Housing crisis is now in Vancouver and Toronto

Gary Mason, the insightful Vancouver correspondent for the Globe and Mail, has an opinion piece in today’s paper about the housing crisis in his city that has important implications for Toronto. This is the core of his argument.

   “Politicians, realtors and developers have continued to insist it’s simply a lack of supply (of housing). But that’s not entirely true. The thousands of new condo units built in the past few years have not been the answer to Vancouver’s affordability issue and the mayor (Gregor Robertson) has the guts to admit it. Most of the new ones are sold at luxury rates, which don’t serve the purposes of young, first – or second – time home buyers.

Meanwhile, neighbourhoods of single-detached homes on the expensive west side, in particular, have been hollowing out of young people and people generally. (Many of the homes are held as investments by offshore buyers.) The latest census showed fewer and fewer people living there. Hundreds of properties sit vacant.

(The mayor says) “We need to stop fixating on density because that’s not what this is about,” he said. “Density for density’s sake might just give us more empty homes. What we’re talking about is people.

“Schools filled with students, neighbourhood streets filled with shoppers, parks filled with kids. A neighbourhood made of perfect $5-million homes with no children is not healthy. That’s the sign of a failing city.”

That is a remarkable thing for a mayor to admit, but it’s true. A lot of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods have lost their soul, have lost their pulse of life. There are no young adults anywhere to be seen in a lot of them. How can that be a good thing?

Consider this stat: Ten years ago, if you had a household income of $97,000, you could afford to own a townhouse on the less expensive east side of Vancouver. Today, that house-hold income would need to be $175,000.”

Admittedly the housing crisis is not as bad in Toronto. We don’t have the problem of offshore buyers leaving their houses vacant, but high prices are making housing unaffordable for young families. In the expensive areas of the city like North Toronto, Rosedale, Forest Hill and the west end around High Park are becoming neighbourhoods of affluent, middle aged people with no children. The houses are much too expensive for young couples with children unless they come from families with significant wealth.

Vancouver condos in the False Creek neighbourhood

Even in suburbs like Mississauga, Vaughan and York Region house prices are too high for couples with families. Studies in the U.S. have shown that two-thirds of the suburban houses have no children living in them. The same is likely to be the case in Canada and the more expensive the houses the less likely there will be children. The irony is that these houses were built for families.

Those who believe in classical economics say that older couples will sell their houses and move into less expensive places, but things have changed. The demand for housing remains high. At least 100,000 immigrants are settling into the GTHA every year. That helps to drive our economy, but it also drives house and condos prices upwards into the unaffordable stratosphere.

There are answers to this. In Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is finding ways to stimulate affordable housing projects by selling city owned land at low cost for affordable housing. In Toronto we haven’t had a public discussion of the issue let alone practical solutions. If we don’t get moving with a realistic action plan, things are going to get miserable for many, many people. Housing is a fundamental for a good quality of life.

Where is Mayor Tory on this issue? Liberals were elected across Toronto and most of the GTHA but nothing is happing to create affordable housing for middle and low income families. If we wait five years, there will be a lost generation. Only governments have the resources to solve this problem and we must hold them responsible.

This is the link to Gary Mason’s article. It is worth reading in full.



The Bulletin, a community newspaper distributed in downtown Toronto, has a piece on my new book, Democracy Rising: Politics and Participation in Canada. The book will be released at the end of March. The book launch will be held at Ben McNally’s bookstore on Bay Street, on March 28 from 6 to 8. Everyone is welcome.

Bill Freeman

Local author Bill Freeman calls for participatory democracy

Citizen engagement is breathing new life into our democracy

In the midst of political upheaval and the uncertainty that arises from Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidency, local author Bill Freeman calls for participatory democracy in Democracy Rising.
Freeman argues for a nationwide movement where citizens challenge elite control of the political process by participating actively on political issues. His experience as an activist, sociologist and writer has led to his insights on how we can create a more democratic Canada through the engagement and participation of ordinary people.
Freeman has already earned endorsements from MPs and activists for Democracy Rising, with MP Adam Vaughan stating: “Bill Freeman champions the idea that it is possible to achieve social justice democratically through organizing from the ground up.”
Bill Freeman is an award-winning Canadian urban issues writer. He has written 21 books, including The New Urban Agenda. He is a winner of the Canada Council Award for Juvenile Literature (now the Governor General’s Literary Award) and a past chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada. He lives on Toronto Island.

“Yonge Love” and Politics

Last night I went to the Ryerson City Building Institute meeting called “Yonge Love” on the redesign of Yonge street. It was hosted in the large atrium of the new Ryerson Student Centre and the room was packed.

Reconfigured Yonge Street: Yonge and Gerrard

Most of the people there looked like recent grads and young professionals in their late 20s and 30s, but there were quite a few my age, past the time when people are expected to stop work altogether. Torontonians are passionate about their city.

The panel was led by Councillor Kristyn Wong Tam and Toronto’s Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat. Others included the head of the local BIA, a developer, an expert on retail, the new president of Ryerson University, and planners from both Vancouver and Montreal.

The discussion was around converting downtown Yonge Street, from Queen’s Quay to Davenport, into a pedestrian dominated artery. The street is currently occupied primarily by vehicles and pedestrians are squished onto narrow sidewalks, and yet, 40% of the people using the street come there on foot and 49% arrive by transit.

The other major thing that is going on along the Yonge street corridor is the construction of new condos. The length of the street in the downtown is intensifying at a dizzying speed. Major high-rise towers being build and more are in the planning stages.

At the moment there is an environmental assessment being conducted by the city planning department. The proposal that was talked about at the meeting is to widen the sidewalks, and reduce the traffic lanes to two, one in each direction. There is no plan to increase transit. After all the Yonge Street subway is just underground.

Cycling is bound to be controversial. The proposal is that there will be no bike lanes on the reconfigured Yonge Street. Priority is for pedestrians. Keesmaat explained we don’t need bike lanes on all streets and Yonge Street should be primarily reserved for walking.

Sound familiar? It should. The plan is to widen the sidewalks and narrow traffic lanes. Revolutionary? Hardly. This is not a proposal to convert downtown Yonge Street into a pedestrian mall. It is a project to widen sidewalks and calm traffic. Great, but hardly radical.

Toronto has only one pedestrian mall in the entire city, two blocks of Gould Street. Every other major city in North America is implementing plans for pedestrian malls. Montreal has scores of them, Vancouver the same. New York, Chicago are away ahead of Toronto. European cities are rapidly turning their downtown cores into walking areas, and across South America cities are giving priority to pedestrians.

So what is the problem with Toronto? In a word – politics. Toronto City Council, who make the major decisions on all planning decisions, is controlled by suburban councillors and most of them are devoted to keeping streets open to car traffic.

I found it frustrating to listen to the discussion last night about planning principles and how the pedestrianization of Yonge Street will begin to transform the downtown. Is it a first step? I hope so, and I wish it well. We must do something to calm the traffic beast in the downtown, but it is very modest.

The reality is that the real audience for this proposal is not the people who crowded the room last night. They are already convinced. The audience is Toronto City Council, including the Mayor. They have to be convinced that this proposal has strong support from those who live downtown, and the only way to do that is to show the plan has strong public support.

Governance remains the real problem in Toronto. The Mike Harris imposed amalgamation of Toronto in 1998 into a one tier municipal government is what has led to the domination of the suburbs because that is where the most votes are. As John Sewell once told me, people who live in the downtown and those who live in the suburbs have two very different visions of the city.

The suburbanites have the majority of votes on council and their vision dominates. The vision of suburbanites and Conservatives will continue to be the chief influence on Toronto until a new city governance structure is established.

If this minor redesign of Yonge Street is not accepted by city council then lord help the urban visionaries of this city.

Land Trusts and Affordable Housing

Below is a link to an article in today’s Globe and Mail’s real estate section called “A speculation-free zone.”

The article shows how land trusts in Vancouver are combining the equity of co-ops and non-profits, along with land from municipalities at low-cost, to create the financing needed for new affordable housing.

As I show in my book, The New Urban Agenda, the lack of affordable housing in the GTHA has developed into a serious crisis. Thousands of families and individuals are suffering because they cannot afford good housing.

Government is reluctant to provide the needed funds. Maybe land trusts, equity from co-ops and some help from municipalities is the way to do it.


Power and politics — electric power that is

The cost of electric power has become a major issue in Ontario. This is particularly true outside urban areas where people are required to pay high transmission costs. The real problem is decades of provincial political decisions.

Pickering nuclear power plant

Below is a link to an article published in the Torontoist, by Angela Bischoff, the outreach co-ordinator for the Clean Air Alliance. She dissects the problems surrounding Ontario Hydro and the disastrous consequences of provincial decision making.

The major problem, of course, is Ontario’s reliance on nuclear power generation. This has led to the massive debt of Ontario Hydro. In turn this has led to an over supply of electricity and a rejection of importing hydro from Quebec where it is produced by non-polluting water power.

A more long term result will be the decline of Ontario’s alternative energy program. The province has cancelled large alternative wind and solar projects and has ended the Feed and Tariff program, which encouraged thousands of people to install solar panels.


My new book, Democracy Rising: Politics and Participatory in Canada, is at the printer and will be released in mid March.

The book advocates that we need much higher levels of participation if we are to strengthen and complete our democracy. It is called participatory democracy, rather than representative democracy, that is now the accepted form of politics practiced in Canada and other countries.

George Monbiot, the journalist and social critic, who publishes in the Guardian, is a leading advocate of participatory democracy. This is a link to his latest article on the issue.

All Together Now

Back to the future yet again

Premier Kathleen Wynne’s decision to stop the imposition of tolls on the Gardiner and Don Valley Expressways shows the domination of suburban culture – cars over transit, low density suburban sprawl over high density multi-unit condominiums, suburban culture over urban culture.

Bikes are everywhere in Toronto

I argued in my book, The New Urban Agenda, that we are moving inexorably into a new urban era where increasing numbers of people want to live in high density communities, rather than low density suburbs. If this movement is strengthened and encouraged, it will mean a more urban way of life where transit, cycling and walking are the main ways that people get around, the threat of climate change is reduced, and our city streets and public spaces are taken back from the domination of traffic.

Premier Wynne’s decision underlines that we are still a long way from that dream. The suburbs, and car culture continue to dominate the political life of Ontario. And she is not alone. Both opposition parties swore they would oppose the suburbs over the city by rejecting tolls on the expressways.

This is a political shock. It is not only that the premier has overruled the decision of the mayor of Canada’s largest city, and the consensus of the forty-four member city council, but the decision shows she rejects the new urban agenda, of higher density living, reducing traffic with its congestion and pollution, and improving the quality of life of our cities. That is the only way to build an economically viable, affordable and sustainable city.

The political power of suburbanites is not finished yet. It is back to the 1950s – back to the future yet again.

Trump and the Women’s March

On January 19th Brian Iler, Mary Brock, Paulette Pelletier-Kelly and I drove down to Washington to witness the events around the inauguration of Donald Trump. It was a remarkable trip for us. We witnessed the promise of a powerful, transformative movement in North America.

Young National Guardsmen at the Trump inauguration

The 20th was inauguration day. We walked down to the mall, the vast space leading up to the capital building, where the ceremonies were to take place. There were lots of people converging on the mall. Young men in army fatigues were at every street corner close to the capital building. These were the National Guard. Security were everywhere. Police, on motorcycles and on horses. Cops on foot with guns and billy clubs. Helicopters, with their rhythmical sound of propellers were beating the air in the skies overhead. It was Apocalypse Now revisited.

Surrounding the mall were ten foot high wire impenetrable fences. People were lined up to get through small security gates in the fences and into the mall. It took us a couple of hours but we did finally make it. The four of us found a spot near the Washington Monument and watched the speeches and ceremony on a huge monitor.

Nobody was very happy. Maybe 50% of the crowd were Trump supporters, and the rest were people like ourselves, curious onlookers. The rain started as soon as Trump started speaking and his speech was dull and uninspired.

The next day, Saturday, January 21st, was the women’s march, and it could not have been more of a contrast. Again we set out on foot in the morning. As we got close to capital hill we saw more and more people on the street, many carrying signs. Most were women but there were many men. The crowd flowed like the tributaries of a river. At every street corner more people joined. The river grew larger and larger. By the time we were at the capital building it was enormous and it was growing by the minute.

The fence around the mall was gone. There were no police, no National Guard, no helicopters, only people, throngs of them, and there were more coming from every side.They were there to show their resistance to Trump and his sexist contempt for women. They were young and old. People of all colors and religions.

We made our way down to where the speeches were to be given, and the closer we got the crowd got denser and denser. Soon we could barely move. Cheek by jowl, shoulder to shoulder, we inched our way along, moving with the crowd because there were so many people we could not do anything else.

We never did get close to the speaker’s podium or the monitors. It was just too big a crush. How many people? All I can say is that it was the biggest crowd I have ever been in. A million? A million and a half? I don’t know because I find it hard to imagine what a million people, gathered in one spot, looks like, but it was an astounding number of people.

And though we could not hear the speakers, it didn’t matter. We talked to people that surrounded us. When they heard we were Canadians their reaction was to smile and say something like, “How can I move there?” There were people from all over eastern North America: Chicago, Virginia, New York, Atlanta, Boston, Texas, Michigan.

A girl shows her message to the marchers

There were chants: “This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”

The signs were truly creative. Virtually every sign was hand made by the person carrying it. “The GOP is the elephant in the womb.” “We will over-comb!” “Love Trumps Hate,” “Women Won’t Back Down,” “We are the Noisy Majority,” “She the People,” “Women’s Rights are Human Rights,” “More than Jugs and a Baby Hatch.” “Regulate Banks not Uteruses.” “We are the Granddaughters of the Witches You Could not Burn,”
The mood was electric, enthusiastic, good humoured, peaceful, and rebellious all at the same time. It was remarkable, wonderful, and moving just to be there.

This is the promise of a powerful new movement. Men have tried in the past but we can’t do it. It is up to women and minority groups. That is the powerful majority that is emerging, and they are demanding nothing less than democracy and equality for all. They will transform the world.

UN Adopts a New Urban Agenda

The United Nations has adopted a New Urban Agenda as a standard for sustainable development. You can read about it here.


The UN has recognized that cities can serve as engines of prosperity and centres of cultural and social well being. The agenda that they have adopted “provides guidance for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and provides the underpinning for actions to address climate change.”

World leaders have committed to a number of priorities that apply to all cities.

  • Provide basic services for all citizens
  • Ensure that all citizens have access to equal opportunities and face no discrimination
  • Promote measures that support cleaner cities
  • Strengthen resilience in cities to reduce the risk and the impact of disasters
  • Take action to address climate change by reducing their greenhouse gas emissions
  • Fully respect the rights of refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons regardless of their migration status
  • Improve connectivity and support innovative and green initiatives
  • Promote safe, accessible and green public spaces