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By-election candidate Adam Vaughan wants housing strategy

Former city councillor running for Liberals in Olivia Chow’s vacated seat

Adam Vaughan has represented Ward 20 at Toronto City Council for eight years and is now making a bid for the Trinity-Spadina seat in Parliament. Credit: Rob Salerno

Trinity-Spadina Liberal candidate Adam Vaughan has made a political career out of defying the odds and expectations. The former journalist bested Olivia Chow’s chosen successor Helen Kennedy for the Ward 20 city council seat in 2006, which he held until his surprise announcement in April that he’d be seeking the Liberal nomination for the federal riding — once again vacated by Chow, who’s now running for mayor of Toronto.

Vaughan is hoping for history to repeat, as his main challenger federally is the NDP’s Joe Cressy, who, like Kennedy, is a former Chow staffer. Before Vaughan’s candidacy, few had thought Cressy would face a tough battle in a riding Chow won by a 20,000-vote margin in 2011.

As much as Vaughan’s candidacy seems to have upset the race in Trinity-Spadina, it also surprised some city hall watchers, who’d seen the longtime Ford foe and advocate for better social housing and shelters as part of council’s leftwing, NDP-affiliated caucus. It’s a label Vaughan bristles at, citing past Liberal initiatives like the party’s decriminalization of gay sex, its decision not to invade Iraq in 2003, and its abortive attempt to launch a national daycare program.

Housing is undoubtedly Vaughan’s number-one issue, and it was the party’s offer to put him in charge of developing a national strategy for cities and housing that lured him onto the federal stage, he says.

“The Liberals said, If you want to make a difference, why don’t you join the party, create the policy, help us run on that policy, and let’s deliver not just on transit, but on housing, water infrastructure, a whole series of issues,” he says. “That opportunity was huge.”

Municipally, Vaughan’s successes on the housing file have been aided, ironically, by the same relentless development pressure that’s also making life less affordable. Through the approval process, he’s convinced developers to agree to build more family-sized units, more social housing and more housing targeted for key groups such as students and hotel workers. He boasts that he was able to work with council’s conservatives to get a new youth shelter built in his ward.

“The economic diversity serves this riding well. It allowed me as a young person starting out on Queen Street, selling cartoons and illustrations for a living, to find a place to live and work,” he says. “That diversity has been chased out by a kind of development that was present when I started in city hall and hasn’t really radically altered since.”

Vaughan notes that gay and lesbian seniors are a particularly vulnerable group when it comes to housing.

“There’s an aging population within the community that has not enjoyed civil rights all of their lives, has not enjoyed the benefit of marriage and the economics that come with that, and are in very vulnerable spots as they retire. You need to make sure when you build housing, you accommodate that, because when you don’t, you put people at risk,” he says.

He says he’d like to see the federal government play an active role in housing by giving municipalities more capital to do what they’re already doing, but better. And he says he’s ready to get to work if he’s elected into the next government.

“If you haven’t done it yourself inside a condominium or housing project, you don’t know how to hit the ground running with these ideas and deliver programs immediately to have impact quickly, and we need that impact quickly because the housing crisis in this country is that acute,” he says.

On gay issues, Vaughan says the government needs to take a strong stand to promote gay rights abroad and protect people who seek asylum here.

“When we do trade missions, when we show up at the UN, when we present ourselves with the maple leaf on our briefcase, we need to be talking about the values that are important to Canadians,” he says.

Vaughan is critical of the Harper government’s latest assault on charter rights: its new bill that will criminalize sex work, including anyone advertising sex work. “It concerns me substantially that the federal government would take steps that put free speech at risk,” he says. “When Charter issues are abridged, it’s something all Canadians need to worry about. Liberals will stand on that principle.”

The Trinity-Spadina by-election takes place June 30, the day between WorldPride and Canada Day. “You can stay up all night, go out and vote in the morning afterward,” Vaughan jokes.