Squat, unremarkable and not quite overlooking the lake, the flat-roofed hive of a building at 1510 King West doesn’t seem suited to be a symbol.
Abandoned in the 90s, it was occupied during the Pope’s 2002 summer visit by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and christened the Pope Squat. The group started repairs only to be evicted on the first snow.
Five and a half years later, at long last set to be redeveloped into a legal rooming house, the building serves once more to highlight the sorry state of affordable housing – and, as a bonus, the absurdity of the Ontario Municipal Board’s power over local planning.
In a somewhat uncommon turn, the OMB has been brought in by residents opposed to the plan – while housing advocates have been put in the strange position of rallying behind a developer, and hoping for the OMB’s normal laissez-faire attitude to development.
During the hearing, which wrapped up in the last week of February, each witness in a parade of consultants would remark automatically on how squatters had made a mess of the place. None stopped to think that it was only because of the squatters that the place was being returned to affordable housing.
Planners believe the building, constructed in the early 70s, at one time had 24 units. In the 90s, the building lost its licence and the owner disappeared. The building was empty, was squatted, was empty again.
The squat drove the province to determine who owned the place. When it figured out that it did, it sold the building to Antonio Scisciente. He got federal funding to develop rooming houses and a thumbs-up from the Parkdale Pilot Project, a municipal program for licensing, upgrading and regularly inspecting rooming houses. Scisciente proposed to add 20 licensed units to Parkdale’s thousands of estimated rooming house units, many of them still unlicensed and unsafe.
Neil Spiegel, Parkdale Green party candidate in 2003 and former Parkdale Residents Association member, appealed this plan to the OMB, representing residents worried about a “concentration of poverty” in Parkdale and a hood “destabilized” by density.
The technical argument, made on Spiegel’s behalf by entertainment lawyer and Parkdale Residents Association member Warren Sheffer, is that the property doesn’t qualify for PPP involvement because 1510 is not an illegal rooming house. It’s not anything. A new rooming house, they say, would violate the zoning.
City staff argue that since it was a rooming house before the zoning changed (or before anyone took notice), it has “legal non-conforming” status. To change the building now would be to alter the traditional land use of the neighbourhood.
While it isn’t said outright, the implication is that while opponents are concerned about changing the neighbourhood by bringing in a rooming house, in fact, converting it to a family dwelling would be a change.
Long-time Parkdalian Paul Denison works with rooming house residents through the Toronto Christian Resource Centre. He doesn’t buy the idea that the concentration of poverty – or residential units – is growing. “There used to be a lot more rooming houses here,” he tells me. “It’s all well and good that these places are being converted to nice family homes, but what’s happening to the people who used to live here?”
The opponents’ alternative is hard to discern. It wasn’t until a couple of days into the hearing that consultant Paul Johnson, a witness for those appealing the plan, said he could see 12 units being “reasonable.”
That means the OMB has been dragged in to keep eight people out? The fact that those eight units would also prevent the property from being affordable is obvious but deemed irrelevant at the hearing.
There’s an irony in the fact that all the arguments made by Parkdale residents could easily be hurled at any new downtown development. For instance, Johnson worries about “instability” in the neighbourhood and uncertainty for homeowners caused by roomers’ “transient” lifestyle.
“Not knowing from one day to the next who your neighbour is, whether that’s someone you should get to know...,” he says, adding that the small size of the units is another issue. “What are those people going to do with their time.’’ He could be trying to stop a condo.
Councillor Gord Perks points out that Parkdale is currently losing af-fordable units; Toronto will lose 10,000 in the next decade.
“You’ve got a housing crisis, you’ve got a loss of private affordable, you’ve got no ability to build public,” he says. “What choice do we have?”
Scisciente simmers through the hearing process, apparently disdainful of the housing activists who support him. There’s lots of talk about the Parkdale Conflict Resolution Process and the Parkdale Housing Committee, two new avenues for consultation that have grown out of the PPP since 1998.
The Parkdale residents’ side raises questions about whether these processes are responsive. I’m just thinking of all the staff time spent on this hearing instead of consultation. It’s especially bad if staff figure after this that it’s not worth investing too much time in processes, since contests will end up at the OMB anyway.
Keeping up with illegal rooming houses is a headache for housing staff. Many landlords get approval for a certain number of units, than fill in from there. Scisciente went the legal route; but if he’d known that was just an audition for an OMB performance, would he have done it?
That’s a distasteful thought, to be sure. After all, as former Parkdale Residents Association chair Craig Peskett says, the approach represented by the PPP means “a lot of carrots and very few sticks” for developers. But then – funny – most say the same about the OMB.