After a year of community consultations, council will decide on Tuesday whether to adopt a sweeping strategy to boost equity and opportunity for all Torontonians.
Earlier this year, Toronto was praised as one of the most livable cities in the world, first by The Economist, and then by the design and architecture magazine, Metropolis. While Toronto may seem like a bastion of wealth and opportunity to the rest of the world, one in four Torontonians live in poverty and struggle to make ends meet.
The city has a plan to change that, though, and on Tuesday, Council will vote on a sweeping poverty reduction strategy aimed at boosting equality and opportunity for low income residents, and to help Toronto truly live up to its “most livable city” reputation.
The strategy, called TO Prosperity, was initiated in April 2014 following a letter from Councilor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s) urging council to address the onslaught of new reports that detailed soaring inequality and unaffordable living conditions in the city.
One report from United Way Toronto shows the city’s income inequality is growing at twice the national rate, with the gap between the rich and poor widening by 31 per cent between 1980 and 2005. The Toronto Community Foundation reported that low income families make on average just $15,000 per year—up almost 12 per cent from 2009, but still over $57,000—shy of what’s considered a livable salary for two parents raising two kids. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, during that same period the cost of childcare in the city rose 30 per cent, rent increased by 13 per cent and public transit by 36 per cent. And a paper from the Institute Without Boundaries at George Brown College shows a dire housing situation, with 5,200 Torontonians homeless, and 87,000 on a record-long waitlist for affordable housing. In some areas, the number of applicants is twice as many as the number of existing units.
“The causes of poverty are complex. The solutions will be equally so,” Mihevc’s letter reads. With this in mind, city staff, partner organizations and community members sketched a 20 year plan, combining short and long-term priorities that target the roots of systemic poverty.
“This is probably the most comprehensive strategy the city has ever created,” says Denise Campbell, project lead for TO Prosperity and director of Social Policy, Analysis and Research for the City. The plan was crafted over the last year, in consultation with community members living in poverty. Over the course of 101 community meetings—some held by city staff and others held by residents—Campbell and her team identified five areas of need, and ways to improve them:
Employment and income:
- Increase minimum wage and rates of income support to ensure livable wages
- Promote local job creation through “Community Benefits Agreements” on infrastructure projects
- Enhance economic development in low income areas
- Improve transit services in the inner suburbs
- Introduce discounted fares for low income TTC riders
- Introduce time-based transfers
- Lobby the provincial and federal government for more funding
- Provide more housing allowances
- Introduce rooming houses and an effective way to enforce them
- Increase supply of social housing
- Boost investments to repair existing social housing
- Expand nutrition programs in schools
- Support business models that create food hubs in communities with poor access
- Make it easier to allow urban agriculture on government land
- Expand dental care for low income seniors and adults
- Introduce recreation outreach programs for newcomers, people with disabilities and low-income residents
- Invest $20 million to create 1,000 free daycare spaces
- Add 15,000 subsidized daycare spaces in five years
“There’s a number of things the city’s already doing to address poverty,” says Campbell, pointing to initiatives like the Toronto Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy 2020, the Workforce Development Strategy, the Housing Stability Service Plan, and the Newcomers Strategy. “But what this process does, is brings all these pieces together in one comprehensive path to say ‘let’s all row in the same direction.’ It pushes us to do more than what we’re already doing.”
Campbell says that while many of the current strategies focus on providing emergency services, like food banks and shelters, TO Prosperity aims to eventually eliminate the need for those services in the first place.
It’s an ambitious goal, and one that Deputy Mayor Pam McConnell (Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) estimates will cost $100 million in 2016 alone. By contrast, last year’s budget earmarked $26.1 million for poverty reduction.
While locking down 75 per cent more funds may seem unlikely, Campbell points out that “many of the things in the 2016 work plan can be done with existing resources.” Those resources include $38 million in capital funding for affordable housing, as well as $10 million over the next 10 years for social housing energy retrofits and improving infrastructure in low-income areas. As to whether another $50 million in financing will come through from the city, “we’ll have to wait until December for the budget,” says Campbell.
“Regardless of where exactly we end up, next year or in 2035,” she adds, “I think the goal here is to be bold and comprehensive and courageous in dramatically increasing the level of equity in the city over the next 20 years. And not waiting until year 18, 19 and 20, but starting now and seeing if we can dramatically change the landscape.”