How Willowdale became ground zero for housing in the election

Willowdale is ground zero for the election debate in Toronto about how to help people escape homelessness, ensure young residents aren’t kicked out of town, and ease the pressures of relentless construction. of condos.

« In this neighborhood, the biggest concern is housing in one form or another, » says Markus O’Brien Fehr, among the candidates battling to succeed the retired council. John Filion as the voice of Willowdale at City Hall following the October 24 vote.

A strip of tree-lined green space on Cummer Avenue east of Yonge Street seems an unlikely flashpoint pitting residents and city council candidates against each other in what could be the council race the city’s most competitive municipal.

With Filion’s support, City Council approved 175 Cummer as the site of a three-story complex with, according to the city, « 59 new permanent homes with supportive services for seniors and seniors who are living or at risk. » to become homeless”.

Those who choose to pay rent and make it their permanent home will have access to on-site staff who can « connect residents with a range of supports provided by the experienced non-profit housing operator of the building ».

A city request to Premier Doug Ford’s housing-focused government to speed up site approvals failed amid opposition from PC MP Stan Cho and some residents, including some in an adjacent Toronto Community building Housing Corporation (TCHC).

O’Brien Fehr, Filion’s chief of staff for the past decade, acknowledges getting flustered at some doorsteps for his full support for the Cummer site as it goes through the regular rezoning process which will include challenges of the part of the opponents.

« These vulnerable people need a safe place to live and city staff determined this was the best site, » he said, adding that he understands the community’s safety fears, anger faced with loss of green space and community demands for more consultation.

« It is incumbent on the City, and on me if I were elected councillor, to listen to concerns and see that this project succeeds as best it can, because it will be a beacon towards which other neighborhoods will head for.

A man who responds to O’Brien Fehr’s blows comes out of a luxury house and says to him, spontaneously, waving his hand in the direction of the Cummer site: “It’s a beautiful street. Nobody is in favor of these people.

Down the street, Harry Ort, working from his own well-appointed home, laughs at such concerns. He says he heard them all during a battle to get approvals for another affordable housing complex on Cummer that opened in 2007.

« The ratepayers group made the same arguments: ‘It’s going to ruin the neighborhood, the crime rate is going up, it won’t be safe to walk down the street’ — all BS, » the church group member said. “We had difficult clients, but we succeeded. You work there.

Lily Cheng, who lost to Filion in the 2018 election and hopes to win this time, sees the city council’s Cummer decision as part of a bigger problem.

« We’ve become a very disconnected and disengaged community, » she says. “So people don’t know what’s going on. They are just trying to survive. And deep in their hearts they hope the government has their best interest, but they’re not sure if that’s really happening. »

The founder of popular Facebook group North York Moms says 59 “complex” people in one place is too many. She cites seniors’ fears of living next to people who may have mental health or addiction issues. She says 10 residents might be OK, but only if TCHC elders agree.

Cheng points to former mayor John Sewell’s warnings against housing too many very low-income people together, and suggests Cummer could see a major crime like the one she says is linked to a supportive housing site of support on Macey Avenue in Scarborough.

« You have a person with a gun, a person with knives, muggings, robberies — those are intense things, » she says. As evidence, she shows screenshots forwarded by a resident who says they are call logs from the police in the area.

Kegan Harris, director of housing development for the charity that operates the building on Macey, rejects Cheng’s claim that an unusual number of violent crime calls are linked to residents coming out of homelessness.

“We do not believe that any unusual events or issues have occurred recently that would trigger frequent police presence,” Harris said in an email. « We also don’t think their presence is any higher than other buildings in the community. »

Most calls or police presence are “due to 911 EMS emergency calls. Staff have acquired the resources and knowledge necessary to defuse situations. Calling 911 for non-medical emergencies remains the last option,” Harris wrote.

Abi Bond, executive director of the city’s housing secretariat, told The Star that residents of modular support homes pose no greater risk to community safety than other members of the community.

“We do not anticipate any increase in community safety issues in the neighborhood due to new residents living at 175 Cummer Ave. or other modular housing projects,” Bond said.

Daniel Lee, who also hopes to succeed John Filion as councilor for Ward 18 Willowdale, says if elected he will try to get the Cummer project moved to another site."We must listen to the neighborhood," he says.

Daniel Lee, a pharmacist and former Federal Conservative candidate whose candidacy is endorsed by the Ward 6 Coun. James Pasternak promises, if elected, to try to move the project to another site.

« We should listen to the neighborhood, which is going to be affected, especially the elderly, » near 175 Cummer, Lee said, arguing that the city hasn’t been available with its list of rejected sites it wants to review.

Elham Shahban, also listed as a contestant in Willowdale, did not respond to inquiries from the Star.

It seems unlikely that a new councilor from Willowdale could single-handedly stop the project. Council approved it and Mayor John Tory, who is seeking re-election and endorsed O’Brien Fehr’s candidacy, is making a strong case for the need for such projects in Toronto, including Willowdale.

In Cheng or O’Brien Fehr, Tory would gain an ally in supporting the council legalizing and regulating rooming houses across the city. The proposal was pushed back to the next term amid opposition from advisers, including Filion.

Lee’s campaign did not respond to a request for a position on this issue.

They all say they would try to improve municipal services which have not kept up with the dizzying development of condominiums which will only increase as the Ontario government prioritizes the construction of housing around the corridors of public transport.

Adjusting to growth could be more difficult in council’s next term under a new provincial system that could cut developer payments by 40%, according to the city.

It’s unclear what strikes the right note with residents in a civic vote that looks like a housing referendum. But it is clear that after a deadly pandemic, some do not engage in politics while others are fed up.

« What makes you angry? » Cheng, canvassing, asks an elderly person. The little woman, without missing a beat, replies: “Everything!

Correction — September 26, 2022: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Markus O’Brien Fehr’s name.

David Rider is Star’s City Hall Bureau Chief and a reporter covering City Hall and municipal politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider


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