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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Olivia Chow elected new mayor of Toronto, out of 102 candidates


Entertainers at a campaign rally for Toronto mayoral candidate Olivia Chow, a left-leaning, veteran politician, June 22, 2023. Chow prevailed over 101 other candidates and will now lead a city that was once considered an affordable model but is now confronting the same post-pandemic struggles as other large metropolitan areas.


By VJOSA ISAI and IAN WILLMS


Voters in Toronto chose Olivia Chow, a left-leaning veteran politician, as their new mayor at a moment when the city is confronting a litany of issues that are also facing other urban powerhouses trying to rebound from the pandemic.


Chow ran on a platform vowing to “build a Toronto that’s caring, affordable and safe,” and she emerged with the most votes of the 102 mayoral candidates on the ballot, a record for Toronto, and one that underscores the public’s discontent with the city’s direction.


“If you ever questioned your faith in a better future and what we can do with each other, for each other, tonight is your answer,” Chow said to a crowd of supporters during her victory speech.


She won with 37.17% of the vote. Her nearest challenger, Ana Bailão, who had been endorsed by the city’s largest newspaper, the Toronto Star, received about 32% of the vote.


The previous two mayors in the city of 3 million people — Canada’s most populous and its financial center — were driven out of office after scandals. In addition to that legacy, the new leader of Toronto will inherit a crumbling transit system, growing homelessness and sporadic violent crime.


For decades, Toronto was known as “a city that works,” lauded as a machine oiled by orderliness and livability, with a robust inventory of affordable housing, an efficient transit system and many other markers of urban stability.


Now, the city is in crisis after more than a decade of steep budget cuts for social services and the devastating withdrawals of fiscal support for housing in the 1990s from higher levels of government.


The pandemic compounded these issues with lockdowns that diminished revenue streams.


This election was seen by many as a referendum on the fiscal austerity of Toronto’s two most recent mayors, who were both conservatives.


In February, Mayor John Tory resigned after admitting to an affair with a staffer, leaving Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie in charge.


Chow, 66, will be responsible for reversing the city’s course and restoring the image of the office in one of its most difficult moments.


“The good news is, this is turning into a change election,” said Jennifer Keesmaat, a former chief city planner who served under the previous two mayors. “People are saying, ‘Enough already, you had your chance with the low taxes and the low level of investment.’”


Chow, who lost to Tory in 2014, has proposed to raise property taxes, without saying by how much, and has announced a plan to address affordable housing by having the city build and acquire more units.


She will also face a lengthy backlog of deferred maintenance that will eat up a significant share of the city’s revenues, and she will encounter a budget shortfall of more than CA$1 billion, or about $760 million.


The disinvestment in city services increased with Mayor Rob Ford saying he would stop what he called the “gravy train” at City Hall. Years of austerity budgets by his successor, Tory, followed. Both mayors appealed to voters who believed Toronto did too much for downtown residents and not enough for the city’s outlying regions.


Ford, whose four-year tenure ended in 2014 with his admitting to smoking crack cocaine, found ways to reduce the city’s budget by millions of dollars, including by changing service levels for a wide variety of city services and cutting government jobs.


Among the issues most exasperating Toronto residents is the dearth of affordable housing. The average rent in Toronto reached a record high of more than CA$3,000 per month ($2,285), according to a recent report by Urbanation, a real estate analytics company. And the city has a subsidized housing waitlist that is now 85,000 households deep.


Activists say bold policies, such as rezoning some major streets to build up density and reducing fees and taxes on affordable housing developers, are needed to make up for Canada’s limited building of subsidized housing projects in the past 25 years.


“We are so phenomenally behind in our housing supply,” said Keesmaat. “Tinkering at the margins is not going to be how we house the next generation.”


The affordable-housing crisis has been exacerbated by surges in the country’s population, which grew by a record 1 million people last year as Canada raised its immigration targets. A large share of the newcomers landed in Toronto and surrounding suburbs.


The city also had an influx of refugees entering homeless shelters last month, rising to 2,800 from 530 less than two years ago.


Chow has proposed to address affordable housing by having the city act as its own developer to build 25,000 rent-controlled homes in the next eight years, as well as by buying up market value properties and letting nonprofits manage them.


When he attended a campaign rally for Chow one week before the election, Warren Vigneswaran, 76, said he was on the fence about voting for Chow, concerned his property taxes would rise.


But, he added, “her policies are better than anybody else.”

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