Toronto council battle for Willowdale defined by fight over supportive housing site

A planned location for modular housing at 175 Cummer Ave. has become a major election issue in Willowdale. Bill Barker/Global News

Willowdale is one of several Toronto wards where the lack of an incumbent will see a new face on city council, but the battle for the coveted seat has been overshadowed by an on-going dispute over the location the city settled on for one of its modular supportive housing sites.

The program is among the city’s plans to respond to a housing crisis and provide affordable housing units to an eighth of Toronto’s roughly 8,000 residents experiencing homelessness. The pre-constructed units can be opened on a reduced time frame and by using city-owned land, they’re cost-effective for a city with budget constraints. But the city has experienced neighbourhood complaints over multiple locations selected, one of which has spilled over into the municipal election.

A patch of green space on 175 Cummer Ave. in North York is the source of tremendous community outrage, and some accuse the city of overriding the wishes of the community in the site selection.

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Willowdale council candidate Lily Cheng is among those opposed to the location. “People feel like a lot of these decisions are made without participation from the community,” said Cheng in an interview with Global News.

Council candidate Lily Cheng said the city needs to respect the wishes of local residents who are opposed to the supportive housing site. Matthew Bingley/Global News

Cheng said there is a concern the supportive housing location is not only too big, but the proximity of it next to subsidized seniors’ housing has alarmed many of its residents. She said the city hasn’t done enough to engage with the community to answer questions. Cheng said in her research she found British Columbia has established clear guidelines around supportive housing locations which Toronto should be following.

“In their guidelines, it does say, you know, avoid seniors and schools,” said Cheng, “so I think there’s a lack of transparency in how these sites are chosen and we should really be learning from a province like B.C. that is further ahead than us in implementing supportive housing.”

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But one of her main opponents in the Willowdale race is pushing back on some of the rhetoric that has allegedly been used during the election. Markus O’Brien Fehr is in favour of the city’s efforts to build modular housing and said while he’s canvassing, he’s spending time correcting on-going concerns he believes are misplaced.

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“There is a lot of fear that has been stoked through some of the other campaigns that are getting people whipped up quite deliberately through misinformation in many cases,” said O’Brien Fehr. “I think it’s incumbent on us as leaders to deal in facts.”

Willowdale Markus O’Brien Fehr said other candidates are stoking fears by spreading misinformation. Matthew Bingley/Global News

After 11 years of working in the office of Willowdale Councillor John Filion, O’Brien Fehr said he’s tied to a lot of the outgoing city councillor’s policies, including affordable housing. But he said this is the city’s opportunity to address a lack of housing for the homeless and part of politics is influence change. Still, where he and Cheng see eye-to-eye is the need for more communication with residents.

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“Even I, who am a proponent of advancing these projects, recognize that the city needs to do a better job of involving the community, making sure they are well informed,” he said.

While a city awaits a zoning appeal over the Cummer Avenue location, the buildings have been completed and remain in storage. The city’s executive director of the Housing Secretariat, Abi Bond, said the delay in building affordable housing locations is less than ideal, especially with cold weather on the way.

“There are people in the shelter system who would benefit, who could benefit from any supply, any new homes that we open before Christmas,” said Bond, “especially as we get into this colder period.”

The head of the city’s housing secretariat said the city needs to make changes as fast as it can to help those in need. Matthew Bingley/Global News

Bond said making changes to neighbourhoods is never easy, especially with fears of local residents, but she said there is a need to build affordable housing in all regions of the city. She said the city is always looking at ways to improve communication, but said there have already been many events to inform residents of the Cummer Avenue development, and there will continue to do more.

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The needs identified by the housing crisis, she said, require a swift response and modular housing is part of the solution the city has identified to make those changes. “This is really about making change as fast as we can to help people who are really in crisis,” said Bond.

Also running in Willowdale are Daniel Lee and Elham Shahban. Toronto’s election is being held on Monday, Oct. 24 from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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