I'm not saying David Miller's house isn't nice. It's just not as mayoral as I'd expected. But, then, all the lights are out. Oh, and it's surrounded by police, as Ontario Coalition Against Poverty supporters cap a bracing night of break-and-enter with a visit to the mayor.
It's November 9, four days before an election that's seen little talk of poverty. As OCAP's Mike Desroches puts it, activists have spent the evening "voting with their crowbars," occupying a building long abandoned (eight years) across from High Park.
This is part of a campaign for a "use-it-or-lose-it" bylaw that would prevent developers from sitting on property while folks freeze.
"We will fight Miller as the mayor who promised to build housing but didn't," declares OCAP organizer Sarah Vance. Really? Vance has always been a gifted speaker, but I wonder if someone packed the wrong rhetoric.
Miller certainly hasn't turned out to be the anti-poverty advocate some hoped for, but 900 affordable units this year and an Affordable Housing Office are nothing to sneeze at.
Of course, compared to the overall problem thousands of households on the affordable housing waiting list it's just a start, and a late one. No time for a laurel nap.
But little as well for old posturing. "We got a 2 per cent raise on our bloody welfare rate, now we're casing your houses for the other 38," chants the crowd. All this speaks to a complex reality, in which the province holds assistance and housing dollars while developers hold properties and the city deals, sagely or savagely, with the consequences.
OCAP and council have a common enemy in other governments and delinquent developers. What if they I don't know listened to each other?
There's precedent, after all. OCAP has been, through some mixture of intent and inevitability, on the cutting edge of progressive planning before. For instance, one city's lawbreaking is another's lawmaking take Paris's socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoé, who in 2001 committed his administration to a controversial promise: buying property in the city's most exclusive locales for conversion to affordable housing. Five years on, economic diversity is making roads into les beaux quartiers. But you still need a crowbar to do it here.
This evening's march is actually a backup plan. The group was aiming to mark the closing of the Parkdale Pope Squat four years back with a return entry en masse, but the property was ringed by police. So the assembled piled onto school buses headed for the ward's tony north end, leaving 1510 King West as a dark monument to the strange history and future of city housing.
The week before, OCAP hosted a small tour of the building. At first glance, the inside looked as it had when activists pried the door in 2002, despite the fact local landlords Antonio and Filomena Sciscente bought the building months later. The only signs of work were the gutting of drywall installed by volunteer labour and new wiring coiling through skeletal studs.
The Sciscentes showed up and said, when asked why the building sat in stasis, that the city was blocking plans to convert it to a rooming house.
Stephen Miller of the city licensing division informed me that the delay stems from the Parkdale Pilot Project, a program created in 2000 to upgrade illegal rooming houses.
"[Mr. Sciscente] had to meet a number of provisions." These include fire safety, minimum room size and ventilation standards. "The process was delayed because the plans he submitted weren't to scale with property inspections," but it's now moving.
In bringing 90 properties in line with standards, the city saves on legal fees later. But asked why project staff couldn't do the work themselves, Miller says they don't have the capacity. The program kicks in only when landlords request renovations.
It was OCAP that brought attention to the property in the first place. The march to the Pope Squat began from the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre. PARC abuts 194 Dowling, abandoned and recently expropriated for affordable housing. PARC, OCAP and others ratepayers had long called for such a move.
"Expropriation is never your first choice," says Patty Simpson of city legal services. "It's time-consuming, costly and often you end up in litigation."
Would a use-it-or-lose-it bylaw help? "I can't see the government agreeing," she hedges. "Property law is sacrosanct. You can't take their land and expect them to have no income."
Yet the reason the recent expropriation went smoothly is because city staff convinced the province the owner had no plans for the property and no purpose in owning.
Couldn't that logic be applied to a push for proactive seizures?
After all, the city won't be building housing any time soon. Few cities still do, and staff are even seeing limits on the ability to zone for it.
"It's a matter of what our partners bring to us," says newly appointed deputy city manager and housing office head Sue Corke.
Lately, "partners" means developers, whose incentives are waived fees or Section 37 variances, under which the city grants additional density in return for project funding. The city's primary tool is the Official Plan requirement that developments over 5 hectares be one-quarter affordable.
Corke says a look at possible interpretations of the New City Of Toronto Act will be crucial. "There's more to be done with land use planning," she says. "We have to have a conversation with our new council."
She also echoes many in bemoaning a lack of deeply affordable subsidized units and rent supplements, which she says the city can't afford to provide. "Our tools work much better when there are subsidies from other governments."
It's notable that she didn't mention Streets to Homes. In fact, though during the campaign Miller trotted out the program's strategy of moving the homeless into apartments, no staff mention it unless I bring it up. Strange since the policy explicitly called for a list of abandoned properties across the city. No one including program director Iain De Jong knows what I'm talking about.
"It's something that's been lost it's not on the radar," says PARC director
"In Parkdale alone, there are 10,000 units of privately held affordable housing," he says. "As gentrification happens, they're being converted, and I just don't see landlords keeping them as affordable housing. If the city's own target is 1,000 [new units] a year, we're still going to have a deficit."
Kolin Davidson, formerly employed as a Streets to Homes outreach worker, agrees that the city doesn't grasp the private market problem, despite housing 800 through the program.
"A lot of landlords Streets to Homes is working with won't take people any more," he says, noting that without supplements, many can't keep their units. He feels the program has moved too fast. "I'm not saying people should be living under bridges. But if you're forcing them out of the core, where will they go?"
(De Jong informs me that city numbers show one in 10 serviced by Streets to Homes has moved.)
OCAP has one answer. Back in High Park, activists trounce through the abandoned block like it's a Halloween haunted house tour. "There's furniture in here," calls one of the occupiers from a roof. "There are plates and silverware just waiting for people."
"Let us in!" screams a woman. Instead, the police busy themselves with shining their lights in people's eyes. Yes, those new name tags really are making them more approachable.
Good thing Miller got those 250 new officers, I guess. Seems the city didn't mind pushing the province for police dollars, though the fund-sharing arrangement still costs the city $12 million per year.
Any housing staff looking for funding? I think I might have an idea.