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Toronto pushes climate change to back burner

Toronto is taking an aggressive approach to tackling climate change with a new plan to transform the city into a green metropolis — or are they?

TransformTO, the new climate change policy being proposed to city council, was supposed to be discussed on May 24, but it was deferred until the July 5.  This came as a disappointment to Toronto climate supporters, who would love to see the city embrace a plan that will actively decrease greenhouse gases in one of the Canada’s largest city.

The ambitious climate change plan would see Toronto reduce greenhouse gases by 80 per cent by 2050. The city has already lowered greenhouse gas emissions by 24 per cent, which has exceeded the six per cent 2012 climate change goal. In order to meet this more strenuous climate change goal by 2050 though, serious action is needed. The plan will take aggressive action to lower emissions, including diverting 95 per cent of waste from landfills to recycling programs and 100 per cent of public use vehicles will use zero-carbon energy. There would be more focus on creating bike lanes, infrastructure related to low-carbon vehicles, and cycling parking.

The climate change plan also wants Toronto to focus on building green houses, condos, and apartment buildings in the future. The plan would mandate city structures to have near-zero greenhouse gases by 2030 and retrofit most other buildings by 2040. Retrofitting buildings will save 40 per cent of energy costs and the city also wants to use renewable energy that would lower the amount of heat that homes use to 20 per cent of the rate used in 2015. This goal would be achieved by collecting waste heat and converting it into power.

TransformTO is an ambitious move that will ultimately help support creating a greener and healthier city — if it gets off the ground, that is. The City of Toronto would benefit by taking the climate change plan seriously and pushing it through as a key item in the July 5 council meeting to ensure no more delays.

Are simple economics to blame for rising housing costs?

Toronto is undergoing a serious housing crisis — everyone is saying so! Experts, real estate agents, the media, and even politicians admit openly the cost of housing is getting out of control. And yet, even after months of knowing this fact, no one is doing anything about it.

Sure, the government is enacting rent control and a non-resident speculation tax. But this same government, whether municipal, provincial, or federal, hasn’t done what experts are claiming is the easiest and most effective thing they can do for the housing market: build!

“The only reason why prices rise is because there are more buyers than sellers,” explained Jon Love, CEO of KingSett Capital. “Prices rise for no other reason.”

Thursday, new statistics became available through the census that said Toronto has 5,000 fewer detached homes homes in 2016 compared to 2011. It’s what Love calls simple economics. When there are three people interested in purchasing one home, the problem isn’t foreigners or lack of regulation; it’s demand and supply. It means there aren’t enough homes for everyone.

Sure, we have lots of high-rise buildings popping up throughout the downtown core, but a family with three children most likely won’t want to live in an apartment building. Without diversity in housing, there will always be people left without.

It seems so simple; why is this so hard to understand? What is preventing people from building more family-friendly homes in Toronto and throughout the Golden Horseshoe?

Most people blame the NIMBYs — the people who claim they don’t want condos built in their back yard — or the bureaucratic red tape of development agencies. But Love says everyone is to blame. At the end of the day, he asks, “do we want to be Chicago, or Detroit?” A world-class city needs housing, daycare, parks, and transit — so, how do we get it?

First of all, the government needs to intensely invest in transit and open up surrounding geographies for development. If people who work in Toronto have the option of living in places like Hamilton, Barrie and Oshawa — with the possibility of commuting on an express train — many people will do so! An hour commute is not unreasonable if it means saving money on a home. This would also free up homes within the city for those who want or need it.

Why not take it even further and build on top of the rail, Love asks. The purpose of expanding the Golden Horseshoe through transit is to connect people and create communities and neighbourhoods along these hubs. This can’t be done if people have to walk for 30 minutes just to get to the bus.

Second of all, the city needs to encourage development zoning and encourage the building of low and mid-rise condominiums. “People are terrified of 60-story buildings,” Love said. “But mid-rise is fine! I would pre-zone areas to allow for that density.”

This type of variety in housing is necessary not only in order to accommodate the many types of people looking for homes in the GTHA., but also to allow for the immediate development of land in neighbourhoods that are against the building of tall condominiums. Pre-zoning would also reduce the number of complaints and bureaucratic tape that surrounds development. Instead of a developer purchasing land and then deciding what to do with it, the community would actually have a say in what kind of buildings or homes will be put in their neighbourhoods.

Finally, allowing a second kitchen within a home to be used as a secondary apartment, within designated areas, would be a short-term solution that would allow homeowners to rent our basements and provide housing for short-term occupancy.

These short and long term solutions were all suggested with the clear understanding that prices go up because there are more buyers than sellers, a concept Love says won’t be accepted until there is a significant change in public opinion.

The biggest problem is that NIMBY-ism and the fear of immigrants taking our land, jobs, and homes, are much more attractive for both the media and government agencies. Rather than stand with the experts, public servants are focusing on issues that will bring them votes, things like free prescription and lower electricity bills. Things only ever get done when the government is scared of losing power. If the public told governments to build, to increase the supply so that more people could purchase homes, it would have to do so. Until then, they will continue to blame tax foreigners and claim to help cool the market while families are left homeless.

It’s time the government consulted experts and remembered their university or college introduction to economics course — prices rise when the demand is higher than the supply. And here in the Golden Horseshoe, we have about as much demand as you can get.

Who will win Toronto’s votes?

Monday saw a battle to woo voters, with representatives from both the Conservative and Liberal Party of Ontario in Toronto to discuss their plans for housing and transit in the city.

After receiving little support in the provincial budget last week, Mayor John Tory sat down with Conservative Party Leader Patrick Brown Monday morning to discuss funding for social housing and SmartTrack.

The meeting itself was behind closed doors, but the media was given a press release following the exchange indicating PC promises to Toronto if elected into power in 2018. This included allowing Toronto Community Housing to purchase natural gas independently instead of bulk buying from the Housing Services Corporation. The idea is that TCHC will be able to save money be negotiating better prices on natural gas. The city estimates savings of about $6.3 million.

Other inclusions in the PC plan: financial support of the Scarborough subway (actual contribution unknown), supporting TTC fares on SmartTrack RER, and pledged to intervene so that Bombardier trains for the Eglinton Crosstown arrive on time.

The Yonge Relief Line, the project every transit and city building agency has indicated as its priority, was not mentioned in the statement. There was also no mention of allowing municipal sources of revenue such as tolls and short-term accommodation taxes — which makes sense considering Brown made it clear during the budget lockup that the Conservative Party was against both sources of revenue.

At the same time this statement was released, the Minister of Transportation Steven Del Duca took questions from reporters in Etobicoke. In it, he re-stated that the Ontario Liberals are big supporters of Toronto and “no one was invested more than them” in the city.

The Liberal Party has only promised $105 million for the planning of the relief line.

Honestly, at this moment in time, it doesn’t seem like Toronto will win with either party. There is still no promise for further funding for social housing or important transit initiatives like the relief line — two things that are critical to the growth and survival of Toronto.

I wonder if the mayor is planning on speaking with the New Democratic Party to find out their views? During the budget lockup, NDP leader Andrea Horwath said she was committed “to a 50 per cent funding agreement along with its municipal partners” to help in operating costs for transit. It would be interesting to see what her commitment was to Golden Horseshoe Area.

It’s the perfect time to light a fire under Queen’s Park for more transit and housing — and Tory knows it. It’s about negotiating the best deal as soon as possible, because it’s all about the votes at the end of the day.

Rent control needed to control rising prices

Rent is at an all-time high in Toronto, with low vacancy rates and high prices. In other words, it is nearly impossible to find a home to rent in the current market.

The cost of renting a home in the city has increased above the rate of inflation, and the municipal and provincial governments are looking at ways to help control the price of rent. The Ontario government announced in March  it will consider substantial changes to rent-control rules due to tenants complaining about double-digit rent increases that are leaving people homeless. As the rules stand, only apartment buildings built before 1991 can have rent control and the government is now looking at changing that.

Ontario introduced rent controls in 1976 as a temporary measure to lower rent increases to the rate of inflation, and the NDP government offered a five-year rent control exemption to units in 1992 to encourage developers to build new units. The rules then became permanent. Instead, landlords can only raise rent by 1.5 per cent annually, but can apply for additional increases. Many stakeholders, including CIBC Capital Markets, are against re-implementing rent control because it previously reduced new construction of apartment buildings, and accelerated building deterioration that had rent control.

Rent control is being criticized because there is a concern that landlords won’t upkeep apartment rentals if they can’t lift the cost of rent, or that tenants will remain for longer. It is assumed that landlords will do the bare minimum to maintain an apartment and many rent-cost units fall into disrepair. Avoiding rent control because it would cause landlords to not maintain their property truly demonstrates how corrupt the rental market is. There should be a morally upright desire to fix units. Instead, avoiding certain rent control strategies because it is naturally expected landlords won’t upkeep their responsibilities proves how greedy and deplorable the apartment rental market can be.

The City of Toronto has decided to implement a new set of rules that will force landlords to track tenant complaints, respond quickly to repair requests, and provide pest control. The rules will come into effect on July 1 and is being widely celebrated by tenants in Toronto. The program will be enforced 12 months after launching and will apply to 3,500 buildings with three or more storeys of 10 or more units, resulting in 350,000 apartments. The rules indicate that emergency requests such as no water or heat must be handled in under 24 hours and a pest control situation must be dealt with in 72 hours. Landlords will also be forbidden from renting an apartment with a pest control problem.

Re-implementing rent control is a necessary in Toronto, especially with the new rules that have been implemented that would force landlords to upkeep their rental units. The cost of renting an apartment should be at par with the rate of inflation, because otherwise it is giving way to corruption and greed. It is commendable that the province and city are getting involved in rentals and will ultimately force landlords into a position to provide tenants with fair prices and liveable apartment units.

CEO Sarah Thomson reveals purpose of Green Cities

In addition to being the publisher of Women’s Post, Sarah Thomson is also the volunteer CEO of the Transit Alliance. The Transit Alliance is a non-profit that is dedicated towards making the golden horseshoe area as green and pedestrian/transit-friendly as possible. In January, she hosted Green Cities 2017, a breakfast attended by over 300 business, community, and political leaders.

Attendees got to listen to two panels of experts discussing sustainable options for transit and building.

See what Thomson said at the end of Green Cities:

Where are the green parks in Toronto?

Amidst many struggles in Toronto, maintaining parks often falls by the wayside. Unfortunately, the neglect of public parks leaves grassy open areas scorched and littered in garbage.

Despite budget cuts, a struggling transit portfolio, and an affordable housing crisis, the city parks are drying up. Canoe Landing in downtown Toronto is a prime example of neglected public park space. The park consists of weeds that have taken over the fields, broken benches, and fountains without water. Though taking care of parks in a large city is a hefty task, there are solutions to creating beautiful parks and it begins with an adequate budget. If Mayor John Tory sincerely wants to build the new Downtown Rail Park that was revealed last month, then a concrete budget is needed for all of Toronto’s parks first.

Parks and recreation have a budget that includes an annual grant into the Toronto Parks and Tree Foundation (TPTF). The grant subsists from public donations and the city will match the donation. For every $2 donated, the city will contribute $1 and raise funds for parks, but this relies on public interest. Along with this budget, Section 37 contributes limited income to the parks. This provincial regulation allows developers who want to exceed zoning laws in their building to donate a certain amount of funding to public projects in exchange for permission. If a councillor so desires, the funds can be allocated to parks, but it isn’t mandatory and a lot of public projects are in need of funding. With limited budget from the foundation and Section 37, the parks don’t have enough funding to be properly maintained, instead becoming an eye sore in the hot summer months.

Instead of fixing Toronto’s current parks, city council announced an expensive and vast 21-acre downtown Rail Park that will cover the tracks in downtown Toronto. This is an amazing concept, but until the money suddenly appears, it seems it may merely be a pipe dream. The downtown park has been met with a lot of criticism because of the lack of money available, and appears to be yet another way of trying to distract people in Toronto from the lack of current care to parks in the city.

Christie Pitts Park. By Danielle Scott.
Christie Pitts Park. By Danielle Scott.

There are a few solutions. One is to use water runoff from condo buildings in the city to hydrate the parks. Reallocating spare water resources would keep the parks healthy and provide free carbon sinks around Toronto. Another resolution is to appoint park managers to help care for individual parks across the city. This would simultaneously maintain the parks and provide ‘green’ employment in the city. In Central Park in New York, a private conservancy runs the park and it is well maintained as a result. Providing an incentive for private companies to invest in parks within their ward or region would help invigorate communities to help protect those green spaces. To an extent, Dundas Square is supported by private investors. It has a board of management with business entrepreneurs and city officials that work together to make sure the area is clean and sustained.

Parks are integral to a healthy city landscape. They provide a place to frolic for children and adults alike, and give clean air to residents. Parks also promote a sense of community and they are beautiful. Imagine a world without trees — it seems like a pretty empty and disgusting place. It is our duty to care for our parks and pressure the city to care as well.

Have you seen any parks that aren’t properly maintained? If so, please let us know at Women’s Post in the comments below.

Why not use tolls and fees to fund green projects?

Over the last few months, the City of Toronto and the Ontario government have made some amazing announcement focused on green energy, infrastructure, and public transportation. The most recent announcement was made Tuesday: the Ontario government released $750 million in funding (in the form of a green bond) for environmentally friendly, low-carbon infrastructure projects, the majority of which would be dedicated to transit in the GTHA.

These investments are a good thing. A great thing, even. This city and this province must invest in infrastructure and transit. But, where is this money coming from?

A green bond is a great tool to raise capital for projects with environmental benefits, but eventually the bond holders need to be paid back. Investors provide funds for these projects and the government guarantees a return for each investor. When asked by Women’s Post if there was a plan to pay back these investors, this was the response given:

“Ontario’s Green Bonds rank equally with Ontario’s other bonds,” a spokesperson for the Ontario Minister of Finance said in a written statement. “Payments of principal and interest will be a charge on and payable out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund of Ontario and not tied to the revenues of any particular projects.”

Luckily, the maturity date for the green bond is in 2023, which means that the government has time to educate the public on the need to come up with the revenue for these investments. And it will be interesting to see what forms of repayment they create.

Tolling — while under both the provincial and municipal responsibility depending on the road — would be an ideal form of revenue. Ontario is starting a pilot project in the summer that will allow single-occupancy vehicles to use the High-Occupancy Vehicle lane meant for carpooling. Vehicle owners will be able to purchase a permit and pay a toll for its usage. This is the first time a responsible government has risked their positions to do the right thing.  Toronto is a long way off, with only a handful of councillors willing to stand up for the revenue tools Toronto needs to pay for the capital projects the city has committed to.

The money collected from these tolls can be used to fund the  the relief subway line which will provide an alternate east-west route to the Gardiner. Council has to make the bold move to call for other user fees – tolls, carbon tax, parking increase – so that property owners won’t carry the full burden of our capital deficit.

Both the city and the province are trying to find money in the budget — which amounts to shuffling through the same insufficient funds that caused our infrastructure deficit.   Toronto councillors will need to show the bravery their province counterparts have demonstrated in committing to high occupancy toll lanes.  The obvious solution is to use existing green projects such as tolling, congestion fees, or even a carbon-tax , to fund infrastructure investments.

The biggest problem facing all levels of government is that most Canadians want the infrastructure but they don’t want to pay for it.   The province is doing an amazing job ensuring that transit and green infrastructure is built, but Canadians have to start doing our part.

Let’s support the use of tolls, congestion fees, carbon taxes – whatever our council might bravely suggest — and start investing in Toronto’s long-term future.