The Housing Again Bulletin, sponsored by Raising the Roof as a partner in Housing Again.
A monthly electronic bulletin highlighting what people are doing to put housing back on the public agenda across Canada and around the world, sponsored by Raising the Roof as part of the Housing Again partnership.
News for September, 2002
New York City and the UK spend on affordable housing while in Canada
New York City has put forward a policy to subsidize housing in order to move 9,250 families out of the shelter system and into homes. In the United Kingdom, the British Spending Review has proposed an annual increase of £1.5 billion for housing and planning by 2005-06.
In Canada, the leadership sniping between Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his potential successor, former finance minister Paul Martin, has been positive for affordable housing supporters. Both men have said housing is among the top issues for the government in the coming parliamentary session. Is this the beginning of a change in the political climate for affordable housing in Canada?
Manitoba’s Housing Minister objects
Manitoba’s minister of Family and Housing Services has written a letter to take issue with an article in Bulletin 52 that says Manitoba is one of five provinces that have cut provincial funding for housing.
He writes: "Since this government took office in late 1999, housing has been and continues to be a priority. Not only has Manitoba increased spending on our social housing portfolio, and made significant efforts to enhance the quality and sustainability of our housing
portfolio and our housing services, but we have also created new programs aimed at enhancing affordable housing in the province."
To read his letter visit the Housing Again Alerts at http://action.web.ca/home/housing/alerts.shtml and click on the article posted July 23rd.
A Tale of Two Squats
Ontario and Quebec
Two political squats that took place over the summer one in Quebec City, the other in Toronto - have won promises for new affordable housing but both groups are still in a stand-off with their respective city councils.
August 17th marked the three-month anniversary for the squat at 920 de la Chevrotière in downtown Quebec City. For their efforts, squatters have secured a promise from the city that the site they occupy will become a development consisting of 50 condominiums, as originally planned, along with 50 co-operative housing units. In addition, the city has passed a ban that prevents developers from converting existing affordable rental apartments into condominiums.
Nicolas Lefebvre Legault, co-ordinator for the Comité Populaire Saint-Jean-Baptiste, which established the squat then turned the decision-making power over to a general assembly of squatters, says that although his group considers the squat action a victory, the
decision to leave the building is ultimately up to the assembly. So far, the squatters have opted to stay because their basic demand that the location be completely turned into a co-operative designed and desired by the community has not been met.
Lefebvre Legault said the city has told the squatters it would not kick them out, but instead sell the land and leave it up to the new co-operative to negotiate with them. "More than 2,000 people have visited and signed a petition so although (the squat) has been time- and
energy-consuming we have achieved an advance in the struggle for affordable housing," he said.
Toronto’s one-month-long ‘Pope Squat’ at 1510 King St. W has also secured a city hall motion to turn the building into affordable housing but, unlike Quebec, the spectre of a forced eviction is looming. Chris Korwin-Kuczynski, councillor for Parkdale-High park area where the Pope Squat is located, says that "at any time" squatters may get "a rude awakening."
"Council has made its position very clearly. We feel the provincial government owns the property and if the province lets us, we would be happy to take the building and make it affordable housing," he said. "But it is conditional on the people that are in the building right now vacating the premises. If it takes us to take them out of the building, then it will not become affordable housing."
Squatters say the city’s motion is "mischievous" because it puts the ball into the province’s court. But during the course of their research, the squatters found a city inspection order demanding the payment of back taxes for 1510 King St. W. The letter says that if, by December 1999, the outstanding money were still owing to the municipality, the property would be sold. It goes on to state that if there is no successful buyer, that the property would vest in the municipality. The squatters also say that they can’t leave without assurances that the homeless people who are staying at the squat will have their needs met. They plan to raise these issues at the Sept. 12 meeting of the city’s Community Services committee.
"We are simply saying that [the City] must do something for these people and that the question of ownership has to be clarified. [Squatters] would be foolish to move out while the city and the province are playing this absurd game of football, kicking the ownership backwards and forwards," said OCAP organizer John Clarke.
The fact that squatters have been able to stay for a month is interesting in a city that has seen anti-poverty protests turn into violent clashes between police and activists. Organizers were careful to research the building and ensure the ownership was in dispute due to neglected tax payments. They also held the squat to coincide with Pope John Paul II’s visit, a time when the media-eyes of the world were focused on Toronto. In building its base of support, the group ensured it outreached to the Catholic community. It is this broad base of support that Clarke says has been key to catching the attention of politicians and presenting them with actions rather than arguments.
"There has been an upsurge of squatting activity in Canada in the last little while and I think it is really a reflection of something important," he said. "Squatting is a practical use of direct action in that you’ve got people working to not just propose things, but to actually present governments with a fait accompli."
Toronto’s Tent City Fears Eviction as Police Activity Escalates
Tent City residents are raising the alarm that police activity in their make-shift village has escalated. They say officers have told them they may be evicted. Toronto Police say eviction rumours stem from speculation among Tent City residents.
Tent City hosted a rally to bring attention to the issue a week after they say police came to the village and started entering houses without asking permission and without showing warrants. In one case, resident Patrick Lepage says officers told him that if he couldn’t control his barking dog that they would shoot it. "I’ve been here for three years and (the atmosphere) has gone downhill since last winter," said Lepage. "The police are coming down on us like we are garbage."
In the past three years, Tent City has grown from about 30 residents to 110 residents. Over a year has passed since the city promised to create a neighbourhood of pre-fabricated houses for residents. Home Depot owns the land and the company agreed to let residents stay until city council finds an alternate location.
"Tent" City is now a misnomer as most residents have built temporary shacks and small cabins. Some buildings have been donated while others have been put together from a combination of found, purchased and donated materials. There is no garbage pick up, so garbage build-up is a problem and so is a lack of toilets. But on the whole, it is evident that people have created spaces for themselves. One shack has a street number sitting jauntily on a post, while another has the makings of a garden with a pitchfork sticking out of a sink basin filled with soil. There is a sense of ownership among many residents who talk about how police officers are trespassing onto their yards and into their homes, even though they don’t own the land on which they live and don’t pay taxes to the city. As a community, they have opened their homes and told their stories to media, thereby becoming important spokespeople in illustrating the city’s housing crisis.
John Andras, co-founder of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee and President-elect of the Toronto Rotary Club, says he is worried about the potential for violence if the police activity continues to escalate at Tent City. He said, in his opinion, the City of Toronto will be responsible if the increased tension between residents and police leads to an incident.
"The city has promised to find an alternate site and money was set aside to build transitional housing. Those promises so far have been nothing but smoke and if there is violence or an eviction, it is my opinion that the city has set up this situation," he said.
For their part, the police cite reasons ranging from suspicion of illegal hydro hook-ups to suspected drug dealing for increasing their activity in Tent City beyond their weekly patrol.
"There is a very unsavoury element that is moving in there. They are dealing drugs and it is causing problems," said 51 Division Staff Sergeant Edward Tymburski. "As far as we are concerned, the people there are entitled to the same protection as anyone else. We send
police patrols through there like we send through any street in this division and if there is criminal activity, we target it like we would anywhere else."
At the Tent City press conference, two women spoke about how they feel safer in Tent City than they did in any of the city’s homeless shelters. "I was a single woman here and I never felt unsafe," said Boni, who spent last winter as a Tent City resident.
In her view, the issue is not whether there is active drug use or drug pushing or women who work in the sex trade. For Boni, the issue is that Tent City residents have no legal status and therefore have no power to remove people who are disrupting their community - just as they don’t have power to draw boundaries with police officers who enter their houses. "The issue is that people who live here and who know what is going on here have no ability to control their own environment," she said.
Saskatchewan Signs Affordable Housing Agreement with the Feds
Saskatchewan has become the seventh province/territory in Canada to sign on to the national affordable housing program. The federal government will contribute $22.93 million to the province over the next five years.
To match about 80 per cent of the federal contribution, the province is using money from its Centenary Fund, which was established in 2000 to address specific infrastructure needs in the lead up to Saskatchewan’s Centennial in 2005. This fund allocated an extra $5 million social housing dollars per year until 2005. The province will be asking municipalities to provide the remaining 20 per cent of the matching funds, and it appears this is acceptable to municipalities.
Tim Gross, Saskatchewan’s director of housing program development, says the province is estimating that about 1,000 new units will be built over the four-year program period.
Bob Bjerke, housing co-ordinator for the City of Regina says the contribution that the province is asking from its municipalities is consistent with previous housing agreements. The one concern Bjerke said he has heard, is that there is a pre-set 75 per cent of the funding dedicated to rental housing, leaving only 25 per cent for home ownership projects.
"We tend to have more programs targeted to home ownership in Saskatchewan because it is actually an affordable option here," he said. "So it would have been helpful to us to have a little more flexibility in that area."
On the whole though, Bjerke said he is happy to see new money and Regina has some ongoing projects that will benefit including 26 units of assisted housing for people with disabilities in a converted office building owned by the city; and a city and non-profit partnership initiative to create infill housing on a school site. This latter project is a model sustainable housing project and will mix subsidized units with units available for the market rate.