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High-rise ghettos

In Toronto, visible minorities are pushed into `pockets of poverty'

Toronto Star - February 3, 2001
by Elaine Carey

The dirt-poor high-rises of Flemingdon Park cast a shadow across the Don Mills area of Toronto.

But even here, among the poorest of the poor, there is a pecking order. On one side of the street, the lobbies of the white brick apartment buildings are clean and hung with chandeliers. On the other, litter and debris cover the ground, the back doors stand open to the cold, the floors and walls are grimy and full of holes, and the lights in the lobbies are burned out.

The rents vary only slightly from one side of the street to the other, but in this vertical mosaic, only the dirtiest, most run-down buildings along St. Dennis Dr. will let in poor people whose skin isn't white.

This is racial discrimination Toronto-style - a city with a severe shortage of housing, landlords who are now free to raise rents to whatever the market will bear and a swelling population of non-white new immigrants who have to live somewhere while they struggle to get established.

Even that is getting harder all the time, because subtle discrimination in the work force is keeping them in the most menial, poorest paying jobs.

"Pockets of poverty for visible minorities exist in Canada side by side with upscale residential areas in cities with vibrant economies," a new study says.

Toronto doesn't have distinct ghettos like American cities, says the study by University of Toronto sociologist Eric Fong. But there are distinct pockets of poverty.

South Asians - including Sri Lankans, East Indians, Tamils and Pakistanis - are being ghettoized in apartment complexes in Flemingdon Park (near the Don Valley Parkway and Eglinton Ave.), Thorncliffe Park (near Overlea Dr. and Eglinton Ave.), the Jane-Finch area, St. Jamestown (near Wellesley Ave. and Parliament St.), and parts of south Scarborough and northern Mississauga.

"Today, the rental housing market in Toronto tends to be divided between overpriced, less desirable buildings in which the majority of tenants are low-income housing seekers - most of them immigrant visible minorities - and more desirable s in terms of price and quality in which the majority of tenants are - mostly white - high-income earners," echoes a report this month by the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, based in Toronto.

"The most evident difference between the buildings inhabited by these two social groups is not so much the actual rent levels, but the upkeep and quality of housing," it says.

"In effect, low-income visible minority immigrant residents end up paying comparably higher rents for poor quality housing and then pay a serious social price for the negative images created by the locations in which they are forced to live."

The same phenomenon is happening in other major Canadian cities, including Montreal, Ottawa and Halifax, Fong says in his report, published in the most recent issue of the American journal Demography.

But the segregation level in Toronto is higher and growing faster than in other Canadian cities.

"We're becoming more like the United States," Fong says in an interview. "It seems to be that the so-called ghettoization in American cities has come to Canada."

Visible minorities now make up the majority in the megacity. Fifty-three per cent of Torontonians - 1.3 million people - are not white, according to projections based on the 1996 census. One-quarter are South Asian, one-quarter Chinese, 20 per cent black and 30 per cent from other or mixed race backgrounds.

Landlords have long discriminated against non-whites, but the removal of rent controls "has driven the segregation of the market into low-end and high-end,: says M.S. Mwarigha, program director of the equality in accommodation centre.

"You will have buildings that are predominantly white, predominantly high income, that definitely exclude immigrants and anybody of colour who doesn't have a long credit with the system and the kind of connections to get into those buildings," he says.

Even if they have money, new immigrants can't get housing because they have no rental history or credit rating, he says. Some landlords will demand six months' rent in advance to let them have an apartment.

Then they let the buildings deteriorate because they know the tenants have no choice but to stay there.

That leads to a "vicious circle of poverty and marginalization," he says, because the rundown buildings give the impression that the tenants who live in them are not responsible enough to take care of them.

"This is a very bad building - you might as well bring your own stove and tools to do repairs," Mwarigha says on a tour of Flemingdon Park, pointing to 31 St. Dennis Dr.

Inside, on the ninth floor, Hermina Davis says her hot water pipes have burst five times in the four years she has lived here. The last time was a month ago and the broken pipes still sit in the dingy hallway outside her apartment.

The superintendent took her sodden rugs away to be cleaned and has never brought them back. Mice and rats run through the heating system. The ceiling and walls in the hallway are pimpled with bulging plaster from water damage throughout the massive building, where a two-bedroom apartment rents for $895 a month. Across the road, in the "good" buildings, the rent is only $100 more.

"It's dirty, dirty," she says. "Every minute, the pipes are bursting somewhere in the building. But I'm just going to tough it out until I can afford to move."

Fong's study found that unlike the U.S., where well-off whites have fled to the suburbs, leaving the inner city to poor non-whites, in Canada, "what we see is the poor being segregated in pockets of cities.'"

Governments have worked to maintain the city cores so developers profit more by taking older areas of the city and re-developing them, than by building farther out.

That leaves poor non-whites with few places to go. When they look for housing in better neighbourhoods, they are asked difficult questions about their income and employment history, says Abdul Gaffar Sheikh, president of the Scarborough Muslim Association.

"As new immigrants, they don't have that history," he says. "You can't argue that it's blatant discrimination, but many landlords are trying to keep them out."

Sheikh, an immigration consultant, says he can cite 10 examples of apartment buildings in Scarborough where the majority of tenants are South Asians. One of the buildings on Greencrest Circuit was without an elevator for a month last spring, leaving elderly and disabled tenants trapped.

Once in these buildings, new immigrants can't get out because they have trouble getting anything but the worst, poorest paying jobs.

Blacks, Asians, Arabs and aboriginals in Toronto have poverty rates more than double those of other groups and suffer from the highest unemployment, according to a study of the last census by York University professor Michael Ornstein.

When they do get jobs, they are in the least skilled areas that pay the poorest wages, even though they have higher education rates than some more prosperous white groups.

Another study released this month by the Canadian Race Relations Foundation found employment equity remains an elusive goal to many people of colour, whether they are immigrants or born in this country.

Among university graduates - regardless of immigration status - visible minorities earned about $7,000 less than whites, and the higher up the organizational ladder, the greater the chance an employee's skin tone would be light, the study found.

"Racial discrimination in the workplace is becoming more subtle - often described as a `hidden thing,'" the report says. "Minorities are shut out of the `inner circle' that is crucial for their career advancement."

Sarah, a university administrator in Toronto, says: "When we experience these things, we are fearful to say anything to anyone or do anything. With terms like workplace diversity and employment equity floating around, it's so camouflaged that you don't even know how to pinpoint it."

Like some others interviewed, Sarah didn't want her name used.

"The thing is (that) it is done not because you are a black coolie or whatever, like in the slavery days, but the same system in the slavery days still exists," she says.

Naser holds a doctorate in economics from an Indian university. When he applied for entry-level jobs in his field, he was told he was over-qualified. When he applied for senior positions, he was told that he lacked Canadian experience.

After working as a labourer for some time, the 43-year-old from Iran, like most of his friends, became a cab driver.

"Networking is a key factor to get a job here, but if the people you hangaround with are all into one field - cab driving - you are going to get stuck there as well," he says.

"When (potential) employers look at the name on a resume, they can tell where you are from. I can't hide it. When you call and ask for an interview, your accent just gives you away."

Because of their trouble getting decent jobs, many families double up in apartments and the landlord uses that to keep them from complaining about the building's condition, Sheikh says. If they do, they're out on the street.

Zarina Sherazee, a wife abuse counsellor with South Asian Family Support Services, says the single mothers she deals with are living in "cockroach-infested, mice-infested ghettos" because the landlords know they are petrified and have nowhere else to go.

"There are many, many buildings like that. They are becoming ghettos because landlords a re buying them up and filling them with new immigrants."

Fong's study found that when visible minorities start moving into a neighbourhood, whites start moving out.

"Some groups try any means to avoid living in the same neighbourhoods with undesirable groups, even paying the price of moving out of the neighbourhoods," the report says.

"The British group (long-established whites) avoid living in neighbourhoods with other groups," Fong says. "They stick together. Even when visible minorities are doing very well, the British groups will avoid living in those neighbourhoods."

"Visible minorities have to pay a high price to live in neighbourhoods with higher proportions of whites."

The report sends "alarm bells that there are income and class divisions within immigrant communities that are playing themselves out and leading to ghettoization," says Myer Siemiatycki, a professor at Ryerson Polytechnic University who specializes in immigrant issues.

"That's a reflection of a growing intolerance to new immigrants in Toronto", he says.

"We're reaping the consequences of policies that shut down the racism secretariat in the provincial government and eliminated any form of employment equity," he says. "There are no public signals about the importance of diversity, so we're sliding into intolerant ways."

With files from Nicholas Keung

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