Jennifer Keesmaat (Photo courtesy of Richard Brennan)
You can’t see them but Jennifer Keesmaat is wearing two hats.
She has her former city planner’s chapeau and that of a would-be Toronto mayor. She might well argue that they are one and the same given the city’s crying need for affordable housing, better transit and the challenge of making it a liveable city for the thousands who flock to Ontario’s capital every year.
“It’s never too late for a city,” she says in an exclusive interview with Toronto Storeys.
It doesn’t take long to understand that planning is her passion, which she hopes to translate into votes on Oct. 22, by convincing Torontonians she has what it takes to make Toronto a place where people can afford to live — which for many just scraping by is a fading concept.
Keesmaat has a vision for Toronto mainly focussed on affordable housing, but even hinted that it may be time to review what homeowners are paying in property taxes, while protecting those who can’t afford to pay more.
“One of the reasons I’m running for mayor is that I see so much potential that we have yet to grasp and the challenge is the challenge of leadership, which I think Doug Ford was getting at by reducing the size of council …,” she says.
“I am incredibly hopeful that with different leadership we can get different outcomes … vision and execution is really the backbone of leadership.”
Keesmaat seems to have changed her tune on Premier Doug Ford’s decision to reduce the size of Toronto City Council to 25 councillors from 47 when she mused on Twitter about seceding from the province.
To stop people from fleeing to the suburbs because of overpriced Toronto homes and skyrocketing rents, Keesmaat has a plan for 100,000 affordable housing units pegged at 80 per cent of average market rent over 10 years, compared to Mayor John Tory’s plan for 40,000 unit over 12 years.
It’s generally believed that either plan is doable, as long as there are financial incentives to make it worth a developer’s while.
Keesmaat's plan calls for affordable rental units on every scrap of city-owned excess property and, in some cases, building on top of existing locations such as one-storey subway stations and on Green P lots.
The Keesmaat campaign estimates there is almost five million square metres of land available.
“There are many industry players ready and willing to go and are saying ‘we’ve got the capacity to build, we’ve got the capacity to operate this housing. We just need land.’
"Land is the problem and what does the city have to contribute? The city has land. It’s a win-win. It’s actually the best contribution that the city can make to affordable housing.”
The goal, she says, is to provide rent in perpetuity at 80 per cent — an accepted federal government guideline — of average market rent. She said that would be the trade-off for developers getting a deal on the land.
“As an exchange for the land, let’s secure that housing at an affordable price point in perpetuity, which is another big mistake the administration has made, which is giving away land that comes due in 20 or 30 years.”
Keesmaat candidly admits there is no room left to spend much time thinking about a plan to build single-family detached homes.
“It’s not really in our interest … to be building single-family homes … it is more in our interest to use our land to build higher density and to build alongside that really high-quality, high-frequency transit,” she says.
Keesmaat has come a long way from originally wanting to be a gym teacher and possibly a lawyer.
After reading Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she was an instant planning convert and left for Toronto from Vancouver to go to York University to get her degree in politics and planning.
“I read it from cover to cover and when I put it down I thought I love this. This is home. This is where I belong. There was no turning back,” she says.
Keesmaat was named Toronto chief planner in 2012. “I like to say it was the best of times and the worst of times,” she recalls cautiously.
It has been reported that Mayor John Tory and Keesmaat crossed swords on a few files, particularly transit.
“Everything is like pushing water uphill here,” she tells Toronto Storeys.
The 48-year-old Keesmaat insists that transit and housing are intrinsically linked.
“They are entirely linked. In fact, I have often argued that our long commute, which we see as a transportation problem, is really a housing affordability problem. That people end up living farther and farther away from where they work because they can’t afford housing,” she says.
Keesmaat points to the St, Lawrence neighbourhood as a “world-class example of getting our planning right.”
“There is no reason why we can’t be doing more of those types of projects where we are really building mixed-use communities and walkable environments on transit (lines). We can do that. We have that option,” she says.
“The opportunity is to hit the reset button and to stop the dithering, stop the delay. And really start acting in a much bolder way in every neighbourhood in the city.”
Keesmaat said the answer is to build mostly mid-rise building of six to 11 storeys.
“If we want to use our land efficiently — we are a rapidly growing city — we want to create really high-quality mid-rise communities where you can raise a family, where you have excellent amenities, where you have the schools, affordable daycare and the park space, which we did very effectively back in the '70s in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood … there is no reason why today we should be building single-storey schools and single-storey community centres (but rather) integrate them into affordable housing,” she says.
Asked directly if Toronto homeowners are paying their fair share of property taxes compared to other municipalities, Keesmaat tread carefully, but clearly opened the door to a tax assessment review, given that many are sitting on homes that are worth more than $1 million, but paying half of what property owners are paying in neighbouring cities.
“I don’t think it is a unilateral answer because I think it is different for different people in the city," she says.
"There are working families in this city that are struggling with affordability and the city shouldn’t be increasing that burden … and there are other instances where we need to be looking at that question.”