With what looked like very few skeptics , city council voted Thursday to legalize as many as 15,000 rooming houses, a number that would make the Toronto byelection on Oct. 22 the largest municipal vote in Canada to legalize this off-the-books accommodation.
With a supermajority of 75-plus of a council size of 47, the ruling majority made rooming houses a political winner with what council members who supported legalization said was a speedier approach to enacting the new rules. The rationale was it would lead to fewer bad people on the streets and in slums.
But none of them were proposing this on the campaign trail.
Until it was clear that city council had overwhelming support for legalization, the loudest criticism came from lobbyists on the way to Thursday’s meeting who were strident in their protest.
Take the case of Coun. Mike Layton, whose own father, former NDP leader Jack Layton, had led the charge against the left-leaning provincial government’s move last year to legalize rooming houses in Toronto. “So I thought I might leave something on the table to offer support to my party,” the council member told CTV.
A stocky man with a handlebar mustache, Layton explained that there were better ways to deal with the issue than “making whatever progress that we could in a difficult timeline and a difficult city.”
Council also heard from Advocates for New Housing Communities, a left-leaning lobby that actively works with the City of Toronto to encourage sustainable development.
“Well, we were all confident that Toronto was not going to be the last one to legalize these homes,” said Ashley Aaron, one of the group’s organizers. “We wanted to emphasize to the city of Toronto that the public wanted this.”
Aaron added that more than a third of the group’s members work as “homeless shelter providers,” working with not-for-profit housing companies that often contract with city housing agencies, like UNBCAP.
Ben Proud, the organization’s operations manager, gave CTV the views of his organization, which is affiliated with social justice organizations. “We have made sure that people with disabilities, frail seniors who need the smaller places, also have been involved from the beginning,” he said.
A budget agreement proposed by Toronto Mayor John Tory last week included funding for one-to-one telephone support for the most vulnerable guests in the city’s shelters, and for consultants to design a new outreach program.
On Wednesday, Tory said he thought the city could afford $1.6 million more for the outreach program “if we thought the Conservatives would pass legislation giving us the authority to do that.”
On Thursday morning, it was clear to some advocates that two people couldn’t work out an agreement and a budget deal needed to be reached.
“That decision hasn’t been made yet by staff, council is staying to debate the issues,” said the city’s head of housing, Tanya Levy, after council announced an emergency meeting to have a budget agreement in place.
As City Council debated, John Tory seemed uncharacteristically passive, for being the master of the city, a person who walks and talks like a politician of the highest order.
And he was right to be largely uninvolved. There weren’t a lot of options.
Welcoming the news was nearby food bank volunteer Barbara Schoen, who has been helping the poor all her life, giving her the perspective one would expect from someone who knows the challenges faced by the homeless and working poor.
“The direction of government here is quite extraordinary,” she said. “I think the care and concern for people in this city is greater than I have ever experienced.”
She was right about that: Tory has brought that care and concern to Toronto’s homelessness and housing issues, even with the fiercest opposition from the right and the left.