Losing for the Win: Government Spin and Dismantling Social Housing Stock and Calling it Progress

What Really Happened to 389 Church Street

The City just announced that it created NEW affordable housing at 389 Church Street. We are in a housing crisis and new deeply affordable housing units are desperately needed. But, like a lot the City does around housing, this involved the displacement of poor people, well-placed lies, and misleading statements. And when all is said and done, we have less housing than we did a few years ago.

Stop the sell-off of public housing!! The Toronto Community Housing Corporation is quietly proposing the sell-off of 326 apartment units and 45 single-family homes of public housing. We have entered a period of economic downturn when the need for decent and accessible affordable housing will be especially important. The City should be building new units and adequately maintaining its existing stock, not selling it off in order to pay for repairs. It is not enough to promise that the units will be replaced and tenants will be relocated. We need more social housing now! We need repairs for existing units now! Saturday May 23 11:30 am Rally and meal at one of the homes on teh selling block: 13 Trefann St. (North of Queen St, east of Parliament)
Stop the sell-off of public housing 2009 OCAP flyer

389 Church Street is a building located just south of Carlton Street in Toronto. It used to be housing for women and it was built in 1973.[1] In 2008, Toronto Community Housing planned to sell this building. At the time, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty publicly decried and protested the move.

In 2015, City staff told Toronto City Council that the “housing form is out-dated.” It was structured like a lot of small rooming houses. There were 66 units with 247 rooms between them: each unit had a shared kitchen and bathroom. This was an average of 3.75 rooms per unit. The City claimed that the building was only at 30% occupancy because people didn’t want to stay there due to the model of housing. City staff were claiming in 2015 that the 78 tenants living at 389 Church needed to be evicted and the building needed to be renovated because it was so “out-dated [that it] has resulted in the building being under-occupied.”[2]

I remember differently. I remember two women who lived there coming to a meeting I was at, and saying they wanted to stay. They wanted our group’s help fighting the inevitable eviction from their building. They liked the model they lived in and they didn’t want to move, in part, because of that shared model. Shared accommodation doesn’t work for lots of people and, for those it does work for, it can go bad if they get the wrong person to share with. But, I contend and I think the evidence supports that at least 169 women would have wanted those spots – especially during a housing crisis.

This model was an example of supportive housing. It was women living together and supporting each other. I don’t use the term “supportive housing” in the clinical, institutional way in which people’s behaviours can be surveilled and managed and, within this logic, hopefully rehabilitated. This is what all three levels of government and groups that promote Housing First support – groups like the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.[3] They pathologize many homeless people as “chronically homeless” and then call for “wraparound supports.” In a recent Crackdown episode, Dr. Danya Fast, a researcher and supportive housing advocate, reflected on seeing what supportive housing actually means in the lives of people she knows: “I was recommending something that sounded really important in principle but I wasn’t thinking nearly closely enough about what it should look like in practice.” In these “institutional” settings, which one of her research participants calls “desolate,” harm reduction in supportive housing are used to control people.

Supportive housing gained a lot of popularity through Housing First ideology. Housing First individualizes homelessness and the solution is, therefore, supportive housing – not building social housing, rent control, raising social assistance and the minimum wage, ending colonial and white supremacist dispossession, stopping gender-based violence – things that require real social change.

It is my argument that 389 Church Street occupancy was suppressed, not that tenants did not want to occupy it. Around the time City staff said the building was 2/3 empty because people didn’t want to stay there, there were protests because shelters were full. There were about 173,000 people on the housing waitlist at that time, taking many years to get a unit. According to the 2015 staff report, 389 Church Street needed some repair. There was (and remains) a significant TCHC repair backlog, with many units needing major repairs.[4] Lack of repairs don’t keep TCHC building empty. It is my clear recollection that the tenants understood, and that other data suggests that, from when the TCHC added 389 Church to its list of buildings on the chopping block, TCHC did not rent the units at 389 Church in order to ease the off-loading of the building. This is why, by 2015, the building was only 30% occupied.

To be clear, it is my assertion that City staff lied that 389 Church Street was only about 1/3 occupied in 2015 because the building was “outdated.”

 Last week, Mayor John Tory announced 120 units of “new” affordable supportive housing, in partnership with several not-for-profit agencies at 389 Church Street. Purposely restricting units to keep occupancy low for years so a building can be renovated doesn’t make the housing new. Indeed, if the TCHC ever fixes its repair backlog, it won’t make those units new. Landlords are legally required to repair units.

What we have ended up with is a building that sat for 11 years, slowly being emptied out so it could be remodeled, and so that operations could be passed on to supportive housing agencies. 78 women were dislocated for this project.

We have a net loss of 127 rooms and no new housing units. Those units are counted as part of the Winter Plan for shelters. We have a repaired building, and that is good.

We need 10,000 social housing units in the next 3 years, not a Mayor who will put is name on anything and call it new.

I co-founded FactcheckToronto.ca recently to help hold the City to account for the many lies, half-truths and misleading statements that the City puts out about homelessness and housing. Some of the information here can be found there and there is additional information about the announcement of the “new” 389 Church Street housing available there.

[1] Shelter Support and Housing Administration, (2015). “EX7.17 Under One Roof: A Housing Solution for Women and Children at 389 Church Street.”

[2] Shelter Support and Housing Administration, (2015). “EX7.17 Under One Roof: A Housing Solution for Women and Children at 389 Church Street,” p. 1.

[3] I have written about this lots in my dissertation, Mapping Ruling Relations Through Homelessness Organizing; or, you can wait for the book which will hopefully be out this fall.

[4] Shelter Support and Housing Administration, (2015). “EX7.17 Under One Roof: A Housing Solution for Women and Children at 389 Church Street.”