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Inner-Suburbia Inequality In Toronto Clarified by COVID-19 | Op-Ed

An Inequality Pandemic: When Cities Don’t Invest in Everyone, COVID-19 Is Worse

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the inherent inequities of our economic model and systems, showing how they fail to provide for people’s basic needs. 

  • Austerity measures, systemic racism, income inequality and climate change, to name a few, continue to fester and thrive throughout Canadian cities. 

In Short: These entrenched injustices have come to the surface, particularly in Toronto, where 83% of COVID-19 cases are among racialized people. The higher rates of virus contraction are in the northwest and northeast inner-suburban communities. 

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COVID-19 Alone Didn’t Get Us Here.

Prior to this pandemic, a child in York South-Weston, a northwest Toronto inner-suburban community, was three times more likely to live in poverty.

  • Now, a resident of Weston is 23 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than someone living in a higher-income neighbourhood like the Beaches.
Inner Suburb: The innermost ring of suburbs that lie outside the city limits. Traditionally, inner suburbs have been home to the working class, but as manufacturing jobs have migrated to the periphery of cities, property prices have increased and many of the inner suburbs have become gentrified.

Workers in York South-Weston are primarily essential workers, working through the pandemic in public services or the service industry; both predominantly represented by workers of colour, immigrants, women and migrant workers.

While the data above comes as no surprise to residents, activists and community groups, it starkly exposes the marginalization these neighbourhoods have fought throughout Toronto’s history. 

This data should make the city’s geographically-concentrated and racialized systemic-inequality unavoidable for the rest of the city and its elected officials. 

Policy Priorities of the Past

In the inner-suburbs, an effort to avoid addressing structural inequalities, combined with the failure to strengthen universal public services has led to a wave of ‘revitalization’ efforts.

  • This is seen in continued financialization of housing, allowing corporate landlords to get off scot-free with tactics like ‘renovictions.’ 
Renoviction: An eviction carried out for the purpose of renovating the building to later replace the tenants with those who will pay higher rent.

Revitalization efforts have come mostly in the form of private or PPP (public-private partnerships) infrastructure projects and developments. For example, the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, new residential builds without rent control like 22 John Street in York South-Weston, and legislation from the provincial government, like Bill 184 which makes it easier to evict tenants. 

These revitalization efforts escalated in York South-Weston when the construction of the Eglinton Crosstown began, but the structural and racist neglect of inner-suburban communities in Toronto has been prevalent for decades. 

  • Following the loss of manufacturing jobs in the area, outside of subsidizing construction, the government failed to invest in local public services which residents relied on.
  • There was a failure to implement real resident and commercial rent control.
  • The City of Toronto also failed to officially recognize Eglinton West, an area where thousands of Jamaicans had settled in the 70s, 80s and 90s, as little Jamaica.

Residents and groups like Black Urbanism TO and Black Voices on Eglinton not only fight for a future that includes longtime working-class Black residents but also fight to preserve this community’s rich culture in the face of systemic racism and income inequality. 

  • Toronto, like many other Canadian urban centres, continues to stare down the barrel of an affordable housing crisis with the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment now totalling $2,063. 

Now, compare the city’s average rent to that of a one-bedroom apartment in York South-Weston: $957 (this number is from the 2016 Census, so undoubtedly it has increased since). 

As people continue to be priced out of the downtown core and old City of Toronto, developers have been hard at work marketing Toronto’s inner-suburbs as desirable destinations for young families who, to no fault of their own, are looking for “up-and-coming” affordable neighbourhoods with rapid transit to downtown and the potential to be the next Leslieville

Gentrification is impending in the inner-suburbs and the response from governments continues to miss the mark on addressing the underlying neglect and injustice that has led us here. 

Electoral Outcomes

In a 1998 cost-cutting initiative by Conservative Premier Mike Harris, Toronto’s six separate boroughs amalgamated to form the “megacity” City of Toronto. 

While some argue that a benefit to amalgamation was a more equal distribution of services to smaller boroughs like York and Scarborough, the new City of Toronto saw their number of council representatives fall from 106 to 44 today with former boroughs like York and Scarborough being some of the most neglected. 

From 2003 to 2010, Mayor David Miller and a Toronto City Council with a progressive majority advanced a number of reforms and causes like the vehicle registration tax and Transit City, which would have brought rapid transit to the inner-suburbs. 

  • Both were almost immediately undone by the succeeding Rob Ford administration in 2010 and from 2010 through John Tory’s administration of today, income inequality is increasing and continues to be geographic, racialized and gendered. 

Fast forward to July 2018 in Toronto: The affordable housing crisis is at its peak and the Toronto Transit Commission is bursting at the seams – there is a growing sense among Torontonians that the status-quo of City Council is not serving them. 

Places of Resistance

The Ontario NDP has just secured Official Opposition status in the legislature and Ford’s Conservatives are beginning to anger the public as they take an axe to publically-funded education with attacks on sex-ed, and a municipal election is around the corner. 

Progress Toronto has formed, and diverse and progressive activists are poised across the city to increase their number of seats and take power back from inner-suburban right-wing figures like Giorgio Mammoliti, Frances Nunziata and Mark Grimes, who have consistently voted against the best interests of their marginalized constituencies. 

  • In York South-Weston, Councillor Frances Nunziata who has represented York South-Weston for over 30 years, saw a legitimate challenger for the first time since 2006.

Things were looking up. And then, Doug Ford’s Conservative government tabled Bill 5, the Better Local Government Act, and unilaterally cut the size of Toronto City Council from 47 members to 25 in the middle of the election. 

This move effectively knee-capped a number of progressive campaigns:

  • In York South-Weston, progressive challenger Chiara Padovani was not only running a grassroots campaign against Councillor Nunziata and her developer-donors, but against Councillor Frank Di Giorgio (elected in 1985) as well.
  • This meant she was up against an incumbency advantage of a combined total of over 60 years spanning across the equivalent of a federal riding’s geographic boundary.

Signs of Hope

While Bill 5 posed a huge barrier for first-time progressive candidates across the city, the appetite for change still shone through at the ballot boxes, although not enough for victory. 

  • In York South-Weston, Chiara Padovani received over 20% of the vote and came within just 3,067 votes of unseating Councillor Nunziata.
  • In Etobicoke-Lakeshore, Amber Morley won 27.19% of the vote with 10,985 ballots cast in her favour. 

As we know, these right-wing figures’ claim to fame over the last 20 years are records of austerity. Many use the tactics of right-wing populism and ‘retail’ politics: A very Toronto phenomenon popular in the inner-suburbs.

  • This is demonstrated by local politicians being at the scene to fill potholes, showing up to flooded basements, marching for affordable housing, visiting communities after acts of violence – only to then proceed and vote against the best interests of those affected constituents at Toronto City Hall or in the legislature when it comes to big-ticket items like the city budget. 

It’s important to note that Toronto has the lowest property tax rate in the GTHA and Ottawa: With electoral outcomes like these, who has been prioritized during this pandemic? Wealthier, white homeowners located within the core of the City of Toronto.

The Response

The COVID-19 data we are seeing is a devastating life and death manifestation of these policy priorities and electoral outcomes. This needs to be Toronto’s day of reckoning on growing inequality in the inner-suburbs and the complacency of its elected officials. While the response to the pandemic continues, change should be on its way. 

The City of Toronto will continue to need financial support from the provincial and federal governments for services like childcare and public transit to respond and recover safely. But the systemic inequality that the inner-suburbs face, illuminated by this pandemic, are of disproportionate representation, and therefore, the efforts to address them should be as such. 

The inner-suburbs deserve a targeted strategy, similar to a ‘New Deal’, that includes investment and reforms from all levels of government that creates good jobs with paid sick leave, rent-geared-to-income housing and safe, affordable public transit. 

  • It should also include the shifting of the police budget to the funding of community led-solutions to issues like youth violence. Fighting poverty and racism go hand-in-hand with decreasing rates of crime and inequality. Funding needs to match the gravity of the injustice and inequality at hand.

Building and Taking Back Power

Austerity and oppression leave traumatic legacies in communities, and the type of neighbourhood resiliency York South-Weston and other inner-suburban communities endure should be unnecessary. 

People should be able to live in dignity, and the government should provide the services we have deemed important to our quality of life. 

However, Toronto’s inner-suburban communities all organize in their own ways to take care of each other when those in power have failed: From York South-Weston to Scarborough, throughout COVID-19, mutual aid and local economy networks have come together, tenant associations have formed, the Black Lives Matter movement continues to gain momentum.

Power Is Being Built in the Inner-Suburbs, by the Inner-Suburbs, for the Inner-Suburbs

  • Tenant groups like the York South-Weston Tenant Union and ACORN Toronto are building power by supporting tenants in their building-by-building eviction fights as well as in city-wide movements to stop Conservative legislation like Bill 184.

The Bottom Line: What Could a ‘New Deal’ for the Inner-Suburbs Look Like?

Neighbourhoods historically left behind in this city should continue to come together in solidarity to translate the new and existing community connection and power being built to electoral success, and chart a path towards a just, fair and sustainable city for all, regardless of race, income or postal code. 

Every day we build upon a vision of this by continuing to imagine and push for a just future for our neighbourhoods.

  • This includes fighting to maintain the history, culture and affordability of Black inner-suburban communities, continuing direct action and organizing against corporate landlords and Conservative governments, and preparing community leaders to challenge those who haven’t served us leading up to COVID-19. 

A representative and progressive City Council that fights alongside its communities to eradicate geographically-concentrated systemic inequality and racism in Toronto is a place to start.