On June 26, let’s build a city where every Torontonian can thrive, write United Way and Daily Bread Food Bank leaders
This opinion piece by President and CEO of United Way Greater Toronto Daniele Zanotti and CEO of Daily Bread Food Bank Neil Hetherington was originally published on toronto.com on June 8, 2023.
In less than three weeks, Toronto will be electing a new mayor in what is shaping up to be the most hotly contested race in a decade. With 102 candidates vying for the job, and no incumbents, Toronto might overcome one of its biggest challenges to democracy: voter turnout.
Despite the important services administered by city hall, including affordable housing, public transit, parks and recreation, homelessness services, public libraries and so much more, voter turnout tends to be very low in municipal elections. Take the 2022 election, where only 29.7 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballot. In fact, there has only been one election in the past 20 years where the majority of eligible Torontonians voted.
Voter turnout tends to be even lower in Toronto neighbourhoods with higher proportions of low-income households, racialized individuals, and newcomers. While some may experience barriers to voting, we know from working in these communities there are residents who opt not to vote because they fear that their perspectives will be overlooked.
This election might challenge these norms.
Daily Bread Food Bank and United Way Greater Toronto both recently conducted surveys and consultations to understand the biggest priorities for Torontonians this election.
An astonishing 95 per cent of food bank clients surveyed by Daily Bread Food Bank who were eligible indicated they were planning to cast their ballot, directly contrasting the typical assumption that low-income residents are less likely to vote. This is good news.
Both organizations heard directly that affordable housing was resoundingly the top issue on the minds of residents and service providers in the city. This comes as no surprise considering the average rent of a one-bedroom apartment listed in Toronto in May 2023 was $2,538. A renter would need to earn $91,358 a year to afford an average one-bedroom apartment, vastly out of reach for someone earning minimum wage or the $1,228 a month for a single individual on Ontario Disability Support Program.
Among Toronto food bank clients, 69 per cent are spending at least half of their income on housing, and an additional 18 per cent are putting every dollar of their income toward housing, leaving nothing for food and other expenses. We see this reflected in calls to 211, Toronto’s centralized line for service referrals funded by United Way, where between January to March 2023 there were rising inquiries about affordable housing eviction prevention assistance, emergency shelter information, and inquiries for the Canada Housing Benefit, followed closely by inquiries for utilities assistance and food bank access. It is undeniable that Toronto is in the midst of a long-running and worsening housing and food insecurity crisis.
Daily Bread Food Bank and United Way Greater Toronto both hosted mayoral candidate debates with partner organizations this election. What we saw clearly was that Torontonians are anything but apathetic.
Thousands of residents showed up, tuned in, and submitted questions about the critical issues facing our city today: food insecurity, affordable housing, public transit accessibility, poverty, access to services, and equity.
Given the record-breaking number of candidates in the mayoral race, Toronto’s next mayor could be elected with only a small percentage of the popular vote. Candidates should not take a single vote for granted, least of all those who have been continuously marginalized.
The communities we work in, the organizations in our networks, the residents who access our services all contribute to building our city. And, these are the same communities most in need of bold policy action. As one respondent to United Way’s community consultation put it: “The city declared homelessness an emergency — treat it like one.”
It is critical that the mayoral candidates listen to these perspectives, and put equity, inclusion, and building strong neighbourhoods at the centre of their platforms. On June 26, let’s build a city where every Torontonian can thrive.