Toronto is forging ahead with plans to build supportive housing units for formerly homeless people on a Willowdale site, despite opposition from the Ontario government and local MPP Stan Cho.
But the province’s refusal to fast-track zoning for the modular housing will mean a needless extra winter out in bitter cold for Torontonians who deserve a warm, safe space, says Willowdale city councillor John Filion.
“What makes this site different? Politics, it would seem, and politics in the worst sense of the word,” Filion said outside city hall earlier this week, accompanied by local residents who support the supportive housing plans for 175 Cummer Avenue.
“Try explaining that kind of politics to 59 people who could have homes … on this cold day, whose future homes are stored in a TTC parking lot not far from the site where they will be assembled.”
Last spring the city asked Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark to issue a ministerial zoning order, or MZO, to allow quick construction of a three-storey building with 59 studio apartments for people on the streets or underhoused.
Clark accepted several other requests but denied one for Cummer, saying he was unsatisfied with community consultation on the project to be built on green space in front of Willowdale Manor, a Toronto Community Housing-operated seniors complex.
Cho, Willowdale’s PC MPP, urged denial of the MZO, saying many residents feel the site, north of Finch Avenue East and Willowdale Avenue, is unsuitable. He is vowing to help find a better location in the area.
“I’m receiving hundreds of calls and emails telling me the majority of my constituents support helping those suffering from homelessness, but they believe we can do better in our neighbourhood,” he said.
City officials, however, including Filion, Mayor John Tory and Coun. Ana Bailão, city council’s housing advocate, insist new homes for marginalized Torontonians will be built on Cummer, citing urgent need and strong community support.
At their urging, the planning and housing committee this week launched a rezoning process for the site, the slower, traditional alternative to fast-track MZOs, with appeal options that will likely see it argued at the Ontario Land Tribunal.
The housing components, meanwhile, sit covered in snow in a nearby TTC lot.
Tory, who went to war with Cho and his government in 2019 over deep cuts to public health funding, later rescinded, has otherwise stressed the need to work with Premier Doug Ford. He sounded exasperated when asked about Cummer.
Tory said he has told Ford and Cho directly that he has gone across the city allaying residents’ fears about housing with extra supports for formerly homeless Torontonians, and the Willowdale project is no different than the others.
“I’ve indicated our firm resolve to move it forward one way or another,” Tory said. “I have said I will meet with Mr. Cho but, in agreeing to meet him, I made it very clear that we were proceeding with this because we think it is the right thing to do for the city and that we’ve done it in a careful and thoughtful manner.”
Asked about Cho’s opposition, Filion, who has represented the area for three decades said that, with a June provincial election looming, “I think (Cho) has miscalculated that a very loud, angry group speaks for Willowdale and that there is more votes in opposing than in supporting it. I think that’s a huge miscalculation.”
Cho, first elected in 2018, rejects that, saying a majority of residents firmly oppose the building on that site for very good reasons. He cites distance to grocery stores, pharmacies and transit, saying he is looking at alternative sites he can’t yet disclose and is eager to work with city officials to build on the best spot.
Homeless people are going through “dark” times, he said, and “maybe they’re going through an addictions issue or a mental health issue, maybe they don’t have access to a car or their mobility is restricted, perhaps they are in a wheelchair — these are considerations my residents are talking about so if we have those (alternative) sites, if we can do better, then why aren’t we trying to?”
Voices of Willowdale, a residents’ group formed to oppose supportive housing at that site, issued a statement criticizing the city for moving ahead with Cummer plans that would “steal these cherished parklands.”
In an email to the Star, group member Aldo Di Felice called the adjacent seniors’ building “a vulnerable community of mostly ethnic non English speaking elderly persons” concerned about the loss of their quiet community.
“The derogatory comments directed at community members and the continuing unwillingness of pubic officials to face hard facts which have been repeatedly tabled, is improper,” Di Felice wrote. “Weaponizing a clear cut seniors rights issue to fight a political battle with the province is highly irresponsible.”
James Brown, a 71-year-old Willowdale Manor resident who spoke in favour of the project with Filion, said his neighbours are being fed “misinformation.”
“There’s not one reason I can think of why this is not a good location,” Brown said, noting the site in front of his building is not a park, that he can walk to his choice of bus stops, and travelled from home to city hall in just over a half-hour.
“I cannot leave my building without tripping over a supermarket,” he said, adding that he could be homeless if he did not live in a rent-geared-to-income unit in the TCH seniors complex so his neighbours should welcome others in need.
David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering city hall and municipal politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider