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Shelter after 10 years of storms

Toronto Star - November 19, 2003
by Carol Goar

The minister came without money, without details of his programs and without answers to important questions. But John Gerretsen received a hero's welcome at last weekend's meeting of the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association. From the moment he uttered the words, "shelter is a basic human need," the audience was his.

The fact that the new minister of municipal affairs chose to make his maiden speech at a conference on affordable housing (particularly on the same weekend as the federal Liberal convention) guaranteed him a respectful reception. But when it became clear that Gerretsen actually knew a lot about low-income housing, had championed it for 30 years and intended to fight for it at the provincial cabinet table, he had 1,300 relieved fans.

"I would say it was a love-in," said Jo Ferris-Davies, acting executive director of the association. "We weren't expecting a whole bunch of specifics," added association president Laurene Wager. "It's too early in his mandate."

In fact, Gerretsen was barely three weeks into the job. He couldn't tell his audience how soon the Liberals would deliver on their election promise to build 20,000 units of affordable housing. He couldn't say what impact the government's $5.6 billion deficit would have on his portfolio. He couldn't even remember the name of the new ministry with which his department will share responsibility for housing issues. (Public Infrastructure Renewal, headed by David Caplan.)

What he did offer delegates to the two-day convention was a personal commitment: "I will support you in any way I can."

It has been a long time since tenants, public housing officials, municipal workers, social activists and psychiatric survivors have heard words like that from Queen's Park.

For 10 years, they have watched the waiting list for social housing grow — it now stands at 135,000 families — while the governing Tories insisted that private developers would meet the need for affordable shelter. They have watched the stock of public housing deteriorate. They have watched market rents rise, while social assistance rates remained frozen. They have watched tenants double up and cut their grocery bills to keep their apartments. They have watched landlords evict vulnerable seniors. Through it all, they've fought to salvage what they could of people's dignity.

"Our government takes quite a different view of the world from our predecessors," Gerretsen said. "There are no easy solutions to the housing problems facing this province, but with goodwill and hard work by all participants, the problems will be overcome."

As proof, he offered his own record. In the early '80s, as mayor of Kingston, Gerretsen set up a municipal non-profit housing corporation. As president of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario in 1986-87, he pushed for more non-profit housing across the province. As chair of the Ontario Housing Corporation from 1989 to 1992, he tried to get tenants more involved in community decision-making.

"I've spent a lot of time thinking about what a minister should be doing to create affordable housing," the 61-year Toronto lawyer said.

His background also helps. Gerretsen spent the first 12 years of his life in the Netherlands, which has the highest level of social housing in Europe. Forty per cent of tenants live in apartments owned by non-profit corporations.

"Attitudes are quite different there," Gerretsen said. "There's no stigma attached to social housing. It's an accepted fact of life."

He can't envisage Canadians ever giving up their dream of home ownership and adopting Dutch attitudes toward rental accommodation. But he does think it is possible to make living in subsidized housing a shame-free experience. That is one of Gerretsen's goals as minister.

His more immediate goal is to get moving on his party's election commitments. He acknowledged that the pace of change will be slower than he would have liked, but affirmed the government's commitment to:

  • Match the federal government's contribution to affordable housing, with the aim of building 20,000 units over the next four years.
  • Replace the five-year-old Tenant Protection Act, which has unleashed a wave of rent increases and evictions, with a new law that provides real protection for renters.
  • Set up a provincial rent bank to help tenants in short-term financial difficulty.
  • Establish a housing allowance for the 35,000 families who spend more than 50 per cent of their income on rent.
  • Give municipalities the authority to prevent the demolition of low-income housing.
  • Set up an Ontario Mortgage and Housing Partnership to help non-profit housing groups obtain competitive financing.

"We will keep our promises," Gerretsen vowed. "We will never lose sight of our primary objective, which is to help people in need."

Heartfelt assurances won't sustain the new minister for long. But they got him off to a strong start.

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