Housing crisis escalating but government response prioritizes corporate landowners

As governments lift the temporary bans on evictions that were put in place during the initial stages of the COVID-related economic crisis, an estimated 16 percent of people in Canada are at risk of losing their housing. Nearly 6 million people could face eviction.

In response to this threat, the City of Toronto Planning and Housing Committee discussed a proposed action plan on housing, on September 22. The document, Housing and People Action Plan: Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis while Planning for a More Resilient Future, is a limited attempt to address the challenges arising out of the current situation. It calls for “intergovernmental partnerships” to provide a modest increase in the supply of affordable housing. Specifically, the plan envisions generating 3,000 “affordable rental and supportive homes” through a combination of new construction, renovation of existing buildings and implementation of the Canada Housing Benefit.

The committee received deputations from several community organizers, who raised concerns about the limited range of proposals in the action plan and stressed that the housing and homelessness crisis demands more.

Here we reprint the presentation from Alykhan Pabani, long-time tenant and housing advocate and Communist Party candidate in Toronto’s Parkdale-High Park riding during the 2019 federal election.

I had finally made some time yesterday to write up a deputation, but instead got called to help defend against a residential tenant’s COVID eviction in Goodwood Park. I hope you will excuse me if what I have to say is less refined and respectful than others. The eviction was successfully blocked by organized tenants despite heavy Toronto police presence — the same police that Mayor Tory, not one month ago, said were not involved in enforcing evictions. He said this in response to the Keep Your Rent movement’s demand that he order the Toronto Police Service to not enforce evictions in a pandemic.

Another demand was that Mayor Tory use his emergency powers to enact an eviction moratorium across the city, in anticipation of a second wave of the virus. We painstakingly presented an air-tight legal case rebutting the mayor’s claim that he does not have the ability to do this. It also went ignored. Whilst other, more progressive jurisdictions around the world have cancelled rent altogether, we in this country are not even on that wavelength.

I’m tired.

Over the past few months, through volunteering with the encampment support network, I have gotten to know the people who have slipped through the cracks created by flawed policy. I cannot explain how it feels to finally gain someone’s trust and friendship only to find out shortly after that they are no longer alive. As winter approaches, I want to believe that you are operating with the appropriate urgency, but the plan does not give me much confidence.

For example, item 1.1. in the Shelter Recovery Strategy report states: “Develop and begin to act on an acquisition strategy for hotels, rooming houses, and other buildings such as empty office spaces or residential buildings.” While I certainly agree with this approach, I was hoping to see a much larger number than the 1,000 units the city says it will create in this process. Also, in my view, if the city were operating with the understanding that time is of the essence, it would have already identified specific buildings for acquisition and outlined a strict timeline of how this will be accomplished in the next two months.

Item 1.2. states: “Conduct a redevelopment plan to repurpose shelter space that is no longer viable into permanent housing infrastructure.” Again, I commend the authors of this very practical solution, but have trouble grasping why a conversion of shelter space into permanent housing infrastructure is not already well underway.

As I understand, there is also a commitment to build 1,000 units of modular housing. In total, 3,000 units are to be created over the next 24 months using 3 different approaches, although I would argue that the 1,000 that the city claims will come from increasing housing benefits is not actually creating anything. Regardless, this is utterly insufficient given that the estimated number of people out on the streets far exceeds this figure several times over, and that number is ballooning due to the mass residential evictions currently taking place.

I can appreciate that much of this plan hinges on cooperation from other levels of government; however, in an emergency such as this it is impossible not to acknowledge what I see as the elephant in the room: the city has the ability to unilaterally expropriate properties should it be deemed necessary.

Upon reading these vague yet deceptively complex pronouncements, I am left to assume that the interests of those who stand to profit from sitting on vacant real estate are being prioritized over the basic safety and dignity of the most vulnerable among us.

Several encampment residents with whom I have spoken have been willing but unable to speak for themselves due to the crippling grief that comes along with losing loved ones and community members on a regular basis. I urge you to consider the voices that are not here today and act with the intention that this escalating crisis deserves.

[Photo of Toronto rally in defense of encampments, September 2020. Credit: Jay Watts]


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