Human rights trump property rights
TheStar.com – Opinion – Human rights trump property rights
January 26, 2009. Carol Goar
Community organizing is a term that conjures up images of Chicago’s south side, Harlem in the 1970s and ’80s and U.S. President Barack Obama’s early career. But Canadians – especially here in Toronto – know how to get people working for change in their community, their city and their country.
One of the best examples is the HomeComing Project, a seven-year campaign by grass-roots activists to open up every neighbourhood in Toronto – and eventually all Canadian cities – to affordable housing.
It took patience. It took public education. And it took a small army of volunteers. But this month, the breakthrough came.
Toronto instructed its planners to draft a zoning by-law that would allow rooming houses, the cheapest form of accommodation, in all 44 municipal wards.
City council still has to approve the change. And it is not clear whether the new by-law will include other types of housing for the poor, disabled and the mentally ill. But Paul Dowling, project manager of HomeComing, is convinced the tide has turned.
“When we started this process, the notion that planning decisions should include human rights was remote,” he said. “Now it is widely understood that some interests are fundamental. Human rights trump property rights and other interests.
“We’ve been successful beyond our wildest imagination.”
He remembers how the coalition began. A group of mental health activists held an informal meeting in 2002 to talk about the resistance they were encountering to supportive housing projects (group homes and residential facilities for people with mental illness) in parts of the city.
“Peggy Birnberg, executive director of Houselink Community Homes, had just come out of a particularly difficult meeting with neighbours, concerned about a proposal to redevelop an existing building in Toronto’s east end,” he recalled. “The neighbours were vehement that they did not want `those people’ in their neighbourhood.
“Peggy was upset because they had said very hurtful things about Houselink residents to their faces. She said: ‘I’m not going to take it anymore.'”
Everybody agreed it was time to fight to back. So they put together a team of non-profit housing providers, psychiatric survivors, urban planners, human rights lawyers and citizens. It was called the HomeComing Community Choice Coalition.
Then came the hard work. They built a network of supporters in every community to speak out in favour of housing for the poor, physically disabled and mentally ill. They sent delegations to public meetings and city committees. They held brown bag lunches for municipal bureaucrats. They lobbied the mayor, city councillors and senior staff at the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Whenever a project ran into neighbourhood resistance, they mobilized.
They developed a toolkit, which included a “Yes, in My Back Yard,” guide for supporters. They launched a website (www.homecomingcoalition.com) to highlight recent developments. And they reached out to housing activists in other cities.
The first encouraging development came on Dec. 13, 2007. Toronto City Council voted 31-2 in favour of a supportive housing project in the Upper Beach (Gerrard St. E. near Woodbine Ave.), despite vocal opposition from local residents.
The second milestone came last July, when the Ontario Human Rights Commission issued a report reminding landlords and housing providers that denying accommodation to those with disabilities, including mental illness, violates the Ontario Human Rights Code.
The biggest advance came Jan. 8 this year, when the city’s planning and growth management committee instructed municipal officials to draw up a by-law permitting rooming houses – the only choice for many people with mental illness to live – in every part of the city. They are currently banned in Scarborough, North York and East York.
The coalition isn’t declaring victory.
There is opposition on council. The new by-law is likely to have loopholes. Even if it passes, the city could require non-profit housing providers to hold months of community consultations.
But barriers are toppling. Attitudes are changing. NIMBYISM appears to have met its match.