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York Region weighs 1 per cent tax increase to help homeless

'The right thing to do,' York chairman says, move would raise $13 million for social infrastructure
A homeless encampment. File photo

York Region is exploring a one per cent tax increase dedicated to social infrastructure, including homelessness and housing.

The region will fully discuss the issue at its council meeting next week after Chairman and CEO Wayne Emmerson brought it forward during a budget meeting this month. The proposed tax increase would raise $13 million for the community investment fund to address issues such as homelessness, mental health, and housing

“Homelessness, it’s all over, and it’s growing,” Emmerson said, adding for tax increases, “We do it for roads. We do it for water and sewer. But we don’t do the social.”

The increase would amount to about $25 for the tax bill on an average York Region home. The resolution will see a report brought back to council to delve into what the money could be used for specifically.  

Community Legal Clinic of York Region provides legal help to low-income residents in areas such as housing and social assistance. Executive director Jeff Schlemmer said increasing taxation to go toward these social causes is a great idea.

“Most people are sympathetic to the homeless that they’re increasingly seeing around,” he said. “The substantial majority of citizens would like governments to step up and spend more money to alleviate what’s just getting worse.” 

Affordable Housing Coalition York Region co-chair Yvonne Kelly also welcomed the idea. 

"AHCYR Supports any levy or tax that would go to support affordable housing and other social infrastructure," Kelly said, adding they also hope to see York Region move on the vacant housing tax it is considering to curb housing speculation. "That is contributing significantly to increasing homelessness right now, Newmarket Heights being a great example."

Several councillors raised that the proposal is coming late in the budget process. But Newmarket Mayor John Taylor said it is an idea he has floated for years.

“These are areas under incredible strain and stress through COVID and beyond,” Taylor told Newmarket council this week. “It’s something I will be supporting … It’s a critical one. As difficult as it is, I know we’ve got to watch tax increases, the health and wellness of the most vulnerable in our communities are also under a lot of strain.” 

However, some councillors expressed concern with the idea and the region being the one to spend more on the matter. 

Vaughan Councillor Gino Rosati said this falls more on the provincial government.

“That’s where the money should come from,” Rosati said. “Somewhere, we got to draw a line.” 

Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti said he hopes the forthcoming report can delve into the multi-jurisdictional issues at hand.

“This is not an easy issue because of the multi-jurisdictional support that the federal government and provincial government should be providing,” Scarpitti said. “It’s a good discussion for us to have and good one to evaluate. If not this year, we can move forward next year to understand the parameters.” 

York Region is looking at a possible 3.9 per cent tax increase in budget talks. Emmerson recognized that the addition would get the region to a nearly five per cent increase.

“But I got to think our residents would support going forward with this,” Emmerson said, adding that some will yell and scream about it, but it is $25 on the average assessment. “It’s the right thing to do.” 

Emmerson added that the tax increase could be kept to one year, with no further associated increases in future years.

Schlemmer said if people know a particular cause a tax increase is going for, it can give it more approval.

“The wealthy and corporations tend to hide behind, ‘if there’s a tax increase, it’s going to hurt the working poor.’ Realistically, with our progressive taxes, it’s not going to happen. Property taxes are going to be paid by wealthier people. We have lots of them in York Region with big houses.” 

York Region will discuss the idea at its next council meeting.

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