On November 30, 2023, Social Planning Toronto hosted a Resident Budget Forum with 22 resident leaders from across Toronto. Residents shared their thoughts on the City's main pre-budget consultation questions and provided feedback on how to make budget consultations processes at the City more equitable, accessible, and inclusive. This City Budget Watch post provides a summary of what we heard from resident leaders at the Resident Budget Forum.
The City of Toronto’s Community Development Unit offered Social Planning Toronto an opportunity to host a pre-budget consultation with resident leaders from equity-deserving groups to inform the City’s 2024 Budget. It is important to note that the perspectives in this summary represent the resident voices who participated in this consultation. Although there may be alignment in some areas, they do not necessarily reflect all of Social Planning Toronto’s organizational positions on City Budget priorities.
On November 30, from 6:30-8:00pm, we held a virtual consultation on Zoom. We engaged 22 resident leaders from a variety of genders and age groups (youth, adults, and seniors) across various Neighbourhood Improvement Areas and Emerging Neighbourhoods, many of whom were Black, racialized, and/or relying on fixed incomes, or with living experience of poverty. Some residents also verbally identified themselves as having a disability. Each resident received an honorarium or a grocery Gift Card of the same value.
Participants identified as being from the following neighbourhoods: Dorset Park, St. Jamestown, North York, Willowridge, Agincourt South, Jane-Finch, Central Etobicoke, Bathurst-Finch, Lawrence Heights, Lotherton Pathway, Kingston Galloway and Orton Park, Willowdale West, Beaches-East York and Downtown East.
Some participants shared which community groups they were affiliated with: Local Champions, Bathurst Finch Seniors Society, Bathurst Finch Women’s Group, Jane and Finch Planning Table, Jane Finch Action Against Poverty, 7 Creative Community, St. Jamestown Residents Council, 200 Wellesley Tenants Association, and the Centre for Independent Living in Toronto.
Residents take part in Social Planning Toronto's Resident Budget Forum on November 30, 2023.
Social Planning Toronto co-facilitated the Resident Budget Forum (pre-budget consultation) with three experienced resident leaders — Sophia Alexanian, Melissa Lai and Nessa Babli — who led the land acknowledgement, ice-breakers, and moderated the four main questions. This helped create a safer and inclusive space for residents. These resident facilitators received honorariums for their commitments. Social Planning Toronto supported the design, planning, and digital infrastructure for the consultation.
We made a slight modification to the City’s questions to allow for residents to share more than one service for each question.
The questions were:
- What service(s) do you think are most important for the City to invest in and why?
- What service(s) should the City decrease funding to and why?
- Do you agree that the Government of Ontario and the Government of Canada should step up and pay their fair share of funding for municipal services and programs?
- What actions would you take with your neighbours to get a New Deal and achieve long-term stability and sustainability of Toronto’s finances?
- Added question: What feedback do you have for the City to improve their budget process?
After we discussed all four questions in the City’s consultation, we allowed space for residents to share feedback on making budget consultation processes at the City more equitable, accessible, and inclusive.
What service(s) do you think are most important for the City to invest in and why?
Residents expressed strong support for investing in the following services:
- Affordable Housing, Shelters, and Social Housing (TCHC)
- Community Centres and Spaces, Parks, and Recreational Programming
- Food Security and Poverty Reduction
- Employment Opportunities and Decent Work
- Youth Services and Supports, Violence Prevention Programs
- Public Transit (TTC)
- Newcomer Services and Supports
- Grassroots Leadership and Organizations
Affordable Housing, Shelters, and Social Housing (TCHC)
Residents expressed an overwhelming amount of support for increased funding for shelters, social housing (specifically Toronto Community Housing), and affordable housing, the most frequently mentioned priority areas. Many raised the alarm on considering the onset of winter, and the importance of providing shelters and transitional housing for refugees, homeless and precariously-housed communities, especially those living with mental health challenges:
“For me the most important service right now that the City could provide is housing. We have people sleeping in tents, and it is cold and going to get colder. People will die this year on the streets… Even people with mental health issues can live a half-decent life, and in a place where they don't freeze to death.”
“We do need more dollars going into affordable housing strategies and actually affordable housing units, and then, the transition services that go along with that placement services for newcomers… And the shelter system needs to be improved immensely, both for emergency care in the winters, but just year round.”
“The City should prioritize investing in affordable housing initiatives to address the growing issue of housing affordability.”
One resident felt there was an inadequacy of service provision and insufficient responsiveness to tenant concerns with Toronto Community Housing. She brought up the chronic backlog of repairs and maintenance and raised challenges around the TCHC transfer process of individuals or families being over-housed and under-housed. Another person mentioned that TCHC is an inefficiently run organization, and as the largest of its kind in Canada, it deserves more resources. Overall, multiple residents supported an increased budget for social housing (Toronto Community Housing).
A resident from the sight loss community highlighted the importance of increased funding for accessible housing. Another resident added that the expansion of seniors’ housing and the construction of affordable housing are also priorities for them.
“I also think that the city should invest in accessible housing — not just a few units, but all units… This is not just for people with disabilities, but even for our aging population, they should be allowed and afforded the right to live in place, not have to be pushed into a long term-care home or a retirement area cause these spaces can be costly and out of areas of comfort for them.”
Community Centres and Spaces, Parks, and Recreational Programming
There was broad support from residents to increase funding for community centres and community spaces, parks, and recreational programming.
One resident shared that Toronto ranks high as one of the loneliest cities in Canada, citing that participation in group activities is down by 30% compared to before the pandemic. He saw community centres as a way of increasing civic engagement and breaking isolation. Another resident noted that funding for community centres is essential because they function as key support systems for newcomers, youth, children, and seniors, offering a place where they can access specialized programs.
Additionally, a resident highlighted that there is a need to fund community centres that have a focus on arts and culture, as well as a need to fund more indoor tennis spaces. People also identified the importance of community centres and community hubs as a violence-prevention measure for youth.
Food Security and Poverty Reduction
There was a substantial amount of support to increase funding for food security initiatives, programs and organizations as well as poverty reduction. There was emphasis on how our city is in a dire affordability crisis, and that food banks need to continue to be supported as a way to mitigate the negative impacts of poverty. They raised the issue of increased food and housing prices since the pandemic and the negative toll this has had on communities.
Employment Opportunities and Decent Work
Many connected the importance of supporting more decent work opportunities to address the current state of poverty in Toronto. Some mentioned that a lot of people are willing to work but they are unable to find decent jobs.
One resident shared how she knows many people who cannot pay their rent because of major increases to the cost of living in Toronto combined with having to work low-wage and/or part-time jobs. Although much of employment falls within the Province’s jurisdiction, residents iterated that there is still a lot that can be done within the City’s powers to support the expansion of decent work opportunities, career pathways, and employment supports.
“When we speak about the criminality and the mental health problems, when youth don't have the jobs… then they are going to have the criminal activity. So, if we support the youth, then the criminalization will be less, then the police funding will be less. This is all convergent.”
“They have to create more jobs for people in a way that people can sustain their expenses.”
Youth Services and Supports, Violence Prevention Programs
Many participants shared that they wanted to see funding increases for youth services and youth violence prevention programs. They emphasized that these programs tailored to youth need to be long-term and support their growth. One person highlighted that there need to be more creative programs outside of school that can lead to careers, hobbies, and the promotion of overall creativity for youth. On the topic of youth services, some shared:
“Cut the police budget in half, invest in youth. If you don't want crime, invest in youth.”
“[Invest in] education for the youth, especially younger youth violence prevention programs that are longer than just 6 months, like an ongoing program. Programs that really help the youth in a sustainable way.”
There was a large amount of support for investing in public transit, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) specifically. Some spoke about how it's the most accessible and convenient way for people to get to work in Toronto and requires continued investments to run efficiently. There was also mention about the TTC being one of our most essential services as a city.
“One service that they should keep investing in is the TTC, because it's one of the most frequent and consistently accessed by the public. So, it's a very much needed service.”
Newcomer Services and Supports
Residents voiced strong support for newcomer services and supports.
Residents foregrounded the need for transition and job placement services that support newcomer settlement. They also discussed the need for shelter systems and safer homes to accommodate newcomers, asylum seekers, and refugees moving to Toronto, especially those who do not have networks or knowledge of the housing options when they arrive.
Grassroots Leadership and Organizations
Participants suggested increasing funding for grassroots projects, leadership, and organizations based out of Neighbourhood Improvement Areas. Some suggested that funding should be allocated for grassroots leaders who are working closely in the community, especially those who work with 2SLGBTQ+ community members.
“I feel like the city should empower local leaders so that we can bond our community. I think this approach aligns with the broader goal of creating, like resilient communities, self-sustaining communities that actively contribute to the wellbeing of the residents.”
Suggested Other Services to Increase
Residents also expressed support for providing increased funding to the following services:
- A few people highlighted the importance of strengthening funding for social services and support programs, including mental health services, addiction supports, and crisis response services.
- There were some suggestions to increase funding for arts and cultural programs.
- One person emphasized the need for the Little Jamaica Cultural District Plan to be funded and prioritized.
- One resident mentioned how they would like to see more resources put toward land-use planning.
- One resident shared how they would like to see more specialized libraries.
What service(s) should the City decrease funding to and why?
There were several recommendations to reallocate and decrease Toronto Police Services funding, the most frequent answer to this question.
Even though many residents who participated in the consultation live in Neighbourhood Improvement Areas and Emerging Neighbourhoods that experience gun and gang violence, many still expressed that TPS has been continually harming communities. Many of them voiced disappointment that Toronto Police are still one of the most funded services in the City Budget, despite so much community advocacy to decrease it.
Several people expressed that they felt the City feels more unsafe with police. One of them shared that if you look at the budget for other community services and add them up, their total amount still doesn’t compare to that of TPS.
“Decrease money to the police budget and reallocate funds to underfunded services. At the end of the day, a lot of city money is our money. And as much as it is about what the city spends, it’s also about how much these services cost us. So, we cost us 1.6 billion dollars to fund TPS in 2023.”
“Can I say it once again that police need to be reduced, and we heard that over and over again.”
“Police have not added to the safety of this city... They make the city unsafe for the youth. They make it unsafe for homeless people. They make it unsafe for workers. Their budget should be cut and allocated to services that really help people and get people off the street…”
One resident felt that police shouldn’t be acting as child and youth workers, or mental health professionals, adding that reallocating money from police services into employment supports and other community services could help make the city safer.
Residents advocated reinvesting police funding towards community crisis response programs. Some also said that if funding from the police were reallocated towards grassroots leadership in Neighbourhood Improvement Areas, this could vastly support neighbourhoods in achieving their goals.
Only one person expressed that they would not support decreasing the police budget.
Suggested Other Services to Decrease
Less frequent answers related to decreasing services are stated below.
- One person suggested that salaries for City Staff positions paying over $120,000 could be frozen, and instead those staff could be given improved benefits packages, vacation time or pensions.
- One person added that the City should decrease funding to any “inefficiently managed and/or top-heavy service providers.”
- One person recommended that the City should stop increasing property taxes, as this discourages low-income people from buying houses.
- One person mentioned the City should crack down on real-estate speculation.
- One person suggested reallocating funding for nonprofits to grassroots organizations; she felt the need to critically assess whether the impacts of nonprofits align with community support objectives.
- A senior resident who experiences long wait times with bus transit and not enough support for seniors on transit mentioned that this is why she would like to see a decrease in TTC funding.
Do you agree that the Government of Ontario and the Government of Canada should step up and pay their fair share of funding for municipal services and programs?
For this question, we asked residents to use their thumbs up icon to show support or say yes in the chat. Several residents said yes or indicated a thumbs up. No residents shared opposition or a “no” to this question.
What actions would you take with your neighbours to get a New Deal and achieve long-term stability and sustainability of Toronto’s finances?
Many had challenges understanding this question due to its inaccessibility. Some were unfamiliar with the New Deal, so we provided some context about the City’s financial state (as we did at the beginning of the consultation).
A few suggested that an action they could take with partners would be to have more community conversations, town halls, and budget forums such as this one. However, this conversation was generally steered more towards what areas the City needs to prioritize with the Province and Federal governments.
Residents felt that the City needs to negotiate a long-term strategy with the Province to tackle poverty and hunger in Toronto. They suggested working with the Provincial and Federal governments to regulate food prices, address homelessness, increase mental health supports, apply rent control more broadly, and increase job opportunities.
Some mentioned that the City could work with senior orders of government to provide financial access to affordable housing, financial literacy for people who want to learn how to invest, and further education on how to buy housing, making it easier for lower income families to be homeowners. One person mentioned that some Caribbean countries are implementing housing schemes that include payment plans for homeownership, which is something Canada could adopt.
A disability advocate expressed that disability organizations need to have a seat at decision-making tables.
One person expressed interest in working with other levels of government to tackle climate change and offer supports for seniors.
What feedback do you have for the City to improve their budget process?
Residents felt that the City is making significant steps to improve the budget process this year, such as providing various platforms and formats to share feedback. A person said they were impressed by the City’s outreach efforts for the pre-budget consultation, though they felt there is still room for improvement to ensure it’s more accessible, inclusive, and attentive to voices from equity-deserving communities.
One person shared that there are seniors who hold a lot of “legacy information” about the budget, but they may experience challenges in attending or contributing to these consultations, so we need to explore strategies to reach them.
“It requires the normal person to just go and look at the public documents, which are like 150 pages long, and have all these different numbers and all these statistics that if you don't have the time to sit down and read it, you're not gonna understand the history of what is going on with this money and why it's being spent in the way it is spent. So, I think just creating better documents and better resources.”
“Another way they could improve is better engagement and accountability from news and media outlets. These outlets are connected to the city very closely. I think they should be reporting on the city budget in a more transparent and easily digestible way.”
People shared that it is challenging to understand complex budget documents. They suggested that if these documents were made more accessible, it would be easier for grassroots leaders to bring the information back to communities and help with knowledge translation. It is also difficult for residents to make the time to read long budget documents. They also talked about the importance of covering the City Budget in local news outlets so the public could be more informed about it.
One person emphasized that it would be good if residents trusted in the City’s budget consultation processes. Others felt skeptical that not much will be done by the City in response to consultations with residents, while still acknowledging the challenging work of City Councillors.
Residents expressed that there could be improvements to the questions in the pre-budget consultation survey, eliminating single answer or closed questions, as well as taking into account what it means to ask communities to advocate for the City to other levels of government, which is also the City’s job.
Lastly, a resident voiced they’d been to many City consultations that often spend a lot of time on presentation, and then there’s hardly any time left over to get feedback from residents, giving the example of having only 10 minutes left in a break-out room. She felt this consultation was run efficiently as each resident had a chance to speak to every question, and there was less time focused on the presentation.
Social Planning Toronto would like to thank all the amazing resident leaders that participated in this consultation!