Montreal As housing becomes a larger and larger issue in city after city around the world in the throes of development and attendant gentrification, not only has inclusionary zoning in new construction of units become an issue, but so have the policy questions of how to define affordability. In campaign discussions at the ACORN Canada Year End/Year Beginning meeting inevitably these questions arose prominently in the face of new proposals and committee deliberations about policy in various forums in Toronto.
Inclusionary zoning of course is not a new policy program. Where enacted it requires a certain percentage of new units built by developers to include a fixed percentage of the units to be set aside as affordable housing. New York, London, San Francisco, and many other urban centers as well as cities from New Orleans to Vancouver have such requirements or are in the process of implementing them. Where there was easy agreement in the ACORN Canada discussion was over the demand for 30% of the units to be set aside. Consensus over the demand does not mean achievement is assured or certainly easy. Most municipal requirements are much smaller where they even exist. More vexing is that even winning 30% would not solve the affordable housing crisis in Toronto, or other cities for that matter, since the need is so great for constructing more public or social housing, rather than a simple allowance of units from private development.
Nonetheless, central to any program’s success is defining affordability, and it is here that too often the devil emerges in the details, especially in debates over the role of AMR or average market rents and AMI or area median income.
Developers and some cities have used average market rents to define the set aside of affordable units. Affordable units in a project might be 70 or 80% of average market rents then or some other percentage. This doesn’t stop gentrification because as rents are escalating anything from 50% of AMR to 80% of AMR can still price out low-and-moderate income families. London and New York are good examples. Further, if eligibility for units is defined by area median income, as gentrification and wealth inequity continues to explode, so-called affordable units at 80% of area median income mean that lower income and working families are also excluded because affordability can be over $100,000 in annual income, cementing gentrification even as the community and our organizations fight to prevent displacement.
ACORN’s position everywhere is that affordability for the units, no matter the percentage of the set aside or average market rents or area median income, should mean rent accounts for only a certain fixed percentage of a family’s income, normally meaning no more than 30%. In some policy discussions endless complexity is introduced with debates over what allotment of the set asides should go to different segments of the lower income community, but the fear is that this confuses the campaign by blurring the lines for politicians and the public, especially if the organization is lured into using average median income as the delineating line between segments of the low-and-moderate income community.
Starting from the point of trying to guarantee that there will permanently be affordable housing in a city allowing lower income families to continue to be part of urban environments they have helped build and where they have always lived, the arguments are difficult because the slope is so slippery. Letting area median income be a defining point seems to almost be a guarantee of inevitable displacement and gentrification. Better to define eligibility based on a percentage of the poverty index similar to what is used under the Affordable Care Act or other measures, and work from the bottom up, rather than use area median income that means working from the top of the income averages down, and inevitably eliminating the poor.
Ahitara, New Zealand The backbone of ACORN are members and leaders and that’s true of any solid, power-building community organization, tenants’ union or workers association. It was great to see Mike Wood profiled on the front page of the Hamilton Spectator, the old blue-collar city in Ontario only hours away from Toronto. I want to share Mike’s story and his work with everyone:
He’s fought his battles, now he’s helping others … and leading a slumlord tour of Hamilton.
As chair of Hamilton ACORN, Mike Wood spends hours taking calls from troubled tenants, organizing rallies and fighting for change.
A tour of Hamilton’s slumlords: Unfortunately, it’s an excursion Mike Wood is distinctively qualified to lead.
The 41-year-old has lived in a string of dives kept by bad landlords since he struck out on his own as a young man in the northeast city.
That’s why he started advocating for tenant rights in Hamilton a couple of years ago.
“I got involved because I went through it myself for many years being a renter.”
He is the chair of Hamilton ACORN, a chapter of the national organization that advocates for the interests of low- and moderate-income people. (ACORN stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.)
Wood can be seen downtown looking for people to sign a petition asking the city to pursue Rent Safe, a system adopted in Toronto whereby landlords enter a registry and pay fees that go toward bylaw enforcement.
Or leading a march of placard-carrying renters in red T-shirts down Melvin Avenue demanding landlords repair rundown buildings.
The slumlord tour is scheduled for Aug. 30. ACORN is renting a bus.
The activism is a sign of the times. Renters are fighting back and getting organized in their struggle for decent homes in aging and deteriorating apartment buildings.
The advocacy also comes in an era of rapidly rising rates and plummeting vacancies as land values escalate with scant purpose-built rental stock built for many years.
Along with ACORN, the Hamilton Tenants’ Solidarity Network has waged its own battle against hikes, tenant displacement and poor living conditions.
For Wood, it seems an all-consuming task. He puts in long days — sometimes leaving early in the morning to meet with tenants wanting to organize and not coming home until 11 p.m.
Home is a modest one-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife of 23 years, Tabitha, in a King William Street highrise. They pay $870 a month.
“I’ve had my own issues here,” he says. It’s freezing in the winter and the balconies are in rough shape. “You see this everywhere you rent.”
But the vast majority of his energy is focused on the grievances of others. Wood says he helps tenants learn about their rights.
“I’ll let them know that they shouldn’t have to live like this, that they don’t have to, that they could try to have a rally here, they could unite and try to push for things to be done.”
But Wood says tenants shouldn’t have to fight for the basics like adequate heating, pest-free units, and walls that aren’t crumbling and mouldy.
He’s critical of how the city’s property standards division responds to complaints; in some cases, landlords have failed to act on orders for repairs months after deadlines.
This has led to frustration among tenants, Wood says. “They’ve lost faith in the system itself, so they want to push and try something new.”
For him, one egregious example is 285 Melvin Ave., an aging highrise near Parkdale and Barton streets, that had been subject to a 20-item property standards order since late April with a completion deadline of May 28.
In late June, the city said the landlord had started working on the issues.
“Our officer will follow up to evaluate the work and anything not completed will be addressed by our contractors and costs added to the tax roll. Charges will then be laid for noncompliance,” Kim Coombs, manager of licensing and bylaw services, told The Spectator.
Around that time, longtime landlord Harold Keen blamed the delay in repairs on a contractor. “So I’m going to have someone else complete the work.”
Keen, 84, said he designed The Highlander in the 1960s, which he said was once one of the best buildings in the city. “But it will come back … It’s not that I cannot afford to do it. I’m going to do it.”
As of Thursday, city bylaw services said 16 files remained open at 285 Melvin.
Wood’s patience has worn thin. Others are fed up, as well, he says.
“There’s no real answer for the tenants where they can try and get things done and that’s why when it comes to uniting and having these rallies, they really do feel that it will give them some hope.”
The organization helps wage the individual battles but also the broader fight to effect change through government legislation.
Wood recalls how ACORN members mounted a rally outside the Lincoln Alexander Centre where Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford was making a campaign stop during the election.
Megaphone in hand, Wood called on Ford to address the rally, which ACORN organized to challenge his “pro-landlord and anti-rent-control track record.”
The former Toronto city councillor peered out of the window, but didn’t exit the building near Gore Park.
“I don’t have much faith in Doug Ford … He’s not for the people like he claimed he was,” Wood said.
In Ontario, landlords can hike rent as high as they see fit once a tenant leaves a unit. However, they can only increase the rent of existing tenants to the annual provincial guideline, which is 1.8 per cent this year. Above-guideline increases, reserved for a limited set of major expenses, are exceptions.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing told The Spectator affordable housing “is top of mind for many Ontarians and the issue of housing supply is one that the government wants to address.”
“During the election, Premier Ford stated that his government will preserve the existing rent control for existing tenants,” Rachel Widakdo wrote in an email. “In the coming months, our government will carefully consider what we heard as part of any future review of the Residential Tenancies Act.”
Last Friday, Hamilton ACORN issued a news release targeting Ford on another front: Cuts to planned social assistance increases and the end of Ontario’s basic-income pilot program.
A rally is planned for Thursday at 1 p.m. outside the provincial government offices at 119 King St. W. downtown.
Sarah Jama, a member of ACORN for about a year and a half, holds Wood in high regard.
“I look up to Mike a lot. He’s done a lot of great work in the community.”
Jama, who worked in Coun. Matthew Green’s office and is now outreach co-ordinator at the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, agrees tenant advocacy is intensifying.
“People are no longer organizing in silos; people are starting to work together,” said the recent McMaster social sciences graduate.
Jama said she was drawn to ACORN in part because it’s led by people living in the situations they’re trying to improve.
Sarah Jama says she became a member of Hamilton ACORN because she cares about affordable and dignified housing. | Cathie Coward , The Hamilton Spectator
Wood, for instance, grew up in City Housing. His father was employed by the city doing a number of jobs including paving, sewer work and other maintenance.
One winter’s day, he had a heart attack while on the job on a Mountain access during a blizzard. Things deteriorated after a subsequent stroke, leaving Wood, then 11, to take care of him while his mom became the sole breadwinner.
“I basically became the man of the house at a young age,” he says in a soft voice.
He moved into his own place with Tabitha after high school. Their first apartment was the top floor of a triplex in the Barton Street East area.
Wood recalled how he came home one day to find the landlord sitting on his couch.
“He said basically that he owns the house; he can do what he wants,” Wood recalled. “I started looking up my rights as a tenant because I didn’t think it was suitable what he was doing.”
More grief, including a fire, bedbugs and dishonest building owners, followed, he says. These experiences are echoed in those he’s trying to help.
Many will simply stick out the duration of their lease despite problems because they don’t know their rights or can’t afford to make a stink, Wood says.
One of his latest files involves three people living in apartments carved out of an old brick home on Wentworth Street. The residents are reluctantly involved in a long-running and tense dispute with their landlord.
ACORN held a rally there to support them. That evening, when everyone had long left, Wood was back to support the tenants after the landlord uttered he’d called the police.
He’d already spent two hours on the phone with one tenant in case he needed to serve as a witness to any untoward behaviour.
“I was in their situation so I know how it felt to be alone.”