just two days before his death to hammer out two letters: one to Canadians, and the second to his party outlining the direction for the coming months. As always, he was optimistic, but also realistic:

“Hope and optimism have defined my political career. … As my time in political life draws to a close, I want to share with you my belief in your power to change this country and this world. Your energy, your vision, your passion for justice are exactly what this country needs today.” Jack Layton, August 20, 2011

Jack Layton’s death will rock the NDP’s foundations as much as the death of its first leader, Tommy Douglas, who also died of cancer after a political career that shaped this country through the introduction of its most cherished social welfare programs. The NDP will struggle rudderless during the months to come, but they will be the Official Opposition for at least four years. They will have to quickly elect a new leader and work desperately to maintain a strong presence in Parliament among the Canadians who voted for Jack, and not necessarily the NDP.

I only saw Jack one other time, also at a distance. A few years ago he was in Vancouver for the annual Gay Pride Parade, where he rode in a car festooned with orange NDP balloons, waving and smiling at the thousands who lined Denman Street in support of the LGBT community. He was present just six weeks ago at Toronto’s Pride Parade, an event that Mayor Rob Ford boycotted. In the jaded world of politics, Jack Layton had an integrity that spoke to Canadians regardless of their political leanings: he was committed to doing what he believed was right. He now stands among those great Canadians who fought for the greater good–Tommy Douglas, Nellie McClung, Pierre Trudeau, Terry Fox, Lester B. Pearson–whose deaths struck us to our very cores. Canada was built upon the work of these.

The City of Vancouver Housing and Homelessness Strategy, approved Thursday July 28th, is a bold move in the context of Canada’s increasingly unaffordable housing markets. The comprehensive, ten-year plan calls for the creation of 38,900 affordable homes in the city: 7,900 supportive and social housing units, 11,000 rental units, and 20,000 condos and “ownership” units. To help finance construction, the city intends to offer $42 million in land and capital grants to developers. 3650 of the supportive and social housing units will be built in the next three years. 1,700 of these were previously announced, but 1,950 are new developments which the city will build and run with BC Housing and non-profit associations, a model that has worked for decades in Vancouver. BC Housing will contribute 276 of the units, developers will build 205 (mostly due to density bonusing) and the city will seek funding for the remaining 319.

Until now, the city has remained in limbo in terms of building affordable housing, despite millions of dollars in contributions to its Affordable Housing Fund through density bonusing and a 20% social housing requirement for major rezonings of lands to multiunit residential use. Leaving construction of affordable homes to private developers hasn’t worked, so the city will partner with developers by providing grants and land in exchange for social and supportive units. The city will also lever its land resources and capital projects against funding from provincial and federal governments. The plan also calls for the city to approve more laneway housing and secondary suites. New affordable rental units have been achieved recently through the City’s Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing (STIR) initiative.

Like many municipalities tired of playing chicken with upper levels of government, Vancouver now has its foot firmly on the accelerator. The housing affordability crisis in Canada has reached ridiculous proportions, but we’re still working on the national affordable housing strategy (Bill-C-400), which replaced Bill C-304 from the previous session. Industry warnings of a housing market collapse have been circulated. And yet, the price of renting has increased much slower than the price of ownership over the past twenty years, as Canadian Business illustrated recently (“Rental Complex”, July 14, 2011). This article, the latest in a series of pieces in the popular press exploring the follies of ownership in today’s market, exposes the increasingly doomed love affair Canadians seem to have with homeownership:

“With widespread warnings that we’re approaching the peak of the housing boom, with Canadians more indebted than ever…why aren’t more of us re-examining the math? The reasons are cultural and emotional, backed by ill-conceived public policy. This Canadian Dream is an expensive delusion. There’s never been a better time to rent.” Joanna Pachner, Canadian Business

Along with increased acceptance of renting, the fallout from the US mortgage crisis includes recognition that the suburban, single-family home is no longer in huge demand: households without kids will increase by 90% from 2010 to 2020, according to Arthur Nelson, professor of planning at the University of Utah. This means far fewer buyers than sellers for single-family housing and an increased demand for multi-family and rental housing. As demographics and attitudes towards housing shift, the City of Vancouver is once again on the leading edge of policy innovation, though the plan is not without its critics. Hopefully elements of the plan will be evaluated throughout implementation, and discussed in other municipalities, which could help accelerate Bill C-400–the absence of a national affordable housing strategy has been holding up programs and funding between all three levels of government.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was elected last fall on a promise to “trim the fat from City Hall”. Easier said than done, as Royson James of the Toronto Star reports (“Rob Ford’s gravy train running on fumes”, July 12, 2011). The Mayor commissioned internationally-reknowned consultants KPMG to review the city’s expenses and determine what services could be cut. The results were far from surprising: in the public works and infrastructure department, the City could save money by:

  • keeping blue boxes out of apartments and condos
  • reducing snow clearing, grass cutting and street sweeping
  • ending fluoridation of Toronto’s drinking water

 

And that’s it…in fact, the City of Toronto considers each of these options regularly and has decided time and time again not to implement them because they’re political powderkegs. KPMG wrote that 97% of the City of Toronto’s expenses in the public works and infrastructure department were core municipal services. G. Michael Warren, in a Toronto Star editorial (“Ford Nation’s grim future”, July 6, 2011), outlines the reasons why the inner suburban “economically challenged members of the Ford Nation”, who depend heavily on city services, are the most likely to suffer from service decreases. I’m pretty sure cutting back on snow clearing isn’t an option: the 1999 “Snowmageddon” storm dumped 118 centimetres of snow on Toronto and Mayor Mel Lastman was forced to call in the army to clear 5000 km of roads. Another major storm hit Toronto this January.

Seven more reports on the city departments, efficiencies and room for “fat trimming” will be released shortly.

The Mayor has made headlines recently for voting against six wildly popular community grants (he was defeated 43-1 on the first four programs, 42-2 on the fifth, and 41-3 on the sixth). He ruffled feathers by refusing to attend Toronto’s Pride Parade. After Ford shut down Transit City, the Province of Ontario even blames “municipalities like Toronto and politicians like Rob Ford”  for traffic gridlock (“Fed up with traffic gridlock? Not our fault, Liberals say”Toronto Star July 12, 2011). Rookie councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, citing “the current administration”, recently commissioned a private-sector revitalization plan for Yonge Street. Although she agrees that it could set a dangerous precedent, there was no way a new plan would have been approved in the current mood of fiscal restraint.

A couple of weeks ago, we had what was probably the two busiest weeks in SCARP history. Susan Fainstein was here as our Scholar-in-Residence, SCARP celebrated its 60th anniversary, we hosted our third annual Student Symposium, and two doctoral students successfully defended their dissertations. Writing about all these other events has kept me busy until now!

Leslie Shieh examined Shequ (Community) construction in China, in particular the effectiveness of State policies in local communities (read the dissertation here). Her study, “Shequ Construction: Policy Implementation, Community Building, and Urban Governance in China” shows the impact of a wide set of policies intended to carry out administrative functions and deliver social care: under Shequ policies, thousands of service centers have been built, offering cultural and social services to residents. While many Western planners advocate for community-led change, Leslie’s interviews with local community groups and residents shows how much agency residents have under the Shequ policy framework and urban governance model, and challenges North American experiences of ineffective state planning interventions. Leslie’s work was published in City (“Restructuring Urban Governance: Community Construction in Contemporary China“, 2008) and she has a chapter in the forthcoming Global Capitalism and the Future of Agrarian Society (Arif Dirlik and Alexander Woodside, eds.). She is now busy publishing more of her research findings and working in the Vancouver urban development scene.

Janice Barry’s dissertation is entitled “Building Collaborative Institutions for Government-to-Government Planning: A Case Study of the Nanwakolas Council’s Involvement in the Central Coast Land and Resource Management Planning Process” (read the dissertation here). She examined a government-to-government process involving a First Nations group and the Provincial government, using interviews and content analysis of policy documents. Her work contributes to the growing body of literature linking planning and new institutional theory, clarifying the drivers and dimensions of institutional change. Janice is currently  a postdoctoral researcher in the Urban Studies department at the University of Glasgow with Dr. Libby Porter. They have just started fieldwork for another study involving First Nations communities in BC: “Planning with Indigenous Customary Land Rights: An investigation of shifts in planning law and governance in Canada and Australia.”

Congratulations to these stellar graduates, who have been great mentors, co-conspirators, and friends during my time at SCARP.

Update: Janice became a lecturer at the University of Sheffield Department of Town and Regional Planning in July 2012.

New Toronto mayor Rob Ford has been making headlines: and not in a good way. Ford has long been a controversial figure, and this summer’s mayoralty race was no exception. Echoing Mel Lastman, a similarly polarizing figure, Ford seems an odd fit for such a multicultural, cosmopolitan, and diverse city. He’s at best a pompous blowhard with insights into the political process; at worst, depending on your information source, he’s a racist homophobe who doesn’t support affordable housing, public transit, or any of the other pressing needs of the burgeoning city. But like Lastman, who was in office for six years, Ford will likely have a lasting effect on the City of Toronto.

In Canada’s biggest city, where 22% of the population takes transit, Ford has decided that transit is the enemy. On December 1st, his first day in office, he managed to kill the city’s proposed vehicle registration tax, freeze property taxes, and get council’s approval to have the Toronto Transit Commission deemed an essential service. With this designation, the TTC will be unable to strike, and union leaders say they’ll fight the decision, which will be made by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.

McGuinty and regional transit planning authority Metrolinx also have to deal with Ford’s tyrannical attack on Transit City, an initiative that was seven years in the making and is already being built. The province, after approving the construction of four LRT lines, announced this spring that they may not be able to fund the entire plan at this time. Ford wants to scrap Transit City entirely, arguing that streetcars cause traffic congestion, and everyone prefers subways anyway. He wants to extend the Sheppard subway line to meet up with the Scarborough RT instead, even if the high cost of this option means that no other transit infrastucture can be built in Toronto. Perhaps he isn’t aware that one of Transit City’s approved lines was a retrofit of the Scarborough RT, which is rapidly deteriorating, and another was a Sheppard LRT that would extend much farther than the subway will? In vain, Metrolinx tried to convince Ford that many other options were more suitable and affordable than subway extension, but surprisingly, the man who claims to be so concerned about taxpayers’ wallets wants the most expensive option. The main beneficiaries of Transit City were to be the inner suburbs: Etobicoke, Scarborough, North York. Neighbouring municipalities like Mississauga also strongly support Transit City. David Hulchanski, who just released an update to his popular “Three Cities within Toronto” study, says that building LRT is the answer to slowing or reversing the segregation of the city by income. Doesn’t Ford feel a responsibility to represent the suburban “working man” that elected him?

Electing Ford represents frustration: residents are frustrated with the way their city is run. Suburban residents see traffic congestion, unreliable public transit, job losses, and rising taxes, and they want things to change. What they don’t see is that municipalities are chronically underfunded by the provincial government in ways that matter: it is the provincial government that funds transit and road infrastructure, and a good proportion of job creation also comes from provincial initiatives. This underfunding leads the TTC to strike, since they rarely have the money for either their capital or operating costs, and also requires the city to raise money in other ways, usually new or increased taxes. Canadian cities have precious few mechanisms to generate money, and unfortunately taxes are among the few. The vehicle registration tax would have raised $64 million for the City of Toronto; Ford has not announced another way of raising the money. Opponents claim that it is “mathematically impossible” that these two tax losses won’t cause any service cuts for City residents. Cancelling Transit City could cost the province fees for broken contracts: $137 million has already been spent on Transit City and $1.3 billion is committed. In fact, for a pro-business, right-wing mayor, Ford doesn’t seem to be very good at managing money. Perhaps his 2011 budget review will inform him that transit actually makes money for the City of Toronto: former budget chief Shelley Carroll says that high transit ridership contributed to a year-end operating surplus.

Both Lastman and Ford came into office at a time of economic recession. Both came to power after a period of progress for the City of Toronto: Barbara Hall (1994-1997) preceded Lastman and David Miller (2003-2010) preceded Ford. Both Lastman and Ford claimed to appeal to suburban “ordinary people”: indeed, the voting maps of Toronto illustrate the pervasive divide the media loves to play up (the Globe and Mail included). We know from US elections that the maps don’t tell all: as Joshua Kertzer and Jonathan Naymark wrote in the National Post,

“This attempt to create a downtown versus suburb cleavage is at best a distraction, and at worst, sets a dangerous precedent.”

Toronto's 2010 Election Results

Toronto's 1997 Election Results

Perhaps most tellingly, both Ford and Lastman faced a slew of opponents for mayor: Lastman was one of over thirty candidates, while Ford was one of 40. According to the City of Toronto’s website, 383,501 voters elected Ford: 813,984 actually voted in the election. So, 47% of voters, who represented 35.3% of the City of Toronto’s population, elected him: that’s 16.7% of the city’s population. Lastman, the first mayor elected after Toronto announced its amalgamation with five suburban municipalities, won by a slim margin of about 41,000 votes. In times of discord and recession, the appeal of the right-wing, cost-saving, businessman is strongest.

The next three years will be momentous ones in Canada’s biggest city. Ford will have to make allies in the provincial government if he wants to keep taxes low. Let’s hope that Ford has a fight on his hands, at least as far as transit is concerned: it takes very little to kill programs and policies that have taken years to approve. As Councillor Janet Davis said, “For the first time [we’re] expanding transit across the city that we waited generations for — the mayor can’t walk in on Day 1 and say, ‘it’s gone.’ It doesn’t work like that.” If anything, Ford’s rising star only proves how little power cities have over the issues that really matter to them, and how limited their sources of funding really are. The problem is that Ford’s blustery, and logic-free, decision-making will have long-term consequences on the City of Toronto: Lastman managed to have the Sheppard subway built, against the TTC’s advice. The result was a white elephant, no funding for additional services that the system badly needed, and at one point the streetcars running at very low speeds to cope with deteriorating tracks. While Vancouver is no stranger to provincial wrangling over transit infrastructure, at least we have a mayor who cycles to work and strongly supports sustainable transportation.

About a year ago, I wrote extensively about Bill C-304, the much-needed Act to ensure secure, adequate, accessible and affordable housing for Canadians. The bill has been proposed several times, in different sessions of Parliament. Most recently, it was proposed as a private members’ public bill by Vancouver East MP Libby Davies.

After a few years passing through the first and second reading, the bill finally reached third reading debate in November. Most of the debate was in favour of the bill. Following Parliamentary procedure, on November 24th it went back to the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities (HUMA) for an amendment requested by the Bloc Québecois. It then went back to the House for its third reading. It passed in the House and proceeded to the Senate for consideration.

Am I the only one who thinks it’s crazy that it took a year to get from second reading to the debates preceding third reading? And that this bill, in one form or another, lingered in the Parliamentary process for over four years? I realize Harper prorogued government a couple of times, but still…that only cost us a few months. We need this legislation badly. It is interesting how other governmental initiatives, like proroguing government last winter and cancelling the long-form Census this summer, seem to occur quickly and with devastating consequences for Canadians (the Liberals’ move to reinstate the long-form Censusintroduced on September 30th–will take far longer). How is it that the American government has elected a new President, had an entire housing crisis, introduced funding to support affordable rental housing, and introduced its first-ever health care legislation in the time it’s taken us to pass a single bill in the House of Commons?