Following its debate Food Banks Mississauga CEO wants more details from candidates; Parrish reiterates decision to avoid debates as lead narrows

Mississauga mayoral candidates are making promises to voters, but Food Banks Mississauga’s CEO says residents need more concrete actions from local government to make the city more affordable.

Meghan Nicholls says the organization is projecting that by the end of this month the food bank will be utilized by eight percent of Mississauga residents, some 60,000 people, a trajectory that is not sustainable.

Prior to the pandemic, about 19,500 residents relied on the food bank’s services.

Housing and other rapidly rising costs have triggered the soaring number of visits to the food bank, and were among the key issues addressed during a mayoral debate hosted by Food Banks Mississauga on May 23. Candidates Stephen Dasko, Alvin Tedjo, Dipika Damerla and Brian Crombie were invited; Carolyn Parrish declined following threats and harassing messages she says she received after some of her opponents began a negative campaign strategy against the frontrunner (according to polling data). Parrish is no longer a member of City Council after resigning her seat to campaign; Crombie has never held an elected position; the other three candidates at the event all currently serve as councillors.

Ahead of the debate, Nicholls told The Pointer the organization is looking for a leader with a broad strategy that prioritizes the needs of Mississauga’s most vulnerable residents. She said candidates can be measured, in part, by policies primarily geared toward homeowners who pay property taxes, and those aimed at residents struggling to find affordable rental units.

“One of the jobs for the next leader of the City of Mississauga is trying to get food banks to no longer be necessary in our city, because this is a travesty,” Tedjo, who is proposing a property tax freeze over the next two years, said. “This is telling us that we failed as a society to support people. We need to have a more affordable city, we need to have more affordable housing.”

“We also need to take responsibility for what we can do ourselves,” Tedjo acknowledged, asking, in the same breath, “What can we do as a city to make life more affordable for people?” The Ward 2 Councillor was the architect of a motion to Region of Peel council last year during budget deliberations that requested an additional $2 million to the food security funding stream for food banks. During his time on council, Tedjo also spearheaded free transit for children and the expansion of the $1 senior’s pass and brought forward the motion to allow fourplexes city-wide.

“We can't change the price of gas or groceries, but…we can lower taxes for low income seniors and for small businesses so that people have the ability to pay for the goods and the food that they need,” he told those in attendance.

Dasko and Damerla have called Tedjo’s proposed tax freeze fiscally irresponsible and have instead pledged to keep the increase at or below the rate of inflation. Damerla said the only way to support a tax freeze would be to cut services and raid City reserves, something she told residents on Thursday evening she would not be willing to do. Tedjo has challenged this through his affordability plan which proposes sourcing only a portion of the City’s reserves while also implementing a vacant home tax to fund the freeze.

There was clear recognition among the candidates that food insecurity, the lack of housing and affordability are part of a crisis across Mississauga but few solutions were offered.

Dasko said for those relying on the food bank there needs to be funding for essential needs. He pledged to work with the provincial and federal government to ensure there are ways of getting income into the pockets of those living in poverty. The food bank, he said, needs a predictable funding stream to meet the demand forecasted by the organization.

“But this is just the tip of the iceberg because we truly need the other levels of government to pay their fair share.”

While the City of Mississauga does not have jurisdiction over social support programs like Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program, Damerla, along with the other candidates at the podium Thursday, acknowledged, “we really need to be thinking about the root cause,” voicing support for the mayor’s annual food drive. She also referenced an idea, previously proposed by Parrish in the fall, to secure a permanent space for the organization to operate which would save millions in rent and other expenses.

“ODSP and Ontario Works is woefully underfunded,” Tedjo added. “But the fact that Ontario hasn't been increased in real dollars in decades is a shame. It's a travesty. We can't support people by just relying on the provincial government. We don't have enough in the system right now for them to survive, and so we're picking up the slack.” He proposed advocating for a universal basic income which, like many of the other initiatives mentioned Thursday, is outside the jurisdiction of municipal government.

Nicholls has highlighted the lack of affordable housing in Peel as a main driver of increased food bank use. She has also been cautious of policies that lock-in use, instead of eliminating the root cause of the demand. Previous reports from the organization revealed that 37 percent of the clients using the food bank are single-person households who live with low income, while sales tracking data from the Toronto Real Estate Board (TRREB) has shown the average cost of all dwelling types in Mississauga as of April was $1,126,060.

“This is a huge problem right now,” Tedjo acknowledged. “We absolutely need more housing, but we need supportive housing and affordable housing, we need shelters, we need more two, three-bedroom units for families.”

“The average salary in the city of Mississauga is $54,000 a year,” he added. “That means you spend two thirds of your income on housing, which leaves you $1,000, for food, for clothing, transportation for everything else. That's completely unaffordable, I have a very comprehensive plan to tackle this housing crisis head on.”

Candidates agreed the City needs to make it easier to build more purpose-built rental and affordable housing by unlocking municipal lands, while also waiving development fees to get builders on board to create these types of homes faster.

“There's three things we need to do,” Damerla said. “We need to build more homes, we need to build them faster, and we need to find a way to reduce the cost of those homes. But just speeding up approvals is not going to build more homes.” Her plan, she said, would waive all development charges for purpose-built rentals.

Nicholls told The Pointer she was pleased to hear candidates highlight housing and affordability.

“But I think there's varying levels of detail that have been shared about what will make the difference,” she added. “So lots of talk about we need to build more housing, but I think folks need to be able to get specific on what does that look like? And how do we make sure there's enough of it for people who are struggling financially who are never going to own a home but need places to rent?”

Nicholls said while municipal candidates tend to focus on issues related to property tax payers, she pointed out that approximately 71 percent of Food Banks Mississauga’s clients are renters with roughly 8 percent of them in social housing.

Prioritizing purpose-built rentals in Mississauga’s housing stock that meet affordability criteria is a key for food bank clients, Nicholls said. She appreciated the awareness among candidates that many people in desperate need of rental housing who do not vote, still need to be considered by a mayor who will represent all residents, not just those who are more actively engaged with the political process.

“I really felt very strongly that kind of juxtaposition between property owners wanting to keep their property tax low, and also often being the people who are seniors and who tend to vote in elections,” she said. “Then we've got people who need affordable rentals, who tend to be from more diverse racialized backgrounds, tend to be younger, are now food bank users and need places to rent.”

“I definitely saw varying degrees of that tension between candidates…who is the audience they're speaking to, who are they making promises for? And who's going to benefit from them ultimately? And I think when the folks who we are advocating on behalf of don't tend to be the people who make donations to candidates and vote in any elections, it is challenging in our democratic system to get those folks’ needs at the top of someone's platform.”

Nicholls also pointed to Mississauga’s Affordable Rental Housing Community Improvement Plan approved by development committee last week which she said is a great start, but that the challenge continues to be that the definition of affordable — when it costs no more than 30 percent of a household’s income including mortgage or rent payments and all other costs associated with housing expenses — is still not affordable enough for low income households.

“We need to acknowledge this,” she stressed. “We need to look at this data and I think we need to come up with a plan for that kind of affordable rent because so far, the plans really talk about increasing the supply, but they're really only affordable for people in the high income household category.”

“So we need to make sure that more of these newly built rentals are coming in at a much, much lower rate, so that people can actually afford to live in them.”

Nicholls emphasized the City and its next leader needs to find a way to provide housing that costs between $600 or $1,000 a month for people living in the low-income bracket — something she is skeptical will be achievable unless developers and the City are willing to build non-profit housing.

She said waiving construction and development fees and working with nonprofit developers are good ideas, but questioned how fast things could change after decades of market control at the hands of builders who seek maximum profits. “What's going to happen in the meantime?” she asked.

“I appreciated that being called out at the debate [with] someone saying it's going to take ten years for a lot of these plans. So what are we going to be doing during the next ten years? How are people going to manage between now and then if it's going to take us that long to get the additional units up and available for people?”

Moving forward, Nicholls said the organization’s plan once the new mayor is established is to have a conversation about how they would like to partner with the food bank on current programs previously spearheaded by Bonnie Crombie through the mayor’s annual food drive.

“I think there needs to be a recognition that yes, that does help us today. The mayor needs to know that they have a sustainable food bank organization in their city that can make sure that people get fed and if they can help contribute to that financially right now,” Nicholls said.

“But I think it's do they understand that that's part of the band aid, and are they also going to do the work with us to advocate to the provincial government to increase Ontario Works rates, to increase Ontario Disability Support Program rates? There needs to be that sort of today and tomorrow thinking.”

Recent polling data shows the by-election is coming down to a two candidate race between Parrish and Damerla. The most recent poll conducted by Liaison Strategies, commissioned by the National Ethnic Press and Media Council, shows the former Ward 5 councillor’s lead has narrowed with Parrish’s support now at 29 percent, only 5 points ahead of Damerla at 24 percent among decided voters.

Since one of the first candidate events hosted at the beginning of May, Parrish said she would not be participating going forward, citing threats against a colleague and herself. In a statement earlier this month on X Parrish said, “I have made the decision to refrain from participating in debates to prioritize the safety of myself and my colleague”, adding “my focus remains on continuing with my campaign and meeting with the residents of Mississauga.”

She told The Pointer that many of the events scheduled recently conflicted with previous commitments she made to resident’s groups and community organizations but she reiterated that the threats she received following negative campaigning by opponents, who stepped up attacks after polls showed Parrish increasing her lead, was the main reason she decided not to take part in events that opponents could continue using to create more tension.

The tactic began after Parrish made comments during the first candidate event on May 6 when she addressed a question about refugees. Some candidates took a few words from her comments and posted them on social media claiming Parrish was being discriminatory and racist. Other media who did not attend the event have picked up on the claims.

The Pointer was at the candidate event and recorded it, with permission from organizers. It is clear that her words have been misrepresented (the audio clip is available here).

The following is her full response during the event: “I don't like blaming other levels of government, but they're not helping at all. They promise millions of dollars to us to keep taking in refugees, but they're not paying the bills. And the worst thing for the refugees is when they get here, they have a bed, they get a meal a day, and they sit around smoking cigarettes all day, because they have nothing to do, and that's a waste of energy, it's a waste of our money. So all these things have to be looked at and there needs to be a massive effort to look at every single suffering person that comes to this country or is living in this country. Shelters are supposed to be emergencies, they're not supposed to be a lifestyle. So somebody needs to get out of the shelter and into a reasonable rented apartment.”

According to the latest poll, Tedjo remains in third at 19 percent, and Dasko is in fourth among candidates listed with 12 percent support. Brian Crombie is at 9 percent; among decided voters, seven percent of residents polled indicated they would vote for someone else.

A recent press release from the City of Mississauga highlighted that the first weekend of advanced polling last week saw a significant increase in voter turnout, marking a 42 percent jump compared to the first three days of advance polling in the 2022 municipal election, which saw near historic lows with just over 20 percent of residents coming out to the polls. According to the City of Mississauga’s official results for the 2022 municipal election, of the 491,260 registered voters across the city, only 107,310 ballots were cast, just 21.8 percent. It marked the lowest turnout since the 2003 election, when only 19.99 percent of eligible voters bothered to participate. The latest election marked a decline from 2018, when just 26.4 percent of those eligible to vote did so.

Advanced polling will continue this weekend, June 1 and June 2 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., at 22 advance voting locations across the city. A full list of advanced voting locations can be found on the City’s website. Election day is June 10th.


Twitter: @mcpaigepeacock

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Paige Peacock, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Pointer