Tag Archives: Toronto

Community Art Show Raises Awareness of Discrimination Against Sex Workers

On April 7th, over 30 community members joined CERA and mural artists at All Saints Church and Community Centre to view murals created by sex workers at recent housing rights workshops in downtown Toronto. Attendees took part in discussions about housing discrimination issues, received information resources about housing discrimination, and shared a community lunch. We heard:

Making the murals “allowed me and participants to illustrate what a city of inclusion means to them.”

“Knowing your rights in empowering. “

“I will share resources with people in my community.”

Thank you to everyone who attended, to all of the mural makers, to South Riverdale Community Health Centre, Regent Park Community Health Centre, and Maggie’s Sex Workers Action Project. And a big thank you to All Saints Church for hosting us.


Out of respect for the privacy of the mural makers, we are not posting event photos online.

Thank you to the Law Foundation of Ontario for financial support of this initiative.

 

Putting Ideas First

Last spring, City of Toronto councillor Ana Bailão formed a special working group on Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s proposed sell-off of 619 single family homes. The report, Putting People First, was released in September and it contains some very good ideas. First off is the recommendation that TCHC sell only 55 of the 619 homes originally suggested (this is in addition to the sale of 56 homes that council has already approved). There’s a simple reason for this: a full sale of the proposed properties would bring in $220 million over five years; however, TCHC faces a $1 million operating shortfall every year. What happens once the money from the sell-off is gone? Bailão’s report rightly argues against this short-term thinking.

The report offers some interesting long-range ideas. One is to convert up to 100 single-family into affordable home ownership. Over 50% of TCHC tenants have said they want to own the home they live in and this may be a good opportunity.

The report also suggests that TCHC renegotiate its mortgages, which currently include interest rates up to 13%.  In contrast, Infrastructure Ontario offers long-term loans for social housing providers at a rate of 3.84%. Over the long haul, that amounts to quite a savings.

Not all the suggestions in Putting People First will be workable, but the point is that the report offers plenty to think about. Which is more than we were offered before.

Should the sell-off be on?

Toronto Community Housing’s planned selloff of 65 single-family homes has had many stops and starts. Last June and again in March, city council approved the sale of these homes. The idea is to take the estimated $24 million in sales and use it to pay down the hefty $750 million repair backlog on many other public housing units.

This June, however, Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister, wanted to delay the sale until October, when a special working group presents its plan to deal with TCHC’s 619 other single family homes. After Mayor Rob Ford complained to Premier Dalton McGuinty, Wynne reversed her desire to delay and now the sale is on again.

These homes are in desirable neighbourhoods like High Park and the Beach. This means the middle-class will come buying. It also means the low-income families will be forced out. This is unfortunate. Mixed-income communities are essential to building a healthy Toronto. Indeed, a city-commissioned study reports that low-income segregation can have a negative impact on individuals’ health and education. Much current thought on public housing acknowledges this; TCHC’s big rebuilding projects such as Regent Park and Lawrence-Allen have incorporated the  basic concept of mixed-income neighbourhoods.

When Wynne was asked about her flip-flop, she told reporters she did not intend to undermine the wishes of city council, only to deal with the potential sale once the working group’s report is ready.  She said she preferred to have “one conversation” on the matter. Let’s hope this conversation includes the fact that low-income families have a right to live anywhere in the city, not just in high-rise communities in the inner suburbs or large, isolated social housing complexes.

Stereotyping can go both ways

At CERA, we often see landlords at their worst. Those brought to our attention are typically not landlords that are doing a great job, but those that are potentially violating the Human Rights Code. When we speak to them it is usually because they have (allegedly) discriminated against one of our clients. After 25 years of responding to discrimination complaints, CERA has developed a pretty one-sided view of the rental housing sector.

It’s nice, then, when we can get beyond our own prejudices.

Over the past few months, CERA staff and volunteers have been scanning ads in Kijiji and Craigslist to educate landlords whose ads indicate that they may be violating the Code (see “Kijiji – stop promoting housing discrimination“). We’ve been picking out ads that say things like, “looking for a professional single or couple,” “seeking mature, quiet individual,” “proof of employment required” or “no kids” and either calling or e-mailing the posters to educate them on the Code and its prohibitions against discrimination directed at families with children, young people, people receiving social assistance, etc.

When we started, we weren’t sure how this outreach would be greeted. Would the landlords hang up on us, yell at us to mind our own business, tell us that they can rent to whomever they want?

We’ve heard all of these things, though more often the landlords have been open to our calls. Most have said they didn’t realize their rental requirements or “preferences” were potentially discriminatory and have been quick to change their ads. Many have also wanted us to forward additional information on CERA and the Code. With most of the landlords, there appears to be a genuine interest in understanding the Code and how it applies to their rental property. And most haven’t been professional landlords (i.e. landlords that should “know better”) – they’re just people renting out apartments in their homes.

CERA counsels others not to generalize or make decisions based on assumptions. When it comes to landlords, it appears that we haven’t always followed our own advice.

What’s Next for Toronto Community Housing Corporation?

Between fiduciary failings, bad press, and the dissolution of its Board, the public housing company has a decidedly cloudy future.

Let’s say Mayor Ford clears all the provincial legislative hurdles.  Let’s say the city actually privatizes much of the public housing stock.  Let’s say the whole enterprise goes belly up.

What then?

According to current mayoral wisdom, the sell-off of TCHC assets would mean the city relies more heavily on rent supplements to provide affordable housing for 164,000 tenants.  Plus, incoming monies from the sale of buildings could start to provide supplements to 143,000 tenants on the subsidized housing waiting list.  Sounds great!  Except the success of rent supplements relies on a high vacancy rate; when vacancies drop, rents rise, and the city ends up paying more to keep up its end of the bargain.  Guess what?  Toronto vacancies have been dropping for a decade.  According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, there has been a 30% decrease in rental units across the GTA since 2000.  Worse than that, there is no incentive for private developers to build more affordable housing because the condo market is just too lucrative.

If the city sells off its assets, are we ahead of the game or not?  Up till now, there has been no serious dialogue on social housing policy.  To be fair, council has been preoccupied with the fallout of the city auditor’s report and the ensuing fight over the liability of the Board itself.  But now that this has played out, will Mayor Ford or TCHC managing director Case Ootes spend time talking to housing experts?  Will they look at social housing models in other cities?  Even a quick glance shows that a combination of strategies – rent supplements and dedicated affordable housing – yields the most promising results.  It’s not an exact science by any means, but it is an area that requires study, thought, and discussion.

Two Scandals

It gets worse and worse for Toronto Community Housing Corporation.  Just one week after the city auditor revealed inappropriate expenses and egregious lapses in procurement practices, the TCHC executive is a shambles: the civilian board resigned, tenant reps were ousted and CEO Keiko Nakamura, who so far refused to quit, will surely be given the boot by city councilors.

Now, amidst rumours that Mayor Rob Ford has ordered an appraisal of all city housing stock, comes news that Case Ootes will take over as interim managing director.  Ootes, a veteran councilor who retired prior to last fall’s election, is a both long-time Ford ally and critic of social housing in the city.

It’s a poorly-kept secret that Mayor Ford wants to privatize TCHC.

The reasons are obvious.  The city faces a $744 million deficit next year.  TCHC has a $6 billion portfolio.  Selling off even portion of the housing stock will go a long way towards balancing a budget.  Granted, some of the savings would go to rent supplements for low-income households, but those supplements rely on vacancies and, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp, Toronto vacancies are in a decade-long drop.  In fact, University of Toronto professor (and CERA supporter) David Hulchanski says Europe, United States and New Zealand all rely on a mix of public housing and rent supplements.  Toronto itself has 58,700 affordable units and 4,693 supplemented households.

Ford’s mantra of privatization is based on blind ideology, not thoughtful study.  Privatization is deemed less costly for taxpayers and therefore more efficient.  But there is more than one way to gauge efficiency.  TCHC, warts and all, houses some of our most vulnerable citizens –the mentally ill, the working poor, the aged and infirm – and these people are far less likely to be protected in a purely private market, rent supplement or no.

Mayor Ford is blatantly using the TCHC scandal to push forward his simple solutions.  He might eliminate the financial costs but ignore the human cost.  And that will be the real scandal.

The Right Kind of Support

“We have frankly screwed tenants.”

     This was the oft-repeated quote from Toronto Councillor Gord Perks after the city announced its proposed property tax changes as part of the 2011 operating budget.  Because of market changes, tenants were supposed to see their property taxes reduced by 3.08%. But, due to city tax policy, a portion of that tax break will go to commercial and industrial properties.  In short, tenants will save $50 rather than $62.  Twelve dollars can be a significant amount for low-income families living cheque-to-cheque, and Perks suggested that this proposal and others (hiking user fees at community centres, eliminating bus routes, slashing the budget of the Tenant Defence Fund) constitute the new administration’s attack on tenants.

     Perhaps.

     While we at CERA strongly disagree with the decision to cripple the Tenant Defence Fund (and our friends at the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations), user fees and bus routes are budgetary footballs that get tossed around regardless of an administration’s political leanings.  And the city tax policy that Perks bemoaned was actually formed during the era of his ally Mayor Miller, so it is a safe assumption that the Councillor was originally on board.  To harangue it now seems like cheap political theatre.

     Tenants do need loud, vocal support from city councilors.  Let’s just hope it’s genuine.

Social Assistance and Evictions in Toronto

The National Council of Welfare recently released a report which stated that welfare rules are forcing people into destitution.  The report explains:  “It is tougher to get welfare in Canada today than during the economic downturn of the early 1990s because Ontario and most other provinces force people to drain their bank accounts and spend all of their savings before they qualify for help.” (Toronto Star, 14/12/10)

Ontario welfare rates are as follows:  a single person receives $349 for rent, and $211 for basic needs, a total of $560 per month.   The average rent for bachelor and one bedroom apartments in Toronto are $758 and $926.  Single people don’t get enough to rent bachelors or one bedroom units in Toronto and are forced to live in rooms or become homeless.  Single parents with two kids under 12 receive $595 for rent and $571 for basic needs, a total of $1166 per month.  The average rent for a two bedroom apartment in Toronto is $1096, which leaves families with $70 after paying rent.  A family with two adults and two kids under 12 receives $647 for rent and $619 for basic needs, a total of $1,266.  The average rent for three or more bedroom apartments is $1290.  Clearly these rates are nowhere near enough to pay housing costs, food, clothing, transportation and other essential needs.  Most families receive Child Tax Benefits but this is clawed back from welfare payments. 

The reality of these facts is that once an individual or family is receiving welfare, they have very few (if any) assets and little or no savings.  So if they fall behind even one month in paying their rent, it can be disastrous.  There is essentially no money left over to pay arrears and keep up with the rent at the same time.  An example is a single parent with two children who lost her job six months ago.  She is confident she will work again eventually, but for now she is finding it impossible to pay rent and cover all of her costs. She is facing eviction for one month rent.  She wants to make a payment plan with the Landlord but she can only afford an extra $50 per month on top of her rent and even that is a stretch for her.  The Landlord won’t accept less than $100 per month towards arrears.  She was unable to pay that so she now faces a hearing at the Landlord and Tenant Board in January.  “I never in a million years expected this to happen to me.”  She says.  “I am so scared and I just don’t know what to do.”

NIMBY 101

In 2007, the City of Toronto approved the development of a 29 unit apartment building.

This was an as-of-right proposal – no re-zoning was required. No public consultations should have been required. The project met all municipal planning requirements. The approval process should have been relatively simple, right? Nope.

The problem, it seemed, was who was going to live there. The 29 units would be rented to low income individuals living with mental illness.

Some residents didn’t want people with mental illness moving into their neighbourhood. At a city meeting, they asked questions such as, “What kind of illnesses do these people have? What safety measures have been put in place?” The residents urged the city to delay approving the development so there could be more consultation with community members.

A term for this is “people zoning”. The other is discrimination.

People living with mental illness have the right to live wherever they want – and Canadian laws protect this right. Residents cannot decide who can and cannot live in their neighbourhood. Otherwise we have, as the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission said in a letter to the Toronto Star on this issue, “the tyranny of the majority.”

Fortunately the City of Toronto recognized this and allowed the development to proceed.

In its comments on the decision, the HomeComing Community Choice Coalition – a group that advocates for the provision of supportive housing for people with mental illness – stated:

In making this decision City Council took a principled stand for human rights. Many councillors said emphatically that people do not get to choose their neighbours. Several councillors made specific references to the human right of people to live in communities of their choice without discrimination on the basis of disability. Others spoke of their own experiences where neighbours were initially concerned and yet, after the housing was complete, there have been no issues. Several councillors spoke of their past, positive experiences with the private developer Mahogany Investments/Alternative Living Solutions and with Houselink, who will be providing support services.

Three years later, the building is ready for occupancy.

But NIMBY continues. On the hoarding around the building there is graffiti calling the local councillor who supported the development a “traitor.” A candidate in the upcoming municipal election sent around a flyer saying that residents have a right to be angry about the supportive housing development in their neighbourhood, that they were not given a fair opportunity to express their concerns.

And which concerns were these? – their concerns about having to live near low income people with mental illnesses.

Congratulations to the City for doing the right thing and standing up for human rights.

For more information on NIMBY, check out the website of the HomeComing Community Choice Coalition.