Toronto City Council kick-off tomorrow.

Tomorrow will be like the start of a new school year in Toronto’s council chambers. All 25 councillors and Mayor Tory will be present, freshly scrubbed and on their best behaviour to begin a new four-year term. This will mark the beginning of the new Ford-imposed slimline Council – according to Doug; fewer councillors means better government.

Work-wise, it will be a fairly light day that doesn’t officially get under way until 2:00 pm. The first order of business will be to formally introduce the Mayor and Councillors to the public and then they will recite the Declaration of Office.

Mayor Tory will then address Council and deliver a pep talk designed to motivate council. Tomorrow’s other important task will also set the tone of council meetings for the next four years. The mayor and councillors will elect a Speaker and Deputy who between them will adjudicate over Council’s affairs. According to the City website, the Speaker:

presides over meetings of Toronto City Council in place of the Mayor, although the Mayor may take the chair at any time he desires.

Unlike the Speakers of the provincial and federal legislatures, the City Council Speaker has no additional duties beyond presiding over meetings.

While most Ontario municipal councils are chaired by a Mayor, Warden or Reeve, the City of Toronto adopted a Speaker in 2006 on the recommendation of an expert governance panel. Having a Speaker chair meetings allows the Mayor to participate more freely in debate without worrying about the additional duties of running the meeting.

The selection of a speaker will be an open vote among the 26 council members. Ward 5 (formerly Ward 11) Councillor Francis Nunziata has held this post since 2010 and it will be interesting to see if she:

(a) still wants the job, or

(b) will be re-elected, or

(c) if a new candidate(s) will emerge.

In the past, the job has been a major chore thanks to the (then) larger council and the antics of a few whom Speaker Nunziata found particularly hard to rein in (the Ford brothers and Giorgio Mammoliti come to mind).

Tomorrow’s fun begins at 2:00 pm. To watch the action, tune in here.

Local Police Superintendent appointed OPP Commissioner.

Toronto Police Superintendent Ron Taverner, currently in charge of 12, 23 and 31 Divisions (the north-west corner of the city that includes Weston and Mount Dennis) is heading for a new job on December 17. He has been appointed Commissioner of the 9000 member Ontario Provincial Police. According to Ontario’s Newsroom site, his appointment is “based on the unanimous recommendation of a selection committee comprised exclusively of members of the Ontario Public Service and supported by Odgers Berndtson, an executive search firm.”.

Superintendent Taverner’s career with Toronto Police began in 1967 and there are many supportive and glowing testimonials in reaction to his appointment. Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders and Police Association President Mike McCormack (among others) welcomed the news and think that the appointment is a good one.

There is at least one dissenting voice. Former OPP Commissioner (2010 – 2014), Chris Lewis says he is shocked. In an interview with CTV News, Lewis says says things like, “The appointment is a real kick to the OPP – someone from the outside with very limited experience.”, “The fix was in from the outset.” (Taverner is a friend of the Ford family).

Who will replace Taverner? Let’s hope it’s someone who can solve some of the problems that have frustrated the current incumbent and stubbornly resisted a solution over the past few years.

Rents rising in Weston, Mount Dennis.

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Toronto’s apartment rental costs increased substantially between 2012 and 2017, particularly in the Weston and Mount Dennis area. The Toronto Star has used CMHC data in an interactive map which shows that Weston’s rental prices jumped nearly 18% during that time period while Mount Dennis prices increased by 27.8%.

In 2012, apartment rental averages in both neighbourhoods were roughly comparable at around the $1000 level but by 2017, rentals jumped to $1117 in Weston and $1201 in Mount Dennis. While this is still low compared to downtown where rents average over $2200, it will be of little comfort to people who come to the suburbs looking for more affordable accommodation.

The average annual rent increase over that period (thanks to the power of compound interest) seems to have been about 2.5% for Weston and 4% for Mount Dennis. Under Ontario’s rent control legislation, the average yearly rent increase over that period should have been 1.68%. Why the discrepancy? Once a tenant moves out, landlords can charge whatever the market will bear. In areas with more turnover, rents can rise rapidly if there is sufficient demand.

From the Toronto Star.

Premier Ford recently legislated the end of rent controls on all new rental buildings occupied after November 15th. He apparently believes that this will encourage more rental apartment construction. Incidentally, PC Premier Mike Harris ended rent control in 1997 claiming that a boom in rental housing construction would result.

It didn’t.

In praise of gentrification

Me, I’d delight in a little gentrification in Weston.

Riley says that gentrification is “the displacement of longtime residents of a neighbourhood”.

I disagree. Gentrification doesn’t have to result in the displacement of long-time residents, if ‘gentrification’ means an increase in average incomes within a neighbourhood through migration. Gentrification can open more services and shops, and bring employment opportunities, while doing absolutely no harm.

For a thorough explanation, have a look at The Economist article that changed my mind. In short, though: things can get better for everyone without getting worse for anyone—as long as the development is taking up slack.

Here’s how it works: new buildings go up in vacant spaces, and new shops open in empty storefronts. Nobody loses and everybody wins. Average rents might go up, certainly—but that is because there are more high-rent units, not because the low-rent units got more expensive. Average income will go up—because more high-income people are moving in, not because low-income people are moving out.

This is exactly what I think is happening now in Weston.

Does Weston have vacant spaces? It does, and all the recent developments I can think  of are on formerly vacant land. Do we have empty storefronts? We certainly do. A few bank storefronts come to mind. I’d love to see an art gallery, a childcare, or brew pub go in one. If it means I can stumble home after a three pints of IPA and a pork-belly sandwich, gentrify on, my good man!

Everybody wins with this kind of gentrification. New residents live close to where they work, new businesses provide services where people live. Neighbourhoods become vibrant, more pedestrian friendly, more integrated and more self-sufficient. This sounds just great to me.

But it gets better: Even those who live in affordable homes benefit. Crime falls in gentrifying neighbourhoods. Tax collection rises, so public services can improve. The concentration of poverty “which a mountain of economic and sociological literature has linked to all manner of poor outcomes, including teenage pregnancy, incarceration and early death” declines.

Could rising rents result in people leaving Weston? Certainly it could, if the increase comes not from rising average rents but from rising rents at the lower end. I think, though, that we remain some way from that.

In the meantime, I’m entirely in favour.

 

 

This is what gentrification really is

Gentrification is a big, confusing, theoretical word for most of us – I’ve always heard at least two different definitions of it.

I’ve seen gentrification be described as the act of revitalization – breathing new “life” into a “run-down” neighbourhood through new restaurants, condos and other infrastructure projects. And I’ve seen it be described as the act of forcefully pushing longtime residents out of a neighbourhood in order to populate it with more affluence.

Quite simply, gentrification is the displacement of longtime residents of a neighbourhood that are most often low income, people of colour, and/or from other marginalized communities like women and people living with disabilities.

I’ve heard people say that gentrification is just what York South-Weston needs. I’ve heard people say that York South-Weston needs just a little bit of gentrification. And I’ve heard people say that gentrification is the next struggle that will plague York South-Weston.

This is the dictionary definition of gentrification:

the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods byupper- or middle-income families or individuals, raising property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.”

So, is it a problem? Is York South-Weston experiencing it? The answer is yes and yes.

So what does gentrification look like then? While some York South-Westonites don’t live the effects of gentrification every day or even notice it, the reality is that the majority does. It’s already happening.

We have our fair share of systemic issues created by years of policy failure and neglect. People don’t have access to healthy and affordable food – we are in a food desert. The cost of childcare is through the roof – we are also in a childcare desert. Youth workers have told us that it’s easier for our young people to get a gun than it is for them to get affordable housing or a job.

The reality is that right here in our community, renters are being handed unfair and unjustifiable rent increases every day. York South-Weston is supposed to be one of the last affordable havens in the city but it’s getting more and more unaffordable for those of us who already live here. And it’s only going to get worse if we don’t hold developers and our elected officials accountable for the unaffordability of our neighbourhood.

What gentrification looks like is asking for a Starbucks at Weston and Lawrence when we already have Perfect Blend, Mati’s Coffee and God Bless Canada all around the corner. It’s going to a development meeting for a new “affordable” housing project and hearing the developer’s lawyer say that “they would like to attract a certain kind of person” to rent here and then hearing from the tenants in the room that the rents are in fact not actually affordable. It’s the fact that when a Loblaws or Sobeys replaces Greenland Farms, the majority of residents within a 200m radius will not be able to afford to shop at either of those grocery stores. And it’s TTC riders in Weston not being able to afford to ride the UP Express even though it’s being made a selling-point for new development in the area.

The gentrification of York South-Weston is happening and we need to think about how we will respond to it. Will we work to address the root causes of poverty and inequality that exist in our community or will we actively allow low-income and other marginalized communities to be pushed even farther away from the downtown core, out of York South-Weston?

Councillor Nunziata; it’s legacy time.

The results are in and the unfair effect of name recognition was once again an overwhelming factor in Toronto elections. The two incumbents in newly created Ward 5 topped the poll despite spirited campaigns, especially from Chiara Padovani and Lekan Olawoye. Even Frances Nunziata must have realized during her campaign that there was a yearning for change. Indeed, the vast majority of voters chose another candidate. About 68% of electors who bothered to vote, chose someone other than her.

Now for the more depressing part; voter participation was significantly down across the city and fewer than 38% of YSW eligible voters bothered to vote according to my calculations. The average for Toronto was about 41%. In effect, Ms. Nunziata retained her job thanks to about 12% of electors.

Given the march of time, Frances Nunziata only has a few years left at council before she retires or a more compelling candidate beats her in an upcoming election. What will be her legacy? Frances herself struggled to list her accomplishments when debating other candidates. Many pointed to the decline in Weston’s fortunes over the past several decades of her tenure. Weston and Mount Dennis are slowly beginning to emerge from years of neglect and disinterest, mainly thanks to the UP Express, all day GO Train service and the expansion of the city to the suburbs; none of which she can legitimately claim credit for.

It’s not all bad; there are some minor achievements – will she be remembered for the Weston Common / Hub / Storage Unit? Remember, the original concept was for an arts and cultural centre and year round (indoor outdoor) farmers market. What about the car-focussed community centre at Black Creek and Eglinton? There are critics of both of these projects while others have a legitimate claim to shared parentage.

The original Weston Hub concept as it was sold to the community. (Click to enlarge)

There are some notable failures on her record. The persistent flooding in parts of the ward surely should have been fixed by now. The shabby public domain and the lack of progress on a bicycle network are two others that quickly come to mind.

Frances began her political career as a corruption fighter, exposing and taking on crooked politicians. That reputation is long behind her. Now she is best known for her role as Council Speaker. There are many critics of her voting record which was the closest of any councillor to that of Mayor Tory – over 90% of the time. This blog has long criticized some of her positions which often seem to work against residents who are struggling.

Speakers are chosen by a council vote. Given the dramatic changes to Council, it will be interesting to see if Ms Nunziata can win a third term in that prestigious yet challenging position. Now that Mammoliti has gone, the job may be a lot more attractive to others in the chamber. Losing the Speaker’s job would certainly give her more time to work on the larger ward she now governs.

Regardless; for this new term, Ms Nunziata needs to find bold projects that inspire and uplift our community if she is to be remembered for anything other than her long years in office. Whether she can do this over the next four years remains to be seen.

I for one hope she can.

Who to vote for? I choose Lekan.

If Doug Ford hadn’t screwed everything up, this would be an easy choice. But he did, and now it isn’t.

For the first time I can remember, we are spoiled for choice in York South-Weston. We have four strong contenders, and three of them are worthy choices.

The recent amalgamation of the ward brought Frank Di Giorgio and Frances Nunziata into close combat. Chiara Padovani and Lekan Olawoye are attacking their left flanks.

Me, I’m going to vote for Lekan Olawoye. I won’t pretend I have good reasons for doing so, though.

I came to this conclusion slowly—although I was able to eliminate most of the candidates quickly. I started by zapping the outside-chance contenders; I’m sure most of them are fine people, but their relative absence and small chances in this high-stakes race make them non-starters for me.

Frank Di Giorgio was next to go. He is too conservative and was too close to Rob Ford. He votes against Toronto’s interests. He attends council meetings infrequently—and opposes bike lanes—and that alone is a deal-breaker for me.

That leaves three: Nunziata, Olawoye, and Padovani.

I like Frances Nunziata, as a rule. She is an excellent retail politician. If you call her, she calls you back. She fixes problems, and she’s given her riding endless hours of underpaid service. Finally, she is an excellent tactician.

But I can’t shake the feeling that Weston has fallen on harder times under her leadership. Certainly, most of these problems are not of her making—she’s subject to decisions made above her pay grade, just like the rest of us. I think, however, that with different leadership, things might have been better. That’s because she is not an excellent strategist.

Take payday loan shops, just as an index of what I’m talking about. We have too many, and they have dubious social value. I think the job they do would be better done by our oligopoly of banks, which enjoy one side of a social contract but are allowed to ignore the other: they get a government guarantee but shirk the social responsibility. Banks are allowed to close, leaving low-income and low-mobility clients (often one and the same) in the hands of high-interest lenders.

I know Frances can’t do much about closing banks. That’s for our provincial and federal masters to tackle. But she could have made Weston, bit by bit, an environment that banks don’t want to leave, with improved streetscapes, better local businesses, and improved transit. She’s been working on these, lately, but too lately for me.

Of course, it’s not about payday loans; it’s about all the things like them—the small, strategic failures that have let Weston down. What happened the long-promised college campus? The Humber River Trail link? St John the Evangelist? Buses on Jane? All are long-term projects; none have happened. Strategy.

That leaves Padovani and Olawoye.

Lekan and Chiara are too close ideologically to fit a card between. I went so far as to create a spreadsheet, and if I recall correctly, Padovani doesn’t have a parks plan but she does want the city to tackle climate change, while Olawoye has a parks plan but says nothing about climate change. Or vice versa.

It really doesn’t matter, because I can’t imagine Lekan (or Chiara) being against the climate or parks.

So, with two equally good candidates, I would normally back the one most likely to win. It seemed, for a moment, that Chiara was in that position. Then it emerged that Lekan had been left off the poll. And Lekan had a handy lead last time… and the polls have been showing wild swings anyway, which is understandable given how small the sample is. Finally, neither Olawoye nor Padovani is likely to defeat Nunziata. So who knows?

That leaves, as far as I can tell, character. Argh. What, really, do I know about character? Nothing.

My interactions with Lekan and Chiara have been vanishingly brief, and both left me with the impression that they were excellent, principled, hard-working and ambitious people. We are lucky to have them volunteering for such a lousy job.

So I’m left peering at the sediments, trying to divine some worthy grounds on which to make a decision.

Here’s what it comes down to: I like Lekan a little more. He seems more grounded, more open, and less partisan. He seems a  little less certain, and I like that. He’s been in the community, working hard, for longer, and he’s had tough positions at MaRS downtown. I like that too.

With so little to distinguish excellent candidates, that’s all I have to work with. We can blame Doug Ford for that—it was not supposed to be like this.