Cities

Finding a place for the poor

Virginia Smith October 13 1980
Cities

Finding a place for the poor

Virginia Smith October 13 1980

Finding a place for the poor

Cities

Virginia Smith

Apartment hunters who prefer to live within spitting distance of superhighways and fast-food chains soon may not be the only people who are sorry the Ontario Housing Corporation (OHC) doesn’t build projects like Falstaff anymore. The Falstaff public housing development, three symmetrical high-rise slabs, is perched between two hamburger stands and an expressway bridge across Jane Street in North York. Conversations on its lower floors are constantly accompanied by the rumble of speeding traffic.

But Esther Lomonte, 59, a welfare recipient who has lived at Falstaff for nine years, doesn’t even notice the noise anymore, nor does she complain about its concrete and neon landscape. What still distresses her is the disapproving public attitude toward public housing residents. “Because you live in Falstaff you’re looked at like someone from outer space,” says her son, Tom. While he acknowledges that there has been vandalism and racial conflict in the project, they both have been forced to acknowledge an even tougher reality: they need Falstaff, flaws and all.

Even OHC executives acknowledge that Falstaff-style housing projects have a rotten public image. Yet Falstaff and its clones were built with the very best of intentions—to provide otherwise nonexistent affordable housing for the province’s poor—during OHC’s heyday as a housing developer from 1966 to 1974. During that time, the corporation expanded its rent-geared-to-income units (including a small number of lowrise developments) from 10,486 to 68,032, more than a third of them in Metro Toronto. In the past five years, however, as criticism of the projects has steadily heightened, the corporation has been quietly withdrawing from the development business. Soon it will have withdrawn completely. Which would be all to the good if an adequate number of alternatives were being developed. But recently there has been alarmed speculation that unless somebody assumes responsibility for housing the poor, and soon, people like Esther and Tom Lo-

monte will have nowhere to live at all.

Ministry representatives maintain that no housing crisis is imminent. They say they can meet the need for subsidized housing through current programs designed to spare poor families the stigma of obvious identification as public housing tenants. Says John Burkus, executive co-ordinator of the housing ministry’s policy and program development secretariat: “We didn’t have a product that municipalities and neighborhoods were prepared to accept.” Instead of the characteristic high-rise-style slab, housing policy-

makers have attempted to make subsidized tenants less noticeable by what they call dispersion: scattering them among more affluent households. One method has been the OHC rent supplement program in which agreements are made with private landlords that the federal and provincial governments will split the difference between the unit’s market rent and what the tenant can afford to pay. But the province has been relying heavily on the initiatives of other agencies—nonprofit housing corporations and co-operatives—for new stocks of rent-geared-to-income housing. The ministry assists the nonprofit developments by paying for half the operating losses on units they offer to low-income tenants. The federal government picks up the rest of the tab.

While few people—least of all the tenants themselves—disapprove of finding more creative solutions to the low-cost housing problem, tenants have reacted with fear to provincial and Metro Toronto initiatives that would, in effect, snatch existing units from under their feet. Early this year, OHC sold one of its projects in Etobicoke to a private developer and Housing Minister Claude Bennett informed the legislature that he would consider similar dis-

posai of some of the corporation’s detached houses. Then in March, Metro’s social services and housing committee staff recommended the dismantling of OHC’s operations in Toronto and the renovation of its housing stock so that a substantial percentage of its units could be rented out at market rates. Horrified, more than 1,000 public housingtenants and their supporters gathered at city hall to protest the proposal. It was subsequently shelved.

Barbara and Brendan Ryan of Scarborough are just one of countless couples that dispute the claim that the lowcost housing demand is being met. Their first application for public housing, filed four years ago, elicited no response at all from the corporation. This August, when they lost their home and jobs as apartment building superintendents, they submitted a second application and this time pursued it with an energy fuelled by desperation. They phoned every day, says Brendan Ryan, “but every time you phoned they let you think it was a little more hopeless, that they never have any vacancies.” About three weeks after they applied, he was suddenly informed that the corporation had found a spot for them. The application was acted on quickly, he believes, partly because the family of four was facing immediate eviction and partly because “we crucified them every day of the week. If you’re gullible enough to believe what they say, they just forget about you.”

Statistics gathered by the Social Planning Council of Metropolitan Toronto back up the Ryans’ personal perspective. Says Jeffrey Patterson, the council’s research director: “Only 30 to 35 per cent of the families we would deem to need rental assistance are getting it.” The declining waiting list cannot be used as an accurate gauge of need because, he says, “people are told that there’s a long waiting list and so some don’t even try.” As well, a bit of simple arithmetic makes it clear that the rent supplement, nonprofit and co-op programs cannot produce enough units for

the estimated 102,000 households in the Metro area alone in need of shelter assistance. All of OHC’s rent supplement efforts produced a total of 124 new units in Metro last year. And its 1980 target has shrunk to a paltry 80.

The problem is aggravated by the fact that nonprofit and co-op programs are designed for moderate-income tenants. But even if massive government funding made these housing schemes workable, some low-income tenants question whether hiding the poor is really very practical or healthy for the poor themselves. “Poor people are spe-

cialized in the sense that they don’t have any money. They need services,” says public housing tenant and community activist Blanche Callahan. In her experience, families that have been dispersed into rent supplement units feel isolated from people with similar problems and unable to organize themselves to secure the help they need.

One solution might be to resurrect OHC as a developer of small low-rent projects. “In my own riding, the demand is for smaller OHC projects,” says Etobicoke MPP Ed Philip, who chaired a recent legislative committee review of OHC’s activities. But the corporation’s critics say it needs more than a quick face-lift. “The image of OHC is so bad,” says Philip, “that any kind of OHC proj-

ect will meet with a certain community resistance.” To begin with, its management systems would have to be overhauled to encourage the formation of tenants’ associations and any other initiatives that would promote greater tenant responsibility. The Ontario Anti-Poverty Organization/Coalition noted in a recent submission to Bennett that “in projects and regions where tenants’ associations have been encouraged, there is little evidence of stigma. ■ . - Vandalism in those projects is at a minimum and community spirit is high.”

But by itself, fostering a greater sense of personal control and therefore a greater sense of self-worth will not go very far in solving the problem. That campaign must be accompanied by an equally strong campaign to improve public attitudes to public housing residents. The antipoverty organization has recommended that a public relations department be created within the ministry for this purpose alone. Blanche Callahan, for one, thinks that with a little effort middle-class communities can be convinced to accept groups of less fortunate tenants in their neighborhoods. “After all,” she says, “they managed to get their groups together to bring the boat people here.”