The biggest campaign promises made by John Tory and Jennifer Keesmaat
Toronto’s mayoral election is on October 22, less than a week away. The campaign has been one characterized by whiplash. After Doug Ford’s unexpected decision to change the composition of city council, former chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat made a last-minute entry into the mayoral race, interrupting what was expected to be an easy ride to reelection for mayor John Tory. If all of this has caused you to lose track of what’s actually up for debate, here’s a rundown of some of the major promises made by the two leading mayoral candidates.
As the city’s former chief planner, Keesmaat has a lot to say about transportation. Her proposed network plan lays out a list of priorities, and the long-deferred Downtown Relief Line, a new subway line to relieve crowding in existing downtown stations, is at the top.
Outside of downtown, Keesmaat’s subway aspirations are more modest. She would allow the controversial Scarborough subway extension to be built, but she expects the Ontario government to cover the entire cost. City money that had been earmarked for the Scarborough project would be redirected to other transit priorities, like light-rail construction on Eglinton Avenue, Jane Street and the waterfront.
Keesmaat has also said that, if elected, she’d tear down the elevated eastern portion of the Gardiner Expressway, clearing the way for what she calls a “beautiful grand boulevard.” (In 2016, city council, under Mayor Tory, decided to preserve and redevelop this stretch of the Gardiner. The latest estimates put the cost of doing so at over $1 billion.)
Tory is running on the city’s existing transit network plan, some of which was developed during his mayoralty. The plan includes building the Scarborough subway extension with a combination of city and provincial funding. Tory would eventually build the Downtown Relief Line (the city recently completed a preliminary environmental report, and Tory has named city council candidate Brad Bradford his “relief line champion”).
And then there’s SmartTrack, Tory’s vaunted “surface subway” plan, which he originally proposed during the 2014 mayoral election. The first draft of the plan called for 22 stations with frequent, rapid train service. Over the past four years, though, SmartTrack has been revised repeatedly, and currently sits at just six new stations in existing GO train corridors, with further details to be determined.
Keesmaat has made a number of proposals aimed at controlling the price of housing in Toronto. Buyers and sellers of high-end properties might be alarmed to learn that she has promised to implement a 0.4 per cent property tax surtax on homes valued at $4 million or more, which she says would generate about $80 million for the city to use on its housing affordability initiatives. Keesmaat would also start a city-sponsored rent-to-own program, to help renters buy their homes—although the details of how the city would go about orchestrating this are unclear. She has also promised—again, with few details—that, if elected, she’d cause 100,000 units of “truly affordable” housing to be built within the city over the next 10 years, in part by channelling existing federal funding and opening city-owned land for redevelopment.
Like Keesmaat, Tory has promised to build thousands of new units of affordable housing, but without saying precisely how he’d do so. His target is a little lower than Keesmaat’s: 40,000 new affordable units over the next 12 years. Tory told the Toronto Star that he’d bring these new homes into existence using an existing city housing plan called “Open Door,” which provides incentives to developers if they agree to include affordable units in their buildings.
If you pay taxes in Toronto, some of your money is subsidizing public golf courses. The city manages five of them, but doesn’t make enough money from user fees to cover the total expense of upkeep. Keesmaat has said she’d convert three of those golf courses into public parks, meaning taxpayers would no longer be obligated to pay for admission (and learn to play golf) for access to all that green space.
Tory hasn’t made any explicit new campaign promises regarding public space, but he has engaged with the topic from time to time over the course of his mayoralty. His signature proposal, Rail Deck Park, which would transform an unloved, chasm-like rail corridor into a 21-acre pleasure garden for downtowners, is still in planning phases while the city grapples with the project’s immense cost and an ongoing dispute over who actually owns the airspace above the tracks.
This issue is at the core of Tory’s re-election campaign. In fact, it’s one of the few policy planks he discusses in any detail on his campaign website. Make no mistake: the one thing John Tory is saying he definitely would do during his second term as mayor is keep property tax hikes at or below the rate of inflation. This is a continuation of his policy during his first term as mayor. The low-tax pledge is sure to make him popular with pocketbook-conscious voters—although Torontonians already pay, on average, some of the lowest property taxes in the entire Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, according to a 2017 city analysis.
With less than two weeks to go before election day, Keesmaat matched Tory’s commitment not to raise base property taxes beyond the rate of inflation—but she’s sticking with her promise to impose a surtax on luxury properties.