As Canada grapples with the economic and social instability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government is attempting to address the country’s staggering lack of affordable housing. But if a recent controversy in Toronto tells us anything, it’s that wealthy homeowners are going to push back.
At the end of September, the Trudeau government announced $1 billion in federal dollars over the next six months for municipalities across the country to develop various forms of affordable housing units, primarily through the leasing and acquisition of properties in decline, such as buildings designated for demolition or old hotels no longer in service.
The model is similar in design to what has been tested in Toronto since May, when the city first leased a handful of buildings to provide temporary housing to homeless individuals, many of whom had previously opted to join a growing network of tent encampments as the virus swept through the city’s shelter system.
But backlash to Toronto’s strategy has been swift. Residents in one well-off neighborhood in the city’s midtown blamed a spike in crime on the sudden relocation of hundreds of formerly-homeless residents to the nearby Roehampton Hotel and two buildings on Broadway Avenue—a claim Toronto police said was without evidence.
In response, the group of residents promised a ‘crusade’ against homeless shelters, thus igniting a multi-month media circus, centred largely around protests where residents carried signs reading things like “I want to be safe again” and “We don’t succumb to fear,” while counter-protesters decried their opponents as being hateful and participating in NIMBYism (an acronym meaning “not in my backyard”).
Now living in another city-leased building closer to the downtown core, Nikki Renaud told VICE News about her experience with discrimination as a resident of one of the Broadway buildings.
“It was the looks that we would get. Just awful. People looked at us like trash,” Renaud said.
“They made us feel like we weren’t deserving of being in their neighborhood. Like, how dare we go in there and disturb their peace.”
Despite the pushback, the city approved a $733 million proposal last month that would see 3,000 affordable and subsidized housing units created over the next two years. The mechanisms suggested to achieve this are a combination of constructing modular housing, converting existing properties into affordable units, and the targeted subsidization of housing already on the rental market.
In the meeting where the plan was initially proposed, a letter submitted by a group representing dozens of Toronto’s corporate restaurant chains and condominium buildings asked for it to be put on pause, citing concerns about the “tremendously challenging” circumstances due to a growing homeless population in the downtown core.
In an email to VICE News, one of the members of the group blamed Mayor John Tory and Councillor Joe Cressy, arguing that the increase in homeless individuals in the area has “turned downtown Toronto into Detroit.”
“If they continue with this program, they will completely inundate this area with drug addicts and criminals from all over Canada, and ruin the health and vibrancy of the downtown core,” the member said.
Leilani Farha, global director of housing rights group The Shift and former special rapporteur on housing for the United Nations, says NIMBYs regularly treat the homeless population like a monolith devoid of civility, and argues that the government has failed to address the complex needs of homeless individuals, who often suffer with mental health and addiction issues.
“[Homeless] people end up living in pretty harsh circumstances, which can then lead to all sorts of behaviours that we would rather not see, and rather not have on our streets,” Farha said.
“Those behaviours then get attributed to the homeless people as if the homeless people are bad, or criminals, or drug addicts, when really the problem is that they haven’t been provided the services that they need, and the services that they’re entitled to under human rights obligations.”
Meenakshi Mannoe, a campaigner with Pivot Legal Society—a poverty-rights and community outreach-based organization—says the complaints in Toronto are identical to those found in any major city, and argues that aggrieved residents simply find new ways to phrase what is actually just “anti-poor rhetoric.”
“One major myth to disrupt is that NIMBYs in one city are somehow special. They’re not, they know this, and there’s a NIMBY news cycle that they tend to conform to,” Mannoe said.
In Vancouver, where the explosion of tent encampments during the pandemic has prompted a crackdown by police, Andrew Wilkinson—leader of the province’s Liberal Party—has called the current situation of homelessness a "street phenomenon of people who are out of control.”
This is the NIMBY formula, Mannoe says: villainize the poor by making addiction and mental health issues a moral failing, and then flip the idea of safety—which homeless people have very little of when compared to housed people—on its head.
“You hear the standard refrains of ‘my safety’, ‘my children’s safety’, or ‘we’re concerned about everyone’s safety’, but really, the language of safety is leveraged against people who are poor and unsheltered,” Mannoe said.
Like Toronto, Vancouver is pushing ahead with its plans. Last Tuesday Mayor Kennedy Stewart released a statement advocating for an additional $30 million in funding to continue the expansion of the city's COVID-19 housing strategy, which also relies on the leasing and acquisition of old properties.
Evan Siddall, CEO of the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC)—a Crown corporation helping to administer the $1 billion in federal funding—says Canada has long suffered from a deficit in affordable housing, which he says is unlike any other commodity in that consumption (the purchasing of property) almost always outpaces investment (the creation of new properties).
Siddall is not alone in pointing this out. For years, experts and advocates have warned of a deepening divide in housing affordability, accelerated by the death of the National Affordable Housing Program in 1993 following austerity measures by the government of former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien.
Last year, the federal government, in partnership with the CMHC, launched the National Housing Strategy—a 10-year, $55 billion commitment to create 125,000 units of affordable housing across the country. Siddall believes that more can still be done, and says he believes Canadians are supportive of these types of measures.
“We need to get over this. It is not OK in our country that we have people on the streets,” Siddall said, arguing much of NIMBYism is simply wealthy property owners who benefit when markets remain unaffordable to those with lower incomes.
“People protecting massive gains in housing because they’re worried about their property values declining a little bit? Boy, that seems short-sighted. We should care about this growing inequality gap, and NIMBYism is a subtle and insidious way of perpetuating that [gap].”
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