[Hpn] Gentrification war: A case study of how residents associations kill
Thu, 13 Jul 2000 11:44:46 -0400
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.
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
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
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
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."
"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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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."