New report begs the question: Is Toronto failing too many people?

Council needs to do better at tackling the biggest issues

Columnist John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto and the author of a number of urban planning books, including The Shape of the Suburbs.


Some days you feel like cheering for Toronto. It is doing so well — economy booming, culture thriving, universities soaring. It’s hard not to puff out one’s chest with pride at the place where we live.

After many years of feeling second-rate, we’ve arrived at a strong vantage point. I suspect our happiness index is at an all-time high.

And while we luxuriate in this space, it’s wise to look at a document from the Toronto Community Foundation: the Vital Signs Report. It’s produced annually, looking at important measures of how things are for people who live here. The conclusions are there is much to be done if we want everyone to share in the pride of the city.

Income has grown enormously — a more than 50 per cent increase for a majority of the population over the past 35 years. But that growth is not shared by all. In that same period there has been no income growth for racialized people, newcomers or young people. And there are growing disparities in wealth. The top 20 per cent of the population has seen its net wealth grow by more than an average of $600,000 in the last 20 years. The net wealth of the bottom 20 per cent has grown by an average of $2,100.

As we all know, housing costs have grown by four times in the last decade, and rents have doubled in that period.

Given income disparities, the impact of these increases have been substantial on those with lower incomes.

We can be proud of our transit system, even with its limitations and the fact our political leaders seem to trip over themselves every time they think of building a new subway line. Transit ridership per capita is the highest in North America, even while transit fares have risen at double the rate of inflation over the last 20 years.

Mayor John Tory has consistently demanded that property taxes never increase more than inflation but that stance does not extend to transit, even though taxation is a better way of sharing costs than user fees.

And the public subsidy for transit in Toronto, at 90 cents per rider, is lower than anywhere else in North America. In Mississauga the subsidy is $2.30 per rider; in York Region it’s $4.50.

Just because these disparities — some would call them injustices — are big issues to deal with does not mean that we should continue to ignore them. But in order to address big issues, a body focused on the wider scope is needed, as well as the mechanisms to affect them.

Toronto City Council is structured on a ward system. Twenty-five members of council are rewarded in elections by focusing on the ward, not on the bigger picture. Only the mayor, with one vote, is elected to deal with the larger picture.

Joe Berridge makes very clear in his recent marvellous book Perfect City that unless city council is restructured it won’t be able to confront bigger issues such as transit, affordable housing or income distribution.

When two-tiered local government existed, before the mega-city was forced upon us in 1998, Metro Council was responsible for larger issues. Maybe it would be a good structure to return to, perhaps on a larger scale, given that the urban area extends well beyond the formal boundaries of the city of Toronto.

But the new structure would also need new powers.

The senior governments scoop up almost 90 per cent of the taxes raised in Toronto, and often their priorities are not to address the larger problems highlighted in the Vital Signs report. The city would need a share of that tax revenue —or new revenue sources of its own — to tackle those issues.

Charter City status would help us get there.

The Vital Signs report is important to ensure we see the full picture of Toronto and not just what is revealed through rosy glasses. But with the current governmental arrangements, it is difficult for city council to take effective action.