The condo factor: Voters in the sky
Reaching new residents in downtown Toronto a challenge for candidates
In the condominium-heavy territory stretching along Toronto's waterfront, you'd be forgiven for forgetting there's a federal election campaign underway.
While the city's low-rise neighbourhoods are plastered with orange, red, blue or green campaign posters ahead of the May 2 vote, this area is all but devoid of signs.
It's symbolic of the uncertainty surrounding the direction voters here will lean in the two-way race in Trinity-Spadina, a riding that encompasses a large portion of the west-end condominium boom.
Since the last general election in late 2008, 7,000 new condominium units have become occupied and nearly 75 buildings with an undetermined number of units are in the process of filling up, according to RealNet Canada Inc., a real estate information service.
Both the New Democrat and Liberal camps estimate that translates to an influx of more than 15,000 residents to the riding held by the NDP's Olivia Chow.
In 2008, Chow won by a margin of 3,475 over her closest rival, Liberal candidate Christine Innes, and both camps are hoping to get the new condo voters on their side by May 2.
"It's a transient population that doesn't have much history," said Matthew Blackett, publisher of Toronto's Spacing magazine. "You have people who move in, get married, have kids and move out."
Many of the new condo residents across the riding, but particularly those along the waterfront, are young professionals who have moved from another part of Toronto or from outside the city.
That adds increases the uncertainty in a diverse riding that Blackett calls a "microcosm of big city Canada." The electoral district reaches north from the waterfront, through Chinatown and Little Italy and into the affluent Annex neighbourhood north of the University of Toronto campus.
Ian Graham, who moved to a condo in the Queen’s Quay neighbourhood from Caledon for work four years ago, has watched the neighbourhood change over the years.
"A lot of people from the 905, 519 area codes are starting to move down here for more opportunities," Graham said, referring to the suburban GTA and southwestern Ontario area codes. "Downtown is becoming a little more desirable place to live."
For Chow, that population influx means she can't rely on name recognition built up in other parts of the riding, particularly north of Queen Street West.
"Those new condo voters are not your traditional NDP voters," said Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist at University of Toronto. "Those condos are very expensive, they're small, you've got a lot of younger people, upwardly mobile and it'll be their first time voting in the constituency."
But Chow has name recognition beyond the riding, he acknowledges.
"My impression is that she really works her constituency hard, she has a higher profile partly because she’s married to [NDP Leader] Jack Layton, who mentioned her, I noticed, in the debate the other day."
Innes's campaign manager, Tom Allison, says he believes the condo voters are largely Liberal and it's just a matter of motivating those who stayed home in 2008 to visit the polls.
Motivating the vote
Both want to woo undecideds such as Nicole Telidis, a 22-year-old patent analyst who moved to the riding a year ago from Kingston, Ont.
"I voted for the Green Party in the last one. It was kind of a protest vote," Telidis said. "I didn’t like any of the options so much, so I voted for them."
Without firm roots in the riding — she currently lives with her parents — Telidis looks more to the party leaders than the local candidates when deciding how to vote.
"I'm leaning toward NDP right now," Telidis said. "I'm not too thrilled with any of the candidates, but I think we need to focus on other things like foreign policy and the environment. I just don’t see Stephen Harper doing that, and I'm not pleased with Michael Ignatieff, either."
But she's been reading online about strategic voting, particularly how to oust the Conservative government "so my vote could still be swayed."
Graham is also undecided but is feeling the pressure to vote — not from the candidates but from his peers.
"As far as it stands right now, it's neither here nor there for me," Graham said.
Former Liberal stronghold went NDP
Allison says the riding has seen some swings over the past two decades: voting a New Democrat MP into the House of Commons when Conservatives won office and a Liberal MP with a Liberal win.
"At one time it was considered the safest Liberal seat in the country," Innes said. "We know it’s not our safest seat in the country any more but we think if we can show people that it is possible to elect a Liberal in Trinity-Spadina because it's been done many times."
High-rise condos in Trinity-Spadina
Occupancies between Nov. 2008 to Feb. 28, 2011:
- 6,966 units
Scheduled occupancies March 2011 to Dec. 2014:
- 18,550 units
Source: RealNet Canada Inc.
The riding was a Liberal stronghold for 13 years when Innes's husband Tony Ianno held the seat, before Chow won the seat two terms in a row.
"Trinity-Spadina is now probably solidly in the NDP camp because although they won it by only under six per cent, the longer the incumbent is in there, the better she is known," Wiseman said.
Chow's campaign chair, Joe Cressy, acknowledges that the condo dwellers don't know the New Democrat incumbent as well.
Battling for votes in condominiums is no easy task. A lack of telephone land lines, building security features and residents' long work hours can hinder traditional door-to-door and telephone campaigning methods.
"They’re not home before 8 p.m. so they're not being canvassed," Cressy said. "Where are they between the hours of 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 7 p.m.? Many of them are online or on smartphones, on BlackBerries, so you target an online community."
Spacing magazine's Blackett, who covered the 2006 municipal election, doesn't think the influx of new residents in the riding has brought any real political shift.
"It didn’t seem that different to me in terms of attitude," Blackett said. "What changed to me was the amount of numbers. That’s the change."
And the numbers will continue to climb. RealNet estimates 18,550 units will be occupied by the end of 2014.
That means the condos may be even more of a factor in the next election.