Mayoral candidates square off on affordable housing, Gardiner in Tuesday debate

Mayoral candidates Sarah Climenhaga, Saron Gebresellassi, Jennifer Keesmaat and John Tory squared off once again Tuesday night to debate key issues facing the city ahead of Oct. 22’s municipal election.

Debate comes hours ahead of advance polls opening

Jennifer Keesmaat, John Tory, Sarah Climenhaga and Saron Gebresellassi, left to right, faced off Tuesday night debating everything from the Gardiner Expressway to affordable housing. (CBC; Chris Young/Canadian Press; Paul Smith/CBC; Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC)

Mayoral candidates Sarah Climenhaga, Saron Gebresellassi, Jennifer Keesmaat and John Tory squared off once again Tuesday night to debate key issues facing the city ahead of Oct. 22's municipal election.

The debate, hosted by the The Toronto Region Board of Trade and The Globe and Mail, was held at First Canadian Place and was moderated by The Globe and Mail's deputy national editor Nicole MacIntyre.

Despite numerous repeated interruptions from protesters, candidates focused on the many issues, including hot topics like transit and housing.

Tory, Keesmaat spar on affordable housing, taxes

In Tuesday's debate, Gebresellassi repeated her pledge to declare a state of emergency on housing and called for 20,000 new affordable housing units as well as an accurate definition of affordable housing.

Keesmaat said she would like to see better use of city-owned land.

"We have an incredible opportunity to build 100,000 units of affordable housing in our city on our city-owned land, which is very different from Mr. Tory's plan, which is selling off city-owned land to build luxury condos, which is in fact fueling the unaffordability that we see in our city," Keesmaat said.

Tory denied Keesmaat's claim and called her plan "unrealistic." He said his target would be 40,000 units over 12 years.

Affordable housing was one of the many issues tackled during Tuesday's debate. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

On taxes, Tory said he'd keep property and commercial tax increases at or below the rate of inflation for another four years and criticized Keesmaat's plan for a "progressive tax" targeted at the rich to help with affordable home ownership.

"On your changes that you want to make, you have to go up to Queen's Park and ask for permission, and good luck if you're in a state of constant warfare with that government," Tory said. "Good luck going and getting the legislative changes. That's why you need partnerships at Queen's Park."

Tory defends Gardiner

Tory defended the city's plan for the Gardiner, which would see the east end of the expressway torn down and rebuilt.

The other candidates largely oppose that idea.

Climenhaga said that end of the elevated highway wasn't critical and something that future generations would be saddled with.

"Cities around the world are taking down elevated expressways. Why are we moving backwards in time?" she asked.

"Our tax dollars should not be going towards rebuilding an antiquated piece of infrastructure. Let's move into the future. Please."
Mayoral candidates Saron Gebresellassi, Jennifer Keesmaat, John Tory and Sarah Climenhaga, left to right, at Tuesday's debate. (The Globe and Mail/YouTube)

Gebresellassi took the opportunity to criticize Tory's opposition to free transit and said the future is accessible transit for everyone.

"I hear from John Tory, 'We can't pay for free transit,' but we can invest in a multi-billion dollar project that is wasteful that has been demonstrated to be wasteful," she said.

"No more saying, 'We can't pay for transit, we can't afford it.' It's about political will, and political courage and being ahead of the curve."

Keesmaat called the Gardiner "1950s infrastructure" and criticized the cost of rebuilding it.

"Sometimes when you have a bad plan, the best thing to do is rip it up," she said. "We have an incredible opportunity to better use our land to create a whole new neighbourhood, a place for jobs and commerce on our waterfront."

Tory asked about debating Keesmaat

The mayoral debate comes during a 2018 municipal election that's been rocked by the province's plan to slash the size of city council, and is expected to be one of the final debates before Torontonians hit the polls.

CBC Toronto planned to host a debate between Tory and Keesmaat in front of a live studio audience on Oct. 17, but Tory declined the invitation saying he'd only participate in debates with more candidates.

CBC Toronto was planning to host a debate between John Tory and Jennifer Keesmaat on Oct. 16. That will no longer happen.

Tory was asked in Tuesday's debate about his decision not to participate in a one-on-one debate with Keesmaat and responded by asking why the other candidates should be excluded, adding that when he ran for mayor in 2003 he polled in the low single digits.

"Today, somebody said to me, 'Well, we shouldn't be including people who are polling at two or three per cent,'" Tory said. "By that measure, I wouldn't have been included in 2003, and I think that would have been unfair then and it's unfair now."

Climenhaga and Gebresellassi also expressed their opposition to being left out of debates.

"I would just ask the media, is it better to have no debates than a debate that's not the way you want it?" Climenhaga asked. "It's bad for the people of Toronto to not have a large amount of debates that they can access and learn about their candidates."

There are 35 candidates running to be Toronto's next mayor. A full list is available on the city's MyVote website.

Election day is Oct. 22. Advance polls open Wednesday and will be open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. until Sunday.

With files from John Rieti and Lauren Pelley