In 1976, through Downtown Action and the Federation of Metro Tenants Association (FMTA) an application was submitted to the Ontario Legal Aid Program for funding for a legal clinic for tenants in Toronto – Metro Tenants Legal Services (MTLS). We received approval and 3 community organizers were hired. Several new community legal clinics were newly funded around that time, including Neighbourhood Legal Services.
Around the same time there was a provincial election in Ontario in 1975 that resulted in a minority government. The Progressive Conservatives formed the Government and were supported by the NDP in bringing in tenant protection legislation, including rent regulation. Fighting evictions and rent increases and organizing tenant associations was what we did at MTLS. My advocacy work in the first years of MTLS led me to apply to law school, and I began my formal legal studies at the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto in the fall of 1978. After being called to the bar in the spring of 1983, I initially formed my own private practice and continued to represent tenants in rent regulation and eviction hearings, and workers who were losing their employment. In 1985, I returned to MTLS as a staff lawyer and after a short time became the Director of Legal Services there.
In the late 1980’s, there was a Liberal Government at Queen’s Park and they had a commitment to develop more social housing. My position at MTLS allowed me to work with the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations (FMTA) and the Co-op Housing Association of Ontario (CHAO) to deliver the Provincial Government’s Housing program called Homes Now. The FMTA and CHAO worked together with the government staff to develop a program that allowed tenants to buy their apartment buildings, renovate them as required and convert them into non-profit housing co-operatives. To deliver this program we founded the Tenants Non Profit Redevelopment Cooperation (TNRC) in 1990. In January 1990, I became the Executive Director of TNRC. In the following 5 years, we converted some 1500 rental units into non-profit co-operative units. Unfortunately, in 1995, the Mike Harris Conservatives were elected as the government and they immediately dismantled HOMES NOW. TNRC could no longer continue operations and I returned to the practice of law. After two years in private practice I was hired, in June 1998, by Neighbourhood Legal Services.
How has your work been aimed to aid tenants with housing issues?
The Barbara Apartments (at 500 and 550 Ontario St.) was one of the first apartment buildings in the area. They were built in the late 1950’s. In the mid ‘70s when I started my career, developers were buying property in downtown Toronto, including St. James Town, and prices were shooting up. One of the women who lived in the Barbara Apts. organised the tenants because they believed the landlord was not living up to commitments to keep the rents below market and to maintain the property up to legal standards. I was working back then as a tenant organiser and we were asked to help out. Through our research and investigations we found out that the apartment was built with a loan guaranteed by the federal government. The owners had a legal commitment towards resident welfare and we came to know that several other buildings in the city had similar commitments.
At the same time, under the leadership of John Sewell, people were organising to fight the redevelopment of the community south of Wellesley. Sewell was elected to City Council and he teamed up with other progressive councillors to stop the crush of new development in south St. James Town. The opposition to the redevelopment of the area was not entirely successful: it is the highest density neighbourhood in the City. However, there were a number of positive outcomes: the apartment buildings at 275, 325 and 375 Bleecker St and 200 Wellesley St. E. are important parts of the TCHC portfolio in the City as are the large single family homes south of Wellesley St. that the City took over to compensate the developers who had planned for more high rises. In addition there are several more housing co-operatives that are now functioning in the St. James Town neighbourhood.
One success achieved by the TNRC was the purchase of the property that is now the Ernscliffe Housing Co-operative on the south east corner of Sherbourne and Wellesley St. E. There are several more housing co-operatives in the area.
I have been at NLS since I was hired in the summer of 1998. In 2000, I became the Director of Legal Services, and in 2017, I became the Executive Director. I also had the opportunity to serve on the executive of the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario and have been the chairperson of the Toronto Legal Clinics Management Group (TLCMG) for several years.
You specialise in housing law. What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in the SJT neighbourhood in your career?
Prior to the mid ‘70s it was hard to organize tenants. It still is, but back then tenants had no legal protection. Now they do. In the ‘50s and ‘60s there was a lot of optimism and the economy was creating a lot of new wealth. People wanted to live “downtown” where the action was; apartment buildings were marketed as adult only, targeting hip young couples and singles. All this pushed up prices for both ownership and rental housing. Any properties close to downtown quickly appreciated. An unintended consequence of wanting to live downtown was that this put the squeeze on poor people and their neighbourhoods.
In the 1980’s, there was a couple living in an adult only condominium. When they had a child their condominium tried to force them to sell their unit. They didn’t want to, and at the end of their fight they were successful and the Human Rights Commission ruled that adult only accommodation was illegal.
At the same time, the City was changing; from being a predominantly white population in the 1970s, 30 and 40 years later Toronto residents reflected world demographics. Today, St. James Town is a very diverse neighbourhood with people from various backgrounds coming and leaving. This brings new challenges that we need to face. St. James Town used to be like a village back then, with very little stores, now people can create connections while taking a walk.
The changing demographics reflect both the ethnic diversity resulting from immigration and the move from singles to families. Back in the early days, a 300 unit apartment building would have about 500 residents. Today, with the same infrastructure, we are serving 3-4 times that many people. Demand and planning didn’t keep up with the influx of people, leading to incidents like 650 Parliament fire.
You were a member of the St. James Town Service Providers’ Network (SJTSPN). What are your learnings from the network? Do you believe the SJTSPN has been able to create significant impact in the neighbourhood?
There are two things that are critical aspects when it comes to residents trying to avail services. One, they have to explain their story again and again to every Service Provider. Second, not everybody is a trained listener. We have a problem in our hands today where more and more front line workers have increased work related stress.
As a group, we need to find better ways for intake of clients and to coordinate services. Clients have several problems of varying degrees and no one organization can deal with all of them. With a network we are able to share the catchment areas, prevent overlapping of services and, as I mentioned earlier, make referrals easier.
But a lot more needs to be improved in terms of knowledge sharing.
How did you get involved in the Steering Committee of The Corner.
At Neighbourhood Legal Services, we felt that after the Medical clinic at 200 Wellesley was shut down, the space was not effectively used. We also knew that the area was not served well in terms of services and programs. A quarter of our clients are from St. James Town, so we had no need to create a presence in the neighbourhood, but we felt maybe someday things might change and we wanted to engage with the community. This led us to being part of the SJTSPN and The Corner.