Jack De Klerk was the Executive Director at Neighbourhood Legal Services. With a long and illustrious career in legal services, he has been a major driving force in the housing sector. Jack recently retired from work after a career spanning more than 40 years. He was also one of the founding members of The Corner Steering Committee. He was also felicitated at the SJT festival 2019. He stopped by at The Corner and we spoke to to learn from his experiences about housing law and the St. James Town community.
What drove you to become a lawyer specializing in housing law?
Although I grew up in Lethbridge, Alberta, I was born in the Netherlands. We were 11 children in the family and with my parents we all migrated to Canada in 1951. We came over on a boat that was filled with Dutch immigrants, landing in Quebec City. From there we travelled by train to Lethbridge, in southern Alberta. We did not know where we were going to end up until our train journey had already started. Legend has it that when my father asked where we were going, the answer was: “Somewhere west of Winnipeg.” I suspect no one in our group had ever heard of Winnipeg.
At the time, Lethbridge was a small city that had a substantial Dutch community that revolved around a church. My father worked as a clerk for Eaton’s and never had more than a very modest income. I was the first in my family to go directly from high school to university. I completed two years at the University of Lethbridge and then transferred to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I graduated with a degree in political science, economics and philosophy. I then came to Toronto to pursue graduate studies in political science but dropped out and began working as a labour organizer. By 1974, I had moved over to organizing tenants, employed by Downtown Action, a small non-profit community organization.
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.
As one of the initial members of the steering committee, what was your vision for the neighbourhood?
My ideas was that The Corner itself need not be a service provider, but a host for services. There was no need to duplicate services, especially as we had no funding to deliver services. Rather we should just invite service providers here, providing them with the space and resources required.
How has the community of SJT evolved over the years? How has The Corner influenced or fueled this change in your opinion?
The primary role of a community hub like The Corner is to connect residents with essential services and programs. We need to understand that in a hub like The Corner referrals are easier, personal and people are better known. Having a hub makes exchange of institutional information easier for service providers, allowing them to share and learn from each other’s knowledge. This system and The Corner I feel have so far been able to do this efficiently.
What, in your opinion are the greatest strengths of the St. James Town Community?
I think the St. James Town’s greatest strength would be its location and size. It is one of the most accessible neighbourhoods in the city with great connectivity. It is small in terms of area, hence nothing is far away. Physical proximity is an important building block for a strong community. And there is not a single part of the community that dominates. In fact the communities are interdependent. The is wonderful because of the strength in generates.
The current provincial government has made significant cuts to funding for legal clinics. What are the impacts on clients looking for healthcare, social housing, and settlements services? Specifically, how are residents of the SJT community affected?
The clinic’s services will be negatively affected for sure. The cuts mean there will be fewer people in our offices to help people. We will have two fewer people than before. If, on average each staff person helped 300 people over the year, this means that 600 people will not get the help they need now. We can’t ask everyone to just work a little harder because they are already working at full capacity. If people are pushed, especially if they are really committed to their work, they will burn out. The truth is we can’t help all the clients all the time, especially when we are understaffed. People will find it difficult when faced with eviction or homelessness. This would lead to more problems for people with disabilities. Individuals will find it increasingly difficult to access Ontario Disabilities Support Program (ODSP) with legal aid.
All this will have adverse effects on our society. Low income and disadvantaged communities tend to use more emergency services. Their interaction with police is higher. People tend to call 911 when they see homeless people around their locality. This would mean over straining our emergency services and a lot of effort pumped in for nothing. According to the Canadian Bar Association, 1 dollar cut means a 5 – 6 dollars increase in expenditure in other parts of the Government’s bigger picture.
Over the last 3 months, we have barely focused on any legal work as we have had to divert our attention and efforts to sustain operations and we are expecting more cuts next year. This would also mean longer waiting time for a refugee to be a Permanent Resident with substantial increase in risks.
Your work has predominantly been in the downtown east side of Toronto. What do you think are some of the learnings and experiences that these neighbourhoods can share with each other.
None of us live in a bubble. Smog has no boundaries and so we share our problems, issues and opportunities. Today Regent Park is being redeveloped. There is lots going on there, including big changes in the demographics of the community and lots of people new to the community. While the City has said there has to be a Social Development Plan there has not been enough money on the table to promote the social inclusion we all espouse. We need to make communities inclusive. All these neighbourhoods need to pick up and work together to combat criminality, drug abuse and several other problems that we share.
Our approach towards newcomers need to be better. I was happy to see St. James Town Spring Gathering report and to participate in this year’s festival. Like Regent Park, and despite all the bad press, we have two vital and vibrant communities in Regent Park and St. James Town. There is a lot to celebrate. The world lives here. The introduction of a welcome package, giving an introduction to life in Canada is great. But it’s easier said than done. All newcomers are different, we need to have a more focussed approach in welcoming and orienting them. It is also important to sensitise long residing Canadians and residents about newcomers and how we need to be supportive of them. After all, everyone wants to be respected and everyone needs to understand that.
You have done so much in the field of housing law, what are your other interests and hobbies?
Well I am quite a baseball fan and also a Raptors fan. I love basketball, it’s exciting. You never know who the hero is and it is a very dynamic game. My partner works at a theatre so I kind of get involved with live theatre as well. After all, lawyering is acting.
I love to cycle and I don’t own a car. When time permits I do like to catch up with my friends. Coming to Toronto in the 70s, I have a lot of close immigrant friends in Toronto.
Tell us a little about your next phase in life. What are your plans after this?
Well I would like to travel around. I love to cook and will continue to be involved in my community. My passion has always been community and social justice and I will continue to feed on that. First though I’ll take a break and see what comes up, where I can have a meaningful role.