Willowdale is ground zero for the Toronto election debate over how to help people escape homelessness, how to ensure young residents aren’t priced out of the city, and how to ease pressures from relentless condo construction.
“In this ward, the biggest concern comes back to housing in one form or another,” says Markus O’Brien Fehr, among candidates battling to succeed retiring Coun. John Filion as Willowdale’s voice at city hall after the Oct. 24 vote.
A swath of treed green space on Cummer Avenue east of Yonge Street seems an unlikely flashpoint pitting residents and city council candidates against each other in what could be the city’s most competitive city council race.
With Filion’s backing, city council approved 175 Cummer as the site for a three-storey complex with, the city says, “59 new permanent supportive homes for older adults and seniors who are experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness.”
Those who choose to pay rent and make it their permanent home will have access to staff on-site who can “connect residents to a range of supports provided by the building’s experienced non-profit housing operator.”
A city request for Premier Doug Ford’s housing-focused government to fast-track site approvals failed amid opposition from PC MPP Stan Cho and some residents, including some in an adjacent Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) building.
O’Brien Fehr, Filion’s chief of staff for the past decade, acknowledges taking heat at some doorsteps over his full support for the Cummer site as it goes through the regular rezoning process that will include challenges from opponents.
“These vulnerable people need somewhere safe to live and city staff determined this is the best site,” he says, adding he understands fears over community safety, anger at the loss of green space and community demands for more consultation.
“It’s incumbent on the city, and for myself if elected as councillor, to listen to concerns and ensure this project succeeds as best it can, because it will be a beacon that other neighbourhoods will point to.”
A man answering O’Brien Fehr’s knock emerges from a luxury house and tells him, unprompted, while waving in the direction of the Cummer site: “This is a nice street. Nobody is in favour of those people.”
Down the road, Harry Ort, out working on his own well-appointed home, scoffs at such concerns. He says he heard them all during a fight to get approvals for another affordable housing complex on Cummer that opened in 2007.
“The ratepayers’ group made the same arguments: ‘It’s going to ruin the neighbourhood, the crime rate’s going up, it won’t be safe to walk the street’ — all BS,” the church group member says. “We’ve had some difficult clients but we managed that. You work through it.”
“We’ve become a very disconnected and disengaged community,” she says. “So people don’t know what’s happening. They’re just trying to survive. And in their heart of hearts, they hope that the government has their best interest, but they’re not sure that really is happening,”
The founder of the popular North York Moms Facebook group says 59 “complex” people in one place is too many. She cites fears from seniors about living next to people who might have mental illness or addiction issues. She says 10 residents might be OK, but only if the TCHC seniors agree.
Cheng points to warnings by former mayor John Sewell against housing too many very low-income people together, and suggests Cummer could see significant crime like that she believes is linked to a supportive housing site on Macey Avenue in Scarborough.
“You have a person with a gun, person with knives, assaults, robbery — these are intense things,” she says. As evidence she shows screenshots forwarded by a resident who says they are logs of police calls to the vicinity.
Kegan Harris, housing development director for the charitable organization that operates the building on Macey, rejects Cheng’s assertion that an unusual number of violent crime calls are linked to the residents exiting homelessness.
“We don’t believe any unusual occurrences or issues have occurred recently that would trigger a frequent police presence,” Harris said in an email. “We also don’t think their presence is higher than the other buildings in the community.”
Most calls or police presence are “due to 911 EMS emergency calls. The staff has built the resources and knowledge to de-escalate situations. Calling 911 for non-medical emergencies continues to be the last option,” Harris wrote.
Abi Bond, executive director of the city’s housing secretariat, told the Star, residents of modular supportive homes do not pose a greater risk to community safety than other community members.
“We do not anticipate any increased community safety issues in the neighbourhood as a result of the new residents who will live at 175 Cummer Ave. or other modular housing projects,” Bond said.
Daniel Lee, a pharmacist and former federal Conservative candidate whose candidacy is endorsed by Ward 6 Coun. James Pasternak, is promising, if elected, to try to get the project moved to another site.
“We should listen to the neighbourhood, who is going to be impacted, especially the seniors,” near 175 Cummer, Lee says, arguing the city has not been forthcoming with its list of rejected sites that he wants to examine.
Elham Shahban, also registered as a candidate in Willowdale, did not answer the Star’s inquiries.
It seems unlikely any new Willowdale councillor could, on their own, halt the project. Council has approved it and Mayor John Tory, who is seeking re-election and has endorsed O’Brien Fehr’s candidacy, is forcefully arguing for the need for such projects across Toronto, including Willowdale.
In either Cheng or O’Brien Fehr, Tory would gain an ally in his support for council legalizing and regulating rooming houses citywide. The proposal was punted to next term amid opposition from councillors including Filion.
Lee’s campaign did not respond to a request for his position on that issue.
They all say they would try to improve city services that haven’t kept up with the dizzying condo development likely only to increase as the Ontario government prioritizes housing construction around transit corridors.
Accommodating growth could be tougher next council term under a new provincial system that could cut developer payments by 40 per cent, according to the city.
It’s unclear what’s hitting the right note with residents in a civic vote that seems like a referendum on housing. But it is clear that, after a bruising pandemic, some people are not engaged in politics while others are fed up with it.
“What makes you angry?” Cheng, out canvassing, asks a senior citizen. The tiny woman, without missing a beat, replies: “Everything!”
Correction — Sept 26, 2022: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Markus O’Brien Fehr’s name.
David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering city hall and municipal politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider