Shame on Toronto’s public housing negligence
Toronto city council and its mayor are closing more than 400 units of city-owned social housing because they are in poor condition. They’ve identified another 17,000 units in bad repair that are at risk of being closed if nothing is done to fix them. In the case of the 400 units, the mayor and council decided not to fix them. And they have made no decision to fix the rest of the unfit units, which account for 30 per cent of the Toronto Community Housing stock.
The reasons they give are financial: we can’t afford to fix these units. Someone else would have to give us the money to do it, some other government most likely. They plead penury while they choose the most expensive transit option for a one-stop Scarborough subway that makes no sense outside of a city hall and Queen’s Park political bubble, and the most expensive possible option for redevelopment of the eastern Gardiner Expressway.
Mayor Tory assured people he was working hard on the issues of housing and homelessness in an email he circulated to his fellow condominium residents on the recent occasion of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) “sleepover” at their building. It’s an assurance he has uttered on other occasions. He seems to be working hard against these issues by reducing available social housing stock, rather than fixing it.
Affordable, safe and secure housing is identified by the United Nations as a basic human right (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). Housing is not some budgetary afterthought.
Canada is a signatory to these UN documents and by doing so commits the federal government, as well as all subnational governments, including city governments. This means the state agrees to support the right of all people living in it to affordable, good quality housing with protections against arbitrary eviction.
The UN does not expect such housing to be built overnight, but does expect each state to make steady progress toward the goal of housing everyone, either through the marketplace or by state initiative. This process is called “progressive realization.” States are intended to set a goal for full realization of a right, to construct a plan to get there, and to monitor its progress effectively.
Reducing available housing does the exact opposite. It is moving further away from the goal, having no plan, and abandoning monitoring.
This is not new behaviour for Toronto’s city council, or for most other governments in Canada. Their abandonment of the right to housing has resulted in subpar social housing and long waiting lists.
In Toronto’s case the waiting list has climbed to nearly 200,000 people. This is not even including the people paying too much of their income for housing in the private market, well above the 25 to 30 per cent considered reasonable. Governments have decided they could not afford to maintain existing stock, build new stock, or find another way to subsidize people being housed properly. These choices have helped construct the poverty so many people find themselves in.
If these politicians made the choice to support people’s right to housing, they would have to solve the problem of where to find the money.
They might have to find the courage to raise taxes despite it not being popular.
They might have to set conditions on developers to provide more affordable housing in developments, rather than let them avoid it.
They might have to make harder political choices around affordable transit options and other infrastructure projects, freeing up money for housing.
They might, as former Toronto mayor John Sewell recently said, have to show some leadership.
Instead, they take refuge in crying poor, or in some cases claiming that social and economic rights in Canada aren’t “justiciable” (that is, they can’t be pursued through the courts), an evasion the UN claims is unacceptable. A country can’t sign an agreement and then deliberately construe a way to avoid living up to it. Canada is rightly condemned for such hypocrisy.
And so should Toronto council and its mayor be condemned for their failure to meet their human rights obligation. Their catastrophic failure on the affordable housing file shames them all.
Originally published in The Toronto Star as an op-ed on May 2, 2017.