Six of the city’s seven mayoral candidates came together to discuss business, housing and development issues.
The Greater Oshawa Chamber of Commerce and Durham Region Association of Realtors hosted a candidate debate at the Jubilee Pavilion recently.
In attendance were Dan Carter, Ken Carruthers, Joe Ingino, Adam Kunz, Sara Lear, and Rosaldo Russo. Bob Rutherford was not in attendance.
Also on hand were numerous regional and local candidates from Oshawa’s five wards.
The first question posed to candidates was whether they support a municipal land transfer tax on home purchases.
The answer was a resounding no from all involved.
Russo says residents are already “overtaxed.”
“When people buy a house, they can’t afford to close the deal. Men and women working together with two kids can barely survive,” he noted.
The city must stop “using our residents as a revenue generator,” Lear said.
While she acknowledged the tax would generate millions of dollars, it would come out of the pockets of already-strapped home buyers.
Speaking as a “single homeowner,” she “couldn’t imagine trying to purchase with that additional barrier on my plate.”
With Oshawa residents paying the highest property taxes in Durham Region, and second highest in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, Kunz says they “should be getting more for our tax dollars.”
Carter said it is something he has not supported in the past, and will not in the future.
“I don’t believe it is something that would benefit our city.”
In some “specific or special” circumstances, Ingino said a municipal land transfer tax would make sense.
However, with Oshawa in “growing mode,” the city does not need more taxes in his view.
Carruthers also does not support the creation of such a tax, revealing there’s nothing that would change his mind on the matter.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m offended by the concept of affordable housing because it doesn’t exist,” Lear stated.
She argued that anyone who can afford their house cannot afford to maintain it, and those who can afford to maintain are “going to have to pay property taxes a little later.”
Lear said there is the notion that there are “many options,” but they are townhouses, semi-detached or detached houses going for more than $500,000.
To her, developers should be mandated either to commit a certain square footage or ratio to affordable and accessible housing in their buildings.
Affordable housing requires different strategies for different people, Kunz said, whether they be first-time buyers, renters or students.
He supports a reduction or exceptions for development charges for builders who invest in affordable housing.
However, with many affordable housing options funded by the provincial or federal governments, at the regional level, “it’s not easy for us just to say this is what we’ll do.”
Carter said affordable housing has to be looked at in two pillars, the private market, and the supportive housing market.
He says the city has approved more than $2 billion worth of different stocks of housing.
“Part of that is to make sure we are able to provide housing to people at different stages of their lives.”
On the supportive housing side, Carter says the city and region have been lobbying the federal and provincial governments to increase investments in affordable housing.
Carruthers, a carpenter by trade, said the city needs to take ownership of assets such as affordable housing.
“It gets back to what I’ve been saying all along – if we don’t own stuff, we aren’t going to fix it,” he said. “Durham Region has dropped the ball. We can’t rely on the region to fix our problems.”
Using recently demolished schools as an example, he said a “ton of units” could be built in these buildings.
“If we own it, we will pay off the mortgage on that school, and create revenue.”
Eliminating red tape
Kunz believes the best way to eliminate red tape is to consult with “the businesses that are suffering from most of it.”
“Take it one step at a time,” he said.
However, he pointed out that many regulations that create barriers for businesses do not come from the municipality itself.
Carter, the only candidate who currently sits on council, said city hall has attempted to change its culture to be more “customer-service-minded.”
Through discussions with business people in the community, the city has discovered what it is doing well and what the challenges are.
He admitted when he purchased a property downtown, he found it “really hard to navigate the system,” and the city should create a ‘customer service liaison’ position to help business owners.
Carruthers says as a homeowner he tried to approach the BIA with some ideas of what he’d like to see downtown and was ignored.
“We are not very good at promoting each other’s businesses,” he added.
According to Lear, it took two years for her employer to set up shop in Oshawa.
“For over a year, my boss fought with the city,” he said.
While her employer was willing to take on that battle, she questioned if all other business owners would be willing to do the same.
Lack of serviced land in Oshawa
Carter says there is a “cultural change” happening in Durham Region.
“We used to believe development paid for development or growth paid for growth,” he said.
But it is now apparent employment lands need to be serviced ahead of time so they are “shovel ready.”
There are about 3,500 acres of available land in Oshawa at the moment, but Carter says only about 85 of those are “shovel ready.”
He suggested the region use some of its reserves to bring services in and be ahead of the game.
Ingino said the “system is broken”, and before considering the servicing of lands, the city needs to address its debts and legal matters.
Russo agreed that services should be installed ahead of time.
“If the services are there, the developers will buy the land,” he says.
However, he says local politicians, both city and regional, haven’t done this and called for a wave of change at both council tables.
Lear pointed out that Oshawa has an airport, two major highways in the 401 and 407, and a federal port.
“We have everything that should be attracting business here for industrial and commercial purposes,” she said. “These things should happen since the assets are already here. We’re just not using them to their greatest potential.”
She pointed to Ajax’s active industrial sector as a perfect model for Oshawa to attempt to follow.
Kunz says there have been efforts to open more land, but there are some obstacles.
“There’s a great opportunity along the 407 corridor. There are all kinds of lands, but none of it serviced,” he said, adding that his goal “would be to follow the path that has already been started.”
Revitalizing the city’s downtown
Lear says there is no question whether development is coming to downtown, but there must be a shift away from traditional retail businesses, as this “model is not working.”
“Get away from the ostrich-syndrome and get our heads out of the sand,” she added.
Carruthers says the amount of vacant buildings in the downtown core is “depressing.”
“It’s sad…we need to clean this up now so we can be proud of our downtown,” he said.
Every election cycle, Kunz says voters hear about an idea of a downtown revitalization.
“We are admitting out loud that our downtown is not viable. That’s not something we should be doing.”
In his view, planning for the downtown should be a long-term evaluation.
Carter says the downtown area is the only place where “family businesses still have an opportunity,” and it should serve as the “heartbeat of the city.”
Oshawa residents will elect one of the seven candidates as the city’s next mayor on Oct. 22.