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Toronto mayoral candidates spar over budget deficit, affordable housing at debate

Toronto mayoral candidates Josh Matlow, left to right, Olivia Chow, Mitzi Hunter, Brad Bradford, Mark Saunders and Ana Bailao take the stage at a mayoral debate in Scarborough, Ont. on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — The six leading candidates in Toronto's mayoral election held their fourth debate in 48 hours on Thursday, claiming to be the fiscally responsible choice to lead Canada's largest city while pledging to resolve a massive pandemic-related budget shortfall and make housing more affordable.  

The sold-out debate held at a downtown theatre was hosted by the Toronto Region Board of Trade and featured the apparent front-runner, former federal lawmaker and New Democratic Party stalwart Olivia Chow, city councillor Josh Matlow and ex-police chief Mark Saunders.

Also onstage were former deputy mayor Ana Bailão, councillor Brad Bradford and former Liberal MPP for Scarborough-Guildwood Mitzie Hunter, who resigned her seat at Queen's Park to run in the byelection.   

Chow kicked off debate on the flashpoint issue of housing costs, saying “the old approach isn’t working."

"Not a single shovel has gone in the ground to build affordable housing,” she added, emphasizing her past experience on the city council's budget committee. 

She proposed an unspecified tax increase to build 25,000 housing units in addition to new taxes on wealth and vacant homes. Saunders targeted her for not saying how much she will hike taxes.

He also touted his experience managing the police service's more than $1-billion budget as proof he could handle city finances.

Bailão highlighted the budget deficit. “We cannot solve this with property tax increases or cuts, it cannot be done ... We need a new deal for the city of Toronto," she said. 

Bailão said she was proud of the progress the city made in building thousands of affordable housing units during her tenure as deputy mayor, but Hunter questioned the impact of those purported gains.  

Hunter released a detailed budget earlier in the day, which proposed a plan to build below market value rental units for families, reversing transit systems cuts while building new transit infrastructure through a six per cent property tax increase. That increase would be below three per cent for households with income below $80,000.

“We have to create real neighbourhoods, so I want to add retail, Toronto Public Health satellite offices, Toronto Public Library branches within these housing units so we create neighbourhoods for people to raise their family and to live in the city, because that’s the talent that you need for your businesses," she said at the debate.

Tensions ran high through the night, with candidates taking heavy shots and playfully poking at each other after hearing similar rhetoric and repeated anecdotes from previous debates.

Saunders, Toronto's police chief from 2015 to 2020, repeatedly went after present councillors Matlow and Bradford, as well as former deputy mayor Bailão, for their lack of action on getting affordable housing built while in office.

“Here we are, entering the form of politi-talk … listening to people have great dreams and schemes and ideas, while they’re sitting in office, did nothing. They should not be talking about what they will do, they should be talking about what they did do. And they put us in this situation.”

Chow, the leading candidate according to several polls, went after Bradford's record as chair of the city's planning and housing committee, claiming planning and approval processes to get new housing and mid-rise buildings have slowed considerably during his tenure.

The candidates also traded ideas for addressing the city's homelessness crisis, which was declared an emergency earlier in May. 

Matlow and Hunter backed better investments in shelters and more pathways to housing, while Bailão and Bradford looked to the federal government for more support. Saunders argued "the root cause" of rising homelessness was a lack of housing supply. 

Another debate hosted Wednesday in the east-end region of Scarborough saw candidates address declining city services, infrastructure challenges like transit and the need to revitalize community centres and programming.

There is just a month of campaigning left before the June 26 byelection.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 25, 2023.

Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press

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