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04/30/2019 15:52 EDT | Updated 04/30/2019 16:02 EDT

Toronto Must Treat Housing As A Human Right To End Rental Crisis: UN

The UN special rapporteur on adequate housing did not mince words.

The Canadian Press
Leilani Farha, UN special rapporteur on adequate housing, holds a press conference in Seoul, South Korea in May 2018. She said the South Korean government should regard the right to housing as a part of human rights and take national action.

TORONTO — A United Nations representative visiting Toronto said she's shocked about the state of affordable housing and implored city councillors to urgently tackle the crisis embracing a human rights approach.

"I'm only saying what's visible to all of you as you walk or ride your way to work," Leilani Farha, UN special rapporteur on adequate housing, told the city's affordable housing committee Tuesday.

"The homelesness on the streets, it's unacceptable in a rich country, and in a city like Toronto. Skyscrapers are going up that are clearly not intended for people who are in housing need, and clearly are intended for investors. The gobbling up of existing stock by big finance, all of this is problematic," Farha said.

Watch: Toronto's cost of living for young people soars

Farha is in Toronto for an "unofficial" visit, meaning she did not review any city policies on behalf of the UN, but did have strong words for city officials. She used to live in Toronto in the 1990s and early 2000s, and every time she returns she said she finds it difficult to believe the direction the city is headed.

"Worldwide it is now accepted and understood there is a global housing crisis. I would say Toronto is in the thick of it."

Farha travels the world to promote housing as a human right, rather than simply a commodity for investors to buy and sell. She urges all levels of government to provide residents with adequate and affordable places to live with dignity, and to not allow forced evictions and displacement if there's nowhere else for residents to go.

City of Toronto
Leilani Farha, of the United Nations at City of Toronto's Planning and Housing Committee April 30, 2019.

"Whether they're living under the Gardiner (Expressway), whether they're living in a home, they're rights holders and that should be your policy approach," she said. Cities and provinces need to stop selling their land to developers who won't ensure affordable housing in the long-term, and instead build it themselves.

Change is on the way, Farha said. The federal government is passing legislation to introduce an independent housing advocate, who'd act like an ombudsman and work with provinces and municipalities to tackle housing issues. She is in favour of the federal government making funding for affordable housing projects contingent on other levels of government adopting a human rights-based approach.

"The problems here (in Toronto) are quite deep, and there's no way they'll be answered immediately," she said. " You need a plan."

Is Toronto for anyone who wants to live here regardless of their income? Or is it for generating wealth for a global market?Gord Perks, Toronto councillor

This year is a critical time for the city when it comes to how it will approach the housing crisis, said Councillor Gord Perks to the committee. It is currently developing a new housing plan for 2020 to 2030, as rental housing prices skyrocket and vulnerable tenants are being forced out of the city's last affordable units. The city is also considering strengthening policies to protect "dwelling rooms" in rooming houses that are more affordable than one-bedroom or bachelor apartments.

"Is Toronto for anyone who wants to live here regardless of their income, where they came from, their luck in life, or financial stature? Or is it for generating wealth for a global market?" Perks asked.

Andrew Francis Wallace/Getty Images
Toronto City Councillor Gord Perks at a council meeting.

Perks said he's watched about 30 privately owned rental buildings in his west Toronto ward of Parkdale be sold in recent years to companies that "find any excuse" to evict people, and then jack up the rental price by as much as 50 per cent.

Jeremy Withers, who is completing a PhD at the University of Toronto, spoke as a delegate to the committee. He is also a member of a working group exploring how the city can protect traditionally affordable rooming houses — comprised of more than six bedrooms with shared kitchen or bathroom facilities, and often the last line of defence for people falling into homelessness.

In the past decade, 374 rooming house tenants have been evicted in Parkdale alone so that landlords could renovate units and charge more in rent, Withers said.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press
Rent strikers from Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood refused to pay rent in February 2018 because their landlord applied to the Landlord and Tenant Board to increase rent by more than rent control laws.

"Today there are tens of thousands of people across this city whose rents are being pushed past what can be paid," Withers said. "For people on lower fixed incomes, renting has become a game of musical chairs and we're losing (units). It's happening faster and faster."

City staff have proposed requiring owners who renovate or rebuild rooming houses to keep units affordable (80 per cent of the average price of a bachelor unit, or $870 in 2018) for 10 years. That doesn't go far enough, said housing advocates at the meeting. Among their requests was to up the affordability period to 25 years, and that rent be kept the same as it was before renovations.

"The right to adequate housing must be accorded more weight than entitlement of property owners to maximize their revenue," Withers said.

The committee voted in favour of staff taking into consideration these requests, and include a rights-based approach in the future housing policy.

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