Blog: On Encampment Clearings

In 2019, as they approved the new HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan, Toronto’s City Council committed to taking a human rights approach to housing on paper, only to disavow it in action on June 22nd with a coercive, violent clearing of the encampments in Trinity Bellwoods Park. Following this, our elected officials had an opportunity to reaffirm this commitment and ensure that no further evictions went forward. As we write, the militarized clearing of unhoused residents at Lamport Stadium is underway, on the heels of the clearing of the Alexandra Park encampment yesterday. We urge the City to reject a punitive approach to encampment dwellings in favour of an approach that restores dignity and justice to residents, and upholds the commitment made to recognizing housing as a human right. We also, however, recognize that to do so within the existing system is potentially a pipe dream.

What is happening in Toronto brings to mind the first chapter of Neil Smith’s The New Urban Frontier (1996) in which he describes the police riot that erupted in New York City’s Tompkins Square Park over thirty years ago on August 6, 1988. Smith writes about the forcible eviction of the park’s inhabitants by police, of the destruction of their belongings and the claims of city representatives that it would be ‘irresponsible’ to allow unhoused people to remain in the park, urging them into a shelter system that did not provide long-term solutions. He describes the brutal hostility of the police towards both park residents and their supporters, and the ongoing insistence of elected officials that parks are ‘not a place to live’ and have been ‘stolen’ from the community by ‘the homeless.’ Smith’s account of these events is disturbingly similar to the events in Toronto over the past month – and encampment clearings we have seen in other cities across North America such as Vancouver and Los Angeles – as we rush to ‘get back to normal’ during a new phase of the pandemic. He connects the violent eviction of encampment residents to a process of revanchism – the taking back of urban space by the ruling class – and he connects it explicitly to capitalism and class struggle.

Planning theorist Peter Marcuse, writing in the late 1980s, remarked that, ‘Homelessness exists not because the system is failing to work as it should, but because the system is working as it must.’ The current system – one that is based on private market principles – limits access to housing to a privileged few, while reinforcing the criminalization and spatial segregation of poverty. Recognizing this, we join the urgent call for system transformation, rather than cycles of reform and failure. 

The Affordable Housing Challenge Project Collective recently endorsed the recommendations put forward by the Toronto Drop-in Network and co-authored with advocates and people with lived experience, pushing for a collaborative and human rights compliant approach toward residents in encampments. The recommendations in this statement address present circumstances, as well as future investment in purpose-built, rent-geared-to-income housing, a pressing need that we at the AHCP are working to articulate. ‘A Pathway Forward’, which was signed by over 200 organizations, housing advocates and civic leaders, was not added to City Council’s agenda on July 14th, and has been opposed repeatedly by Mayor John Tory, who described the letter as ‘unwelcome’ and has repeatedly called encampments ‘illegal.’ Yet its demands, which urge meaningful consultation with encampment residents about solutions to this problem, are urgently important. On the same day, City Council deferred the legalization of multi-tenant rooming houses across the City of Toronto, withholding safety in this important affordable housing stock that, for many low-income people in the city, is the only accessible option. There is glaring contradiction between the stated values endorsed by City Council, and the dismissal of policies and practices that would uphold these values.

Housing Opportunities Toronto, the City’s ten-year action plan for 2010-2020, contains a set of recommendations guided by the Toronto Housing Charter, an earlier attempt to codify a rights-based approach to housing. Some of the points in the Charter are as follows:

  • All residents should be able to live in their neighbourhood of choice without discrimination.
  • All residents, regardless of whether they rent or own a home, or are homeless, have an equal stake and voice in Toronto’s future.
  • All residents have the right to equal treatment in housing without discrimination as provided by the Ontario Human Rights Code, and to be protected from discriminatory practices which limit their housing opportunities.

Almost a decade after this report was initiated, the City, aligned with the Federal government, doubled down on a rights-based approach to housing.

The National Housing Strategy Act (2019) affirms a commitment to realize the right to housing as recognized under international human rights law, and it requires that governments support and maintain a national housing strategy and appointed councils and advocates. According to international human rights law, the right to housing recognizes: ‘the right to a safe and secure home in which to live in security, peace and dignity, meeting standards of adequacy, including standards relating to legal security of tenure, affordability, habitability, availability of services, accessibility, location and culture’ (National Right to Housing Network, 2019). The Act is not enforceable in courts, but is meant to hold the government to account in implementing policies and programs that would ensure the right to housing for all. While this initiative at the federal level is admirable, provincial and municipal governments are not required by law to respond to the federal recommendations, though these bodies are encouraged to participate in collaborative efforts toward the realization of the right to housing in their jurisdictions. In the HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan, the City of Toronto affirmed that housing is a human right. However, it is the province of Ontario that has jurisdiction over rental laws and oversees the Landlord and Tenant Board, where renters are often disadvantaged in favour of corporations. The province’s own housing strategy – the More Homes, More Choice Act (2019) – does not mention a right to housing, and hinges on the idea that increasing housing supply will make housing more affordable, focusing on cutting red tape for developers rather than ensuring that deeply affordable options are provided to people.

John Lorinc, writing in Spacing Magazine on July 19, diagnoses the seemingly intractable issue of affordable housing provision as a problem of municipal governance. He notes that,

‘The regulations firmly embedded in our planning framework are tailor-made for investors, speculators, developers and the owners of detached homes’ (Lorinc, 2021). Marcuse and David Madden (2016) go further than this to suggest that a system that is market-based and oriented around private profit cannot respond to the needs of working class people or meaningfully integrate any sense of housing as a right. Indeed, in Toronto we have seen the market-based system generate increasing polarization between those who have been able to buy into homeownership and asset-based wealth and those who have not – with many of the latter being funneled further into precariousness while navigating the trials of the rental market. So long as housing continues to be understood to be an investment product, and housing policy is tailored to meet the needs of investors and the real estate industry rather than residents, it is hard to understand precisely how any stated right to it could be defended.

We may be seeing a shift in mindset, in some respects, when it comes to affordable housing and homelessness. However, it is arguable that this shift in mindset must also be accompanied by a shift in the distribution of resources across city-dwellers, lest it be perceived as an attempt to merely shift optics. One key way to begin this redistribution is to disincentivize the use of housing as an investment tool. What can we make of the fact that the average homeowner, who has likely seen a significant return on investment over the past several years (and even more significant during the pandemic), will only see a $22.00 increase in their property tax bill in 2021?  It seems that we have a situation in which values are articulated, yet are not substantiated through material changes that would allow these values to become praxis. Perhaps, then, it is time to move away from statements and declarations on rights-based approaches to housing, and to focus more energy on substantive redistribution measures and governance. The dissonance between the City’s reports, and City Councillors’ commitments, and the actual policies and spending channels, has become glaringly obvious. The decision to fund police, private security, and equipment to coerce people out of parks is a choice, and it is a choice that comes with expenses. Property owners’ tax money could be put toward stable, adequate housing—not hotel rooms—for those unhoused residents who seek it.

Although it is disturbing to see the violent enforcement of City-led encampment evictions continue, it is important that we do not erase long histories of organizing against such practices, and the solidarity of residents and neighbours in resisting these evictions. Just as surely as there are acts of urban destruction, there are acts of urban resistance. The support and care in the face of violence that was displayed in Trinity Bellwoods on June 23rd, in Alexandra Park on July 20th, and at Lamport Stadium on July 21st, reminds us that it is still possible to shape the city we want to live in and there are those who want to do it.

In solidarity,

Sinead Petrasek & Loren March