Fighting for Affordable Housing on All Fronts in Toronto

Toronto    The fight for affordable housing is global, but Toronto and ACORN Canada have been at the forefront of this war for the last fifteen years, and even while winning major victories, including recently landlord licensing or RentSafe, as the city calls the program, ACORN members want much more and are committed to fighting to get it.  Listening to an ACORN housing forum with fifty members in the Scarborough area of Toronto last night, there was no question about their determination on a number of fronts.

On the RentSafe program, Marva Burnett, ACORN Canada’s president and the president of ACORN International, was clear, saying “We want more!”  The inspection program only guarantees that apartment complexes will be visited every three years. Burnett made the point that when it came to health no one said only check your temperature or teeth every three years, why is your housing so unimportant.  She and ACORN also advocated red, green and yellow signs after the inspections similar to what a restaurant receives if it passes.  She added that ACORN members were lucky to eat out twice a year, but lived in their units every day, so safe and healthy housing was a higher priority.

 

The real issue the members argued is that the City of Toronto defines affordable market rent as $1200 per month, and that is “not affordable.”  One of the bulletins being discussed in the small strategy groups at the forum zinged the fact that only one in forty units of housing being developed in Toronto is affordable even under that definition.  One speaker after another said the word “condos” in the same way others would spit out curses.

One part of the campaign now demands “inclusionary zoning,” and this has been a huge battleground.  ACORN is demanding that 30% of developments on private land be affordable rental units and 40% near transit stops, fully recognizing that even on private land developments cannot succeed without public support, infrastructure, zoning allowances, and amenities.  On public land, ACORN is demanding that 100% be rental, and 50% be affordable.

After an explication of the issues still unresolved and the ongoing housing crisis for tenants and low-and-moderate income, the members broke into smaller groups to devise action plans for moving the campaign forward at the next stages.  This is going to be a long, hard fight.

Toronto has always been a tenants’ city in the fifteen years of ACORN’s organizing here, but as the wealth gap increases, areas, like Scarborough, are increasingly condo-and-mall-construction zones.  Driving to the new City of Toronto Hilltop community center where the forum was being held it was hard to recognize some of the areas I remembered years ago when Judy Duncan, ACORN Canada’s head organizer, and I first drove through the neighborhood plotting the early organizing drives.  ACORN leaders and members were spot on:  this is a fight for survival in the city!

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Chaos in the White House Can’t Stop Progress in the Streets

Bristol ACORN

Bristol   Maybe President Trump needs to get out more? Perhaps there’s something in the air in the White House that is clogging up his so-called “fine-tuned machine” and bringing out the crazy? Maybe from the outside looking in, it would be easier for him to understand better why the rest of us are scared sillier every day?

Who knows, but for me it was relief to jump off the merry-go-round of the Trump-Watch and back onto a plane again. And, though sleepless and a walking-zombie imitation, sure enough it was possible to find signs of continuing progress away from the maddening vortex of chaos in Washington.

Visiting with the ACORN organizers in Bristol, the big problem of the day was one every organization likes to have. On the eve of ACORN’s first all-offices, national action scheduled only days away from Edinburgh to Sheffield, Newcastle, Bristol, and beyond against the giant multi-national bank, Santander, they threw in the towel and caved in. The issue was a requirement that Santander attaches on any loans in housing that tenant leases mandate rent increases. ACORN was demanding the provision be dropped from all leases, and Santander announced that it was doing so, and in a bit of dissembling claimed that they had never really enforced it anyway. Hmmm. I wonder if they had told any of their landlords, “hey, ignore that part, we don’t really want you to raise the rents, we’re just kidding, it’s only money.” Hard to believe isn’t it? And, we don’t, but a win is a win, and the action will now become a celebration and a demand that all other banks in the United Kingdom also scrub out any such language.

Back home, ACORN affiliate, A Community Voice, was front page news as they laid the gauntlet down once again around an expansion of the Industrial Canal that divides the upper and lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. The expansion would dislocate homes and further bisect this iconic and beleaguered community.

Meanwhile, as we get closer and closer to being able to target big real estate operations and private equity that are exploiting lower income home seekers in the Midwest and South through contract for deed land purchasers, there was progress in the courts. A federal judge ruled that Harbour Portfolio, a Dallas-based bottom-fishing private equity operation with a big 7000-home play in FNMA, would have to abide by a subpoena from the much embattled Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and disclose information on its use high-interest, predatory contract-for-deed instruments in its home flipping. As we get closer and closer to having our arms around not only terms and conditions of these exploitative contracts, but also lists of potential victims in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, this is good news, even though far from the relief and victory families will be seeking.

All of which proves that if we can keep our focus away from the chaos created in Washington and our feet on the streets, there are fights galore and victories aplenty to reward the work and struggle.

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