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

·3 min read

TORONTO — The six leading candidates in Toronto's mayoral election all began their fourth debate in 48 hours by trying to position themselves as the fiscally responsible choice who can invest in city services and build new affordable housing, while balancing Toronto's massive pandemic-related budget shortfall.

The sold-out debate hosted by the Toronto Region Board of Trade and TVO Today Live was held Thursday evening at the Isabel Bader Theatre, where they sparred on issues like livability and prospects for economic growth.

The debate featured former federal lawmaker Olivia Chow, city councillor Josh Matlow, ex-police chief Mark Saunders, 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.

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Tensions appeared high at the debate, 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.

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.

Bailão took heat after saying she is proud of the progress the city made in building thousands of affordable housing during her tenure in office from former provincial lawmaker Hunter, who claimed not one unit of affordable housing had been built since.

Hunter released a line-by-line budget earlier in the day, which proposed a plan to build below-average market rent units for families, reversing TTC cuts and fare hikes and 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.

Chow proposed an unspecified moderate tax increase to build 25,000 units of housing, while taking repeated shots from Saunders for not saying how much she will hike taxes. Saunders touted his experience managing Toronto police's more than $1-billion budget as proof he could manage city finances.

A 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.

It also saw candidates face questions about working with Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who holds huge influence over municipal affairs but stirs controversy at city hall, notably among the progressive left.

Several polls have established Chow as the front-runner, and she has repeatedly come under fire in past debates as candidates seek to make up ground.

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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