More housing and transparency, no vaccine mandates: Sarah Climenhaga's pitch to be Toronto's mayor

CBC Radio's Metro Morning will speak with a number of mayor candidates this week in the leadup to the Oct. 24 election. Today, host Ismaila Alfa talked to Sarah Climenhaga about her vision for the city.

Mayoral candidates set to take to take part in board of trade debateMonday

Toronto mayoral candidates Sarah Climenhaga looks on as another candidate makes a remark during the first debate.
Toronto mayoral candidate Sarah Climenhaga looks on as rival Jack Yan speaks during the first of two major debates of the campaign. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

There's just one week left before Toronto goes to the polls and CBC Radio's Metro Morning is hosting several mayoral candidates this week to hear about their vision for the city.

The first was Sarah Climenhaga, an environmentalist who is running for a second time.

She spoke with host Ismaila Alfa on Monday. The interview touched on the issues of housing, the city's enormous budget hole and COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

LISTEN | Sarah Climenhaga's full Metro Morning interview:

Sarah Climenhaga is a community activist who ran for mayor in 2018 and for the Green Party in the 2019 federal election. She is once again running to be mayor of Toronto.

Below is a transcript of the same interview. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


Alfa: What would be the main thing you would do to make housing more affordable and accessible for people in the city?

Climenhaga: I would use our vacancy tax as a tool. We have units right now that could be used for housing but aren't. They're sitting vacant because housing is treated as a commodity rather than a right. So I would think we should use our vacancy tax as a tool to get all of those thousands of units into circulation. That instantly has an impact without needing to wait years and years for projects to get built. So that's just one example. 

Alfa: How would you take the vacancy tax and turn that into units that are available? 

Climenhaga: There are units right now that are sitting empty. So a vacancy tax creates a very powerful incentive for a property owner to either sell the property to someone who will create housing or start renting it out. And the level of vacancy tax that you choose, that's going to determine how powerful that incentive is. So it's just looking at all the available tools that we have and, again, that's just one. Zoning reform is obviously another big one.

'Strong mayor powers'

Alfa: We've seen a lot of resistance to the idea of changing zoning, resistance to these kinds of things from city councillors. Would you use the new "strong mayor" powers to rezone areas that are zoned for single family homes right now and change that to a multi-family homes?

Climenhaga: I'm really not in favour of using strong mayor powers against councillors and against residents. The mayor has never lost a votes, so I don't think we really need strong mayor powers to deal with our challenges. What I think is, we need to talk to the residents. And the residents I've talked to, none of them are against housing. We talk about NIMBYs but they're not against housing. They're worried about too much car traffic. They're worried about noise. They're worried about loss of green space and I'm concerned about those two things as well.

It's just a matter of talking to the residents and bringing them together with the developers at the early stages so we do get the housing. It's just that we address the concerns that have led people to resist housing.

Alfa: How do you address those concerns, though? Because those are things that just come with housing, right? More vehicles, more traffic, more needs for utilities, all those sorts of things. How do you address those?

Climenhaga: Well, again, the how is a huge question. I could answer for an hour. But traffic — the city doesn't need to have minimum parking requirements. There's a lot of people who would be willing to live in this city without a car. 

Green space — there are lots of ways of incorporating green spaces in buildings, around buildings. And bringing developers and contractors and people who are creating housing with residents at the early stages. I have a lot of faith in the ability of design to solve a lot of these problems.

And so I think by having residents have a meaningful voice in what they want in their neighbourhood, we can design solutions that provide housing and do address those problems.

Budget shortfall

Alfa: The city is facing an $857-million budget hole. How would you cover that while also paying for the services that you have promised in your platform? You had mentioned in that platform the idea of eliminating mandatory TTC fares for everybody but how do you pay for all of this and handle the shortfall?

Climenhaga: Well, first of all I just want to clarify the word promises because I've been very careful in my campaign to say I don't believe in campaign promises. I don't. They always get broken, so what I really offer is my vision and what I'd like to see.

But addressing that budget hole that you're talking about, it's huge. It's real. And I think, again, I'm going to talk about participation, participatory budgeting, bringing people into the budgeting process. The first thing we need to do is make our budget clear. The summary alone is 900 pages. People don't understand what, at least I don't understand, what our tax dollars are going toward, where the money is being spent. Why are the garbage cans overflowing but yet we have 40,000 city staff? So I think making our budget totally clear, totally transparent — there are experts on open data who can help the city with that.

And then bringing residents into that process of deciding how we pay for things. And then if residents can see, oh, we actually do need a little bit more money to pay for this thing that we all want. Maybe residents would be interested in, for instance, a property tax increase. Or maybe we could completely not need an increase because we can cut a huge amount of spending that residents don't want to be spent.

Mayoral candidate Sarah Climenhaga says she would simplify the city's budget documents and open wider consultations on spending so that residents can have a say on what to save and what to spend on to cover the city's $857 million budget shortfall. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

COVID-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions

Alfa: You have spoken out against pandemic restrictions and and vaccine mandates like what the City of Toronto has had in place. How would you lead Toronto through the remainder of the pandemic, the pandemic which isn't over yet?

Climenhaga: Well the first thing is, you know, I have spoken very strongly about removing the employee [vaccine] mandate at the City of Toronto. That's something I would work with my councillors on and I would like to get rid of that because we know we have a labour shortage at the city. It doesn't make sense.

And there are other things I could say about discrimination. But right now I'm just gonna talk about the labour shortage. And for the rest of it, I really believe that the mayor is not a doctor. I know I'm not a doctor or an epidemiologist. So I think individuals need to be trusted to make their own medical decisions and the city needs to really create a healthy public environment to support health. That is things like encouraging exercise. That is things like making sure our public spaces are available; that people have housing.

Toronto mayoral candidate Sarah Climenhaga says she doesn't believe in making promises during her campaign, instead she lays out her vision for the city. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Alfa: You mentioned discrimination. Could you elaborate on that? 

Climenhaga: One thing about discrimination is people who don't see it, can't judge what discrimination is. So there's a lot of people who say, no, that's not discrimination. If you tell someone they can't have a job because they're not vaccinated. But the thing is, the people who have — for their own reasons, and they are varied — the reasons people choose to not get vaccinated are a huge variety of reasons. For them, they've experienced discrimination. So I think that that's what we have to look at. That people didn't used to think other things were discrimination either and that today a lot of people don't think this is. But I personally do. I really do.

Alfa: Many would point out that that's "discrimination" around a choice that can be made. And you did point out that [Mayor] John Tory may not be a doctor, but [Dr. Eileen de Villa] definitely is a doctor. And I do wonder if you were to lead this city through the next four years, would you take the advice of Toronto Public Health, of the medical officer of health when suggestions are made or recommendations are made around mandating masks or that sort of thing?

Climenhaga: Well, I mean, first of all, choice — I just want to say that discrimination has been used to say that sexual orientation is a lifestyle choice which which we agree is wrong now, it is not a choice. People see that vaccination is not a choice as well. So anyhow, I just want to move on from that. 

I absolutely would listen to public health. I mean, the mayor's job is to listen to everyone, and I wouldn't exclude public health from that. Public health has talked about a lot of things. If we wanted to talk about, say, our roads, why haven't we listened to public health about the state of our roads? Right?

I would listen to public health, but it stops short of authoritarianism. And I believe what we've done, by some of our restrictions in the pandemic, has moved from public health into authoritarianism. And that's where I believe a mayor should not step into. They should listen to public health, work with residents on public health, but stop short of overriding them, firing people or banning them from restaurants. I do feel strongly about that. Thanks for asking. 

End of transcript.

Later Monday, Climenhaga will join the second of two major debates scheduled for the campaign trail. That debate, organized by the Toronto Region Board of Trade, will also feature candidates Gil Penalosa, John Tory, Chloe Brown and Stephen Punwasi. 

In total, there are 31 people running for mayor — comprising by far the longest list on your ballot. They are:

  • Blake Acton
  • Avraham Arrobas
  • Darren Atkinson
  • Chloe Brown
  • Drew Buckingham
  • Elvira Caputolan
  • Kevin Clarke
  • Sarah Climenhaga
  • Phillip D'Cruze
  • Cory Deville
  • Alexey Efimovskikh
  • Isabella Gamk
  • Arjun Gupta
  • Peter Handjis
  • Robert Hatton
  • Monowar Hossain
  • Soaad Hossain
  • Khadijah Jamal
  • Kris Langenfeld
  • John Letonja
  • Tony Luk
  • Ferin Malek
  • Gil Penalosa
  • Stephen Punwasi
  • D!ONNE Renée
  • Kyle Schwartz
  • Knia Singh
  • Sandeep Srivastava
  • John Tory
  • Reginald Tull
  • Jack Yan


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