On January 14th, the Community Social Planning Council of Toronto hosted its regular Research and Policy Forum. January's forum focused on housing issues with an excellent line-up of speakers - Yutaka Dirks (Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario; ACTO), Elinor Mahoney (Parkdale Community Legal Services) and Michael Shapcott (Wellesley Institute). Despite being a frigid day, the forum brought together a full room of activists, students, social service workers, researchers and community members for engaging presentations on emerging affordable housing and tenant issues.
In his presentation, Yutaka Dirks raised serious concerns about the impact of Bill 106, The Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act (SCAN), on the rights of tenants. Bill 106 is ostensibly about addressing community safety concerns posed by illegal and unsafe activities, such as crack house and grow-op activities. Instead of addressing its stated goal, ACTO and others are concerned that it will lead to the fast tracking of evictions without providing due process for tenants, and do little to address the real problems of community safety.
If passed, this legislation would allow municipalities to appoint a Director of Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods with broad powers to conduct surveillance of tenants and homeowners based on anonymous complaints. The Director could then choose to apply to the Superior Court for a community safety order (CSO) that would allow for the quick eviction of occupants for up to 90 days.
Tenant rights groups argue that laws are already in place to address illegal activities and that setting aside tenant rights of tenure is the wrong direction to take to ensure community safety. Yutaka concluded that SCAN could also lead to increased homelessness, discrimination against racialized groups, and violations of the right to security under section 7 of the Charter. This little-known bill has passed second reading in the Ontario legislature and currently sits with the Justice Policy Committee.
Elinor Mahoney spoke about the need for municipal landlord licensing to address poor quality rental housing in Toronto. Drawing on years of experience working with tenants in Parkdale, Elinor discussed tenant organizing work that has led to some important advances for tenants, and others still needed.
In response to terrible housing conditions that landlords routinely ignored, the Parkdale Tenants Association (PTA) organized meetings and events to bring attention to the issue. One ingenious planning session led to the creation of the Golden Cockroach award, which was presented to Toronto's worst landlord. This and similar actions led to increased media attention and action on the part of City Hall.
In response to pressures from the PTA, the City of Toronto launched a website in 2004 showing the conditions of rental buildings based on complaints filed by residents. While a step forward, some residents were reluctant to complain.
The PTA continued their advocacy efforts, calling for a municipal landlord licensing system whereby City inspectors would conduct proactive inspections rating the conditions of rental housing buildings similar to ratings used for restaurants (pass, conditional pass, fail). The PTA argued that conditions in the homes where we live are, at the least, just as important as health standards in the restaurants where we eat.
Rather than adopt a landlord licensing system, the City of Toronto is instead moving forward with inspections for a small number of Toronto's worst landlords as identified by City Councillors and community members - just a few buildings per ward. This scheme leaves the circumstances of the vast majority of tenants in Toronto completely unchanged. Landlords lobbied hard against the licensing proposal, particularly licensing fees that would financially support the system.
Elinor continues her work with the PTA and Parkdale tenants to advance tenant rights and calls for a renewed focus on landlord licensing as a vital tool for addressing landlord neglect of rental properties.
Michael Shapcott's presentation focused on affordable housing as it relates to Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy. Setting the context for his discussion, Michael pointed to recent international reports and reviews that have found Canada completely missing the mark on poverty and housing issues. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released a groundbreaking report showing that Canada is the second worst of the developed countries on measures of growing poverty and disparity - a result of income transfer cuts, and lack of social investment. In their periodic review, the United Nations criticized Canada for its failure to support the social and economic rights of Canadians, including the right to housing.
Michael discussed current housing realities in Ontario where half of renter households cannot afford average market rents. He pointed to vacancy de-control that has allowed landlords to set rents for vacant units at whatever level the market will bear. Based on current provincial funding for housing, he calculates that it will take 109 years to build enough affordable housing to address the current need.
Michael described several options for increasing affordable housing and protecting the rights of tenants. These measures included strengthening tenant protection and rent regulation laws, increasing rent subsidies for social housing, introducing a universal housing allowance that is truly universal and inclusive, enacting a comprehensive energy poverty plan, setting annual targets for new affordable homes, introducing mandatory inclusionary housing policies, and increasing investments in social housing, Aboriginal-controlled housing for Aboriginal people and supportive housing.
Turning to Ontario's poverty reduction strategy introduced in December 2008, Michael acknowledged the positive direction that the Province has taken in swearing off poor bashing in Ontario. After years of poor bashing policies in Ontario, the current government has turned a new page, setting a positive tone for the treatment of low income Ontarians with the introduction of the poverty reduction strategy. He noted that the poverty reduction strategy sets specific targets and adopts realitistic measures for addressing poverty, but falls far short by restricting the focus to children only, and offering no new money for housing or other social investments.
As we look forward to the Spring budget, Michael points to the need for strong advocacy efforts to ensure that the Province makes real investments in affordable housing and related programs to push the poverty reduction plan forward in a meaningful way.
The forum concluded with questions from participants.