A new report from ACRON Canada may raise some eyebrows.

In a report titled “Who Controls Toronto? People or Developers,” ACORN Canada alleges that over one third of Toronto City Council donor funds are from people who have ties to the real estate development industry. 

According to the report from the national organization of low and moderate-income families, of the more than $4M in donations given to winning candidates in Toronto’s last City Council election in 2018, 34% came from those with personal or professional links to the city’s development industry. 

This figure totals $1,374,725.

In terms of individual donors, one in four (24%) who donated had personal or professional ties to the development industry, alleges ACORN. These donations came from people connected to firms, industries, or businesses with financial interests in the building, selling, and planning of properties and buildings, according to the organization. 

Toronto City Council Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

According to the report, every single one of the 24 members of Toronto City Council elected in 2018 accepted cash from the development industry, in varying amounts. Notable mentions include Mayor John Tory, who received $1,288,650 in total donations, 38% of which came from people tied to the development industry. 

Chair of the Planning and Housing Committee Ana Bailäo received an even larger percentage, with 42% of her donation funds coming from the pockets of those linked to the development industry. Of the total $438,770 donations that came in for councillors who sit on the Planning and Housing Committee, $128,900 came from donors with ties to the development industry. 

Councillor James Pasternak of the Mayor’s Executive Committee, however, took the cake, with 59% of his personal donations linked to those connected to development. 

“Most people in the city want an affordable city that is focused on equity, justice, and dignity,” reads the report. “And yet ACORN members are also worried that the 5,504 donations that elected councillors received in 2018, and the people that made those donations, wield a disproportionate influence on how the city runs and who controls the priorities and decisions made at city hall.”

As ACORN highlights, developers continue to play a large role in politics at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels. The organization points to inadequate election financing laws that allow developers to “pave over local planning rules and prioritize development industry profit over community input and control.”

The more pro-developer local city councillors are, the more difficult it is for the public and community to succeed in pushing their priorities, says ACORN. 

Toronto City CouncilShutterstock

“We do not believe any other industry is as invested in donating to municipal elections, nor in helping to elect or trying to influence who is elected to council and then regulates planning and development in the city,” reads the report. 

To be fair, some may question the report's methodology, which is based in qualitative research. It is admittedly a little blurry when it comes to how an alleged personal or professional connection to development or real estate is actually defined.

"Also very weird that you've included people who work at kitchen hardware stores as developers," wrote one Twitter user, who called the report a "joke."

"Mayor Tory's campaign finance reporting has always been fully transparent and accountable. All of the donations made to the Mayor’s campaign three years ago were fully disclosed and filed under the City's election rules and complied with those rules," says Lawvin Hadisi, Tory's press secretary. "The reason ACORN was able to write any report on donations is because all donations to municipal campaigns are a matter of public record."

Hadisi also points to the thousands of people who supported the Mayor’s successful re-election campaign from all walks of life.

"While he welcomes virtually all donations as healthy transparent participation in the democratic process, his decision-making as Mayor has at all times been guided only by what is right for the City of Toronto and its residents," says Hadisi. "Throughout his time in office, the Mayor has prioritized the creation of affordable housing and while we have much to do, the achievements of recent years have far exceeded what was done by other administrations. The Mayor and the City are in the midst of discussions right now to require people to include more affordable housing in their developments.”

But ACORN points to the undeniable influence of developers in city politics, as reflected in things like Open Door, Housing Now, and Inclusionary Zoning. “For Open Door, a policy that gives incentives and tax breaks to developers who receive city funds, the public demanded rent controlled units while developers and their council allies resisted community demands,” says the organization.  

ACORN also highlights that when the City of Toronto opened up development of public lands, advocates pushed for the entirety of the site to be rental housing. There was also a push for 50% of the sites to be affordable rental, and yet the City moved forward with a program that saw 66% of sites open to private market developers. 

“This begs the question of who controls the city, people or developers?,” asks ACORN in the report.