[Hpn] Gentrification war: A case study of how residents associations kill rooming houses rooming houses

Graeme Bacque gbacque@idirect.com
Thu, 13 Jul 2000 11:44:46 -0400


http://www.eye.net/eye/issue/issue_07.13.00/news/gentrification.html
Gentrification war
A case study of how residents associations kill rooming houses
BY TOM LYONS

The recent revoking of seven rooming-house licences in the 
Dundas-Sherbourne area has ended a bitter, decade-long battle between local 
homeowners and the landlords, the Diakogeorgiou family. It also places more 
than 70 low-income tenants at risk of eviction and homelessness.

Pam McConnell, the city councillor who led the campaign against the 
licences' renewal, claims she was concerned about the tenants' safety and 
didn't want them to die in a fire like the one that took 10 lives at the 
Rupert Hotel in 1989.

But anti-poverty activists believe gentrification is the real reason 
low-income tenants are being pushed onto the streets, and say that 
residents associations will use any pretext or politician necessary to 
close down rooming houses and homeless shelters so that more lofts and 
condos can be built.

What follows is an all-too-familiar example of why poor people end up 
living on the pitiless streets of Toronto.

ROOMING-HOUSE SPAT

It's May 2. Peter Diakogeorgiou is sitting in the packed and noisy room at 
Toronto City Hall, the site of his Rooming House Licensing Commission 
hearing. He listens quietly as a steady stream of speakers argue about 
whether or not the licences should be renewed for his rooming houses at 
371, 373 and 375 Sackville, 308 and 373 Ontario, and 128 and 132 Seaton 
streets.

Homeowners and members of the Seaton-Ontario-Berkley-Residents' Association 
(SOBRA) have come to speak against the renewals. In their suits, dresses 
and casual wear, they look respectably middle-class, especially compared to 
the jeans-and-T-shirt-clad tenants, roomers'-rights advocates, 
superintendents, social workers and anti-homelessness activists waiting to 
speak on Diakogeorgiou's behalf.

Diakogeorgiou himself is playing a relatively minor role in the 
proceedings, because the last time he was here, in May 1997, he received a 
conditional renewal, ordering him to transfer the management of the houses 
to his son-in-law, George Tharrenos, and grandson, Jim. In addition to 
being ordered to spray for cockroaches and check for gas leaks, the new 
father-and-son team of managers were told to maintain stricter control over 
the houses and be more rigorous in their screening and evicting of 
unsuitable tenants.

This evening, the city's lawyer, Mark Kemerer, is aggressively 
interrogating witnesses to establish his case that George and Jim Tharrenos 
failed to properly screen their roomers. Kemerer's approach is an 
unsettling mixture of blatant discrimination and absurd triviality.

"You had a new tenant move in yesterday, did you not?" asks Kemerer, a 
clean-cut young man in a pressed blue suit.
"Yes," replies Ron Mongraw, the superintendent at 128 Seaton, a 
semi-retired man in jeans and sports shirt.
Kemerer: "A woman?"

Mongraw: "Yes, a native woman."

Kemerer: "And would it be fair to say that she was in a very intoxicated 
state?"

Mongraw: "I don't believe she was."

Kemerer: "Did you do any screening of that tenant before she moved in?"

Mongraw: "No, I did not."

It's later pointed out that the woman's unsteady gait is due to a physical 
disability, rather than drunkenness.

Kemerer's attempt to establish that the Diakogeorgious' tenants are guilty 
of disorderly and/or criminal behaviour draws on 16 letters of complaint 
from neighbouring homeowners, many of whom have filled up logbooks with 
time-dated reports of activities at the rooming houses.

"The property attached to us, 128 Seaton St., is well-known in the 
neighbourhood for its ongoing problems," wrote Irina and Razvan Rapaport, 
the owners of the home at 130 Seaton. "It has been a crack house in the 
past, and we believe it is one right now.... This feels like living next 
door to a nightmare hotel. The guests of this hotel are prostitutes, 
alcoholics, drug dealers, drug users and people who belong in mental 
institutions. They come and go at all hours during the night, banging the 
doors and trampling on the stairs....

"We understand that rooming houses are necessary for solving the homeless 
problem," continue the Rapaports. "However, it is our belief that the 
tenants of 128 Seaton are not persons in need, but people who are smart 
enough to be involved with drugs, prostitution and alcohol abuse while 
taking advantage of the system. They buy alcohol and drugs with their 
welfare cheques, they are fed by volunteers at the church at Sherbourne and 
Dundas while making our lives hell and our nights unbearable."

Yet when their turn comes to speak, tenant-rights advocates argue that the 
homeowners' complaints are exaggerated and prove nothing more than they 
don't like poor people living next to them. Moreover, no criminal 
convictions had actually been recorded at the houses, despite the numerous 
times the homeowners had called the police. Drinking and talking on the 
porch is not illegal. And even though visitors could be seen coming in and 
out of the house, they were usually just that -- visitors and friends, 
rather than johns or drug-buyers.

Even those advocates who concede there might be the occasional crack dealer 
or prostitute scattered among the tenants say that it's grossly unjust to 
label the buildings as crack houses, or blame all the other tenants and the 
landlords for the criminal activity of a few people.

"They keep harping on prostitution and drug problems," says Hank Snow, a 
member of the Winchester Rooming House Association. "That's an area 
problem, that's not a landlord problem, it's not a house problem.

"There can be an individual in the house, but then we have the police that 
are supposed to enforce the drug laws, not superintendents and not 
landlords," adds Snow. "That's a police problem. SOBRA is very 
confrontational. They think they have every right to tear down a rooming 
house. Everybody is a bad rooming-house operator. They always come with the 
problems, they never come to the table with any solutions. Their solution 
to the problem is to get rid of all the poor people, get rid of all the 
social service agencies, all the rooming houses."

Snow also asked the commissioner to take the national disaster of 
homelessness into consideration before removing 76 low-income tenants from 
the few remaining -- and affordable -- rooming houses in the city. (Rooms 
in the Diakogeorgiou houses generally rent for $325 to $350 a month.) 
"Rooms are hard to come by for the bottom-of-the-line social assistance 
people," he says.

Several other speakers, including members of the Toronto Disaster Relief 
Committee (TDRC), also raise the issue of homelessness, and tell the 
commissioner that as imperfect as the Diakogeorgiou houses may be, they 
were preferable to staying in a hostel, living on the streets or camping in 
a ravine, which were the likely alternatives, given the housing crisis.
But city lawyer Kemerer interrupts the first TDRC speaker, Beric German, 
curtly reminding him that "the testimony is meant to be about these 
particular applications, not about the homeless problem."

CLASS WARFARE

"Snobbery. That's all it is."

Jim Tharrenos is sitting in a Greek restaurant on Dundas East. It's a few 
days after the hearings and he has yet to hear the commissioner's decision. 
He is talking about SOBRA's attacks on his family's rooming houses.

"I think they're just worried about the real-estate value. I'm sure they 
could get more [for their houses] if a rooming house wasn't next door. So, 
you know, we're just trying to live with them and run them the best we can."

Tharrenos says they've been evicting tenants quickly if they suspect them 
of illegal activity. But he refuses to engage in the sort of 24-hour 
monitoring of his tenants the residents have been demanding and attempting 
to practise themselves.

"When the tenants sit outside, one or two friends come up," Tharrenos says. 
"They all have drinks. Gets a little loud. They're not angels. It might get 
disruptive once or twice. But I do think the people have a right to go out 
and have a drink, and go out and talk on the porch. I don't think that's 
unfair. And neighbours have suggested we have security there 24 hours, 
keeping people off the porches, out of the common areas. And just have them 
in their rooms. They actually want us to hire security guards. They want us 
to regulate it like a halfway house, really keep an eye on everybody. But 
these people don't need an eye on everybody."

Tharrenos feels there's a good chance the licensing commissioner will 
decide against his family, and he's bitter that city councillor Pam 
McConnell sided with SOBRA against the houses. "She was the first speaker 
at the hearing," he recalls. "She said we should not let these houses run. 
She wasn't after solutions. She was just worried about the election in this 
area."
Tharrenos says it bothers him that upper-middle-class newcomers to the 
neighbourhood are forcing his family to change not only his business but a 
way of life.

"We've been operating here for 30 years. We've never had a complaint except 
in the past seven years. And why is that? In the last seven years, lawyers 
have moved in, businesspeople have moved in, because it's a place to live. 
It's close to downtown. And there's starting to be more of a demand for 
this neighbourhood.

"You know, when the owner, Peter [his grandfather], first came to Canada 
from Greece, he lived in rooming houses. And he got the help he needed. And 
my father lived in a rooming house. And slowly they broke free, but they 
still see a need for them, because they are a product of rooming houses."

The landlord's suspicions prove correct: on May 23, the licensing 
commissioner revokes the licences for the rooming houses, while conceding, 
"the owners have never been charged or convicted of any offense related to 
these properties."

Asked to respond to charges that she sided with upper-middle-class 
homeowners against low-income tenants in order to secure votes, Pam 
McConnell says that she, unlike the Diakogeorgious, is acting in the 
tenants' best interests.

"I've done everything I could over the last five years to give them [the 
Diakogeorgious] conditions I felt would raise the level of the standards of 
those rooms for very, very vulnerable people," maintains McConnell.

"And they have not, in the five, six years that I've been working with 
them, raised those standards, even though they had conditions they were 
supposed to meet which would have raised those standards. So, for me, it's 
not a question of whether I want rooming houses closed, or whether I want 
to put pressure tactics on rooming-house operators.

"Rooming-house operators have a responsibility to give decent, affordable 
housing for very vulnerable people who have very little money," continues 
McConnell, "and they pay most of their income for housing themselves, and 
when we don't adhere to those standards, and when the city turns its back 
on those vulnerable people and says that these licences mean nothing, then 
we are likely to end up in a similar circumstance as we had when we put 
rooming-house licenses in place and the fire at the Rupert Hotel occured, 
when I lost a neighbor's son. So these are not minor issues here. They're a 
matter of life and death."

McConnell adds that she and her assistants "have been working all along to 
find out what other management structures there might be that could provide 
decent, affordable and healthy living conditions for the people in the 
rooming houses that are affected." These structures would entail social 
service agencies taking over day-to-day operation of the homes.

Harvey Stein, a housing worker at the Fred Victor Centre, welcomes the idea 
of another management structure, particularly the notion of a social agency 
like the Woodgreen Community Centre operating the rooming houses for the 
Diakogeorgious. "Anything that will assist people to maintain their housing 
is a positive thing," he says. But Stein doubts that McConnell herself is 
actually interested in such an alternative, and points out that at the 
hearing she argued vociferously that the houses had to be shut down 
altogether.

"They [McConnell and her assistant] fired the initial salvo that started 
the onslaught [against a licence renewal]. There were no uncertain terms 
about it. There was no way of interpreting it any other way."

The fact that the city solicitor's attacks were chiefly levelled against 
the tenants themselves, rather than the buildings, which -- despite 
numerous problems -- were judged up to code, suggested to many that the 
city and McConnell were more interested in shielding middle-class 
homeowners from the presence of low-income tenants than in protecting 
low-income tenants from the dangers of substandard housing. "Why is it that 
when they're in substandard housing, she's worried about their safety, but 
once they're out on the street, she's not?" asked TDRC's German.

Other anti-poverty activists likewise denounce McConnell as a liberal 
apologist for SOBRA, which has aggressively lobbied for the Safe Streets 
Act and the Community Witness Program to clear the streets of beggars and 
prostitutes, and which openly campaigned to shut down many of the area's 
homeless shelters. In particular, notes Gaetan Heroux of the Ontario 
Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), McConnell publicly supported SOBRA's 
campaigns against the 416 Drop-in Centre on Dundas East, and the Central 
Neighbourhood drop-in centre on Ontario Street, and endorsed its 
anti-prostitute drive to ban sex-trade workers from the neighbourhood 
altogether.

As for the question of SOBRA and rooming-house tenants, OCAP's provincial 
organizer John Clarke argues that the fact SOBRA prevented the old Imperial 
Optical Building at Dundas and Seaton from being turned into rooming-house 
stock, and celebrated its subsequent conversion into expensive lofts, 
proves it's opposed to rooming houses in general, not just those that are 
supposedly mismanaged.

THE BATTLE IS LOST

Given that battles over the gentrification of the neighbourhood have been 
dragging on since the '70s, it might seem that the conflict will go on 
indefinitely. But the fact that residents associations like SOBRA have 
recently been able to shut down homeless shelters and have the licences of 
up-to-code rooming houses revoked suggests that the battle is nearly over 
and that residents associations and real-estate developers have all but won.

"The Salvation Army Hostel building at Dundas and Victoria streets has been 
sold to the Senator Steakhouse. The new owner plans a retail/restaurant 
complex," gloats a SOBRA newsletter, which lists off numerous other 
"fabulous transformations" in the area -- a four-star hotel, executive 
apartments, townhouses, condos and new family homes.

Not mentioned in the newsletter are the low-income tenants who are being 
displaced or harmed by the "fabulous"
gentrification drive. In addition to being subjected to the threat of 
homelessness, the tenants in the remaining rooming houses in the area are 
faced with increasingly intolerable living conditions because area social 
workers are afraid to complain openly about such places for fear that the 
associations and city will shut them down altogether.

Indeed, OCAP's Clarke argues that the notion of low-income tenants as a 
disposable population has become so widely accepted that it is now embedded 
as a given in the very terminology used by both sides in the gentrification 
wars.
"SOBRA is just one of a number of so-called residents associations," says 
Clarke. "The term 'residents association' is itself a misnomer. It suggests 
that a narrow set of yuppie interests are the only people that can be 
described as residents, and everybody else is just so much scum to be 
either policed to death, or, if possible, removed from the neighbourhood."