Amid fierce neighbourhood opposition to a supportive housing building planned for East York, the ward’s councillor admits the City of Toronto botched initial communications with the community and despite renewed efforts to alleviate concerns he says the project will be going ahead.
In response to Toronto’s housing crisis, the City has been fast-tracking plans to build modular supportive housing units. Two of the 64-unit modular buildings have already been built and have people living in them — going to near-completion from the approval stage in less than a year.
One location in the latest round of the plan has been a lightning rod for controversy. The area chosen for that building is currently an overflow parking lot near Woodbine Avenue and O’Connor Drive.
There has been neighbourhood outcry over how congested the area already is with parking needed for the local pool, arena, and other parks amenities. Others said they’re concerned about a possible spike in crime.
“I live right here and the City has not approached me yet,” said Robert Dennis, who lives next to the parking lot.
Dennis said during the summer, people are often fighting over the parking spots available in the lot and others simply park illegally on the street.
While he said he is opposed to the project, Dennis said he too once experienced homelessness and knows how difficult it is to escape it.
“It’s not fun sleeping in parked cars and gas station parking lots,” he said.
“If this is going to change it, we’ll see, we’ll have to see.”
Dennis also pointed to another rushed City housing project, which was also the source of controversy.
“There’s been other projects around the city that haven’t worked out that well, like the Roehampton Hotel,” he said.
Last summer, many midtown residents were irate after the Roehampton Hotel was used as shelter space. In the rush to create space for those in need during the pandemic, inadequate supports lead to tensions after people in the area said they experienced a spike in crime.
After the Roehampton Hotel was invoked by deputants at Tuesday’s City of Toronto planning and housing committee meeting, councillors made the point of reminding people supportive housing isn’t the same.
“This is housing, this is not a shelter,” said Coun. Brad Bradford.
“These are apartment units, everyone is going to have their own keyed front door.”
Bradford said misinformation on Facebook groups has omitted key details like the fact the housing unit will have 24-7 support staff who will assist residents with wraparound services and care.
But he added the neighbourhood shouldn’t be blamed for jumping to conclusions because the City hasn’t provided them with enough information.
“We’re going to have to do better going forward. I would have liked signs posted. I would have liked to have seen information hitting the residents’ mailboxes,” said Bradford.
He’s now holding an emergency meeting for more engagement on Monday ahead of another previously planned consultation meeting. While filling in the gaps may help with some, Bradford conceded pleasing everyone will be a much greater challenge.
“This will be a housing site that will move forward,” he said, referring to the committee’s Tuesday decision to proceed with the second phase of the modular planning.
The City, Bradford said, will be addressing the parking impacts to try to relieve those concerns. The rest of the issues will have to be sorted out through community consultations.
“It’s going to be a rough couple of months for sure. I know people are angry and upset … but we have to build housing for folks in this city. We have to make it work,” he said.
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The issue of finding community buy-in for supportive housing is not a new issue in Toronto. Andrea Adams is the executive director of St. Clare’s, an organization that runs more than 500 supportive housing units across five buildings in the city for a majority of residents who have experienced chronic homelessness.
As each project was getting off the ground, she said there was an element of NIMBY-ism. But Adams said community reluctance receded as neighbours received more information.
“Quite difficult conversations have resulted, which are quite fear-based,” she said.
The way they overcame those issues, Adams said, was by continually answering questions.
“What we have arrived at now is that we are a well-integrated part of each community that we have a building in,” said Adams.
She added that the overall impact on each neighbourhood that they are in has been positive for both area residents and supportive housing recipients.
While providing dignity for those trying to escape homelessness is enough reason for locals to support a project, Adams said some need to see it to believe it.
“I don’t think that until the buildings are operating that people will ever be able to believe how positive the impact is for the surrounding community and how little disruption there is,” she said.