The Pope Squat
The pope has left the city, and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty still has the building.
The papal mass in Toronto drew 600,000 Catholics from all over the world to Downsview, a place far to the north of the city's center. Far to the south of Downsview, beyond the city center and right on the shore of lake Ontario, is the neighbourhood of Parkdale.
The people who live in Parkdale know about housing difficulties. They are some of the most vulnerable people in the city to landlords, slumlords, and every dirty trick the city has at its disposal.
As for the landlords, the economics of private, low-income housing gives them an incentive to "milk" their tenants: let the buildings run to ground while they squeeze the last dollar of rent from tenants who have nowhere to go-- then when the building can't pass inspection, illegally evict the tenants and then, when the money stops coming, move on.
It still isn't entirely clear, but this is probably something like the history of the building at 1510 King St. in Parkdale, which is on its sixth day of being held by squatters from the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. Thomas Walkom of the Toronto Star found the following about the building: "Technically, it is owned by 459105 Ontario Ltd., a Mississauga firm delinquent in its back taxes and so derelict in its basic reporting responsibilities that, according to the provincial companies branch, the Ontario government took the extreme step eight years ago of cancelling its corporate status. "A title search reveals that 1510 King W. has been the recipient of numerous city work orders. In 1995, an inspector found the owners were failing to provide tenants with heat and light. The city paid $5,200 for the hydro to be reconnected and billed the owners.
"The same thing happened in 1996, 1997 and 1998. Again, the city covered hydro connection costs. Again, it billed the owners. But, it seems, the owners ignored most or all of these bills. Records show that the city holds liens against the property worth at least $15,808.
"In 1999, inspectors found that tenants were without water. The city sent in plumbers at a cost to taxpayers of $2,073. Sometime after that, it seems, the last of the weary tenants at 1510 King St W. gave up and moved out. In 2000, the city informed the now non-existent corporate owner that it owed Toronto $38,127.16 in back taxes. A year later, the city followed with another letter to 459105 Ontario Ltd. warning that the house could be seized and sold for tax arrears."
Could there be a better candidate for conversion to social housing?
The house is big, and would represent a real gain in the amount of low-income housing in the neighbourhood if won. It has 3 floors, with three or four rooms on each floor. In order for it to become housing, it will require work-- thousands of dollars worth-- but it has been looked at by carpenters and architectural technologists who swear that it is livable. The plumbing and electricity are basically sound, even if they also need work, and OCAP and its supporters have already made some repairs (mostly safety-related, fixing things like railings for the stairs).
The action itself, and the ongoing occupation of the building, is a demonstration of the political sophistication and the support that OCAP has developed over its 13 years of existence. Timing the action for the pope's visit was one way to, in one OCAP organizer's words, "to create a situation where it would be universally regarded as grotesquely inappropriate for them to take this down." The timing was perfect in other ways as well. Just weeks ago, Toronto's mayor, Mel Lastman, said he wished he could sweep the homeless off the streets to make way for tourism. He's held his tongue on the squat since, other than refusing to meet with OCAP. Meanwhile the provincial government is trying to reinvent itself after Mike Harris, who brought Ontario a neoliberal 'Common Sense Revolution' that would have made the IMF proud, resigned. The new premier, who wasn't elected, may be "trying to position himself to establish that he's different from Harris", said OCAPer Sarah Vance. With the disorganization of the authorities, the clever choice of building, a neighbourhood full of people who know about unjust evictions and unfair housing conditions, and some very reasonable demands, OCAP is on the moral and political high ground. The demands are simple: "1. Convert the squatted building into social housing. 2. City-wide inspection and repair blitz: Inspect and order repairs on all unsafe and substandard housing in the City of Toronto. 3. Stop economic evictions: Raise the minimum wage to $10.00/hr. Restore the cut to social assistance. 4. Restore rent control. 5. Build 2000 units of social housing every year." A list like this isn't easy for politicians to dismiss.
Last night after dark Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis visited the squat to show a 12-minute clip of film they made in Argentina. The film was about a young man named Gustavo Benedetto who was assassinated by private security forces while demonstrating in Buenos Aires. He was walking past the the Hong Kong Savings Bank (HSBC) in an unarmed crowd. Private security forces inside the bank fired through the bank's windows and killed him.
Perhaps some of the 250 people who watched the film last night remembered OCAP (and the Ontario Common Front)'s own march through Toronto's financial district on October 16, 2001, when we were met-- chased-- by riot cops at every turn. They didn't fire on the crowd here in Toronto, but the broad outlines of an economic system that discards people and then does brutal violence to them are similar. Avi pointed that out when he introduced the film, and more, he pointed out that the movements of piqueteros in Argentina are made of those people who have been discarded taking back the space they need to live, as OCAP has done here. "We should be doing more of this," he said.
It is precisely because of OCAP's effective, dedicated antipoverty organizing that it has been singled out by the authorities for repression as ugly as can be found in Ontario. But maybe as a result, the organization has learned more and more about making that repression counterproductive. I went to the squat last night expecting to see riot cops everywhere, a sight that has accompanied OCAP's big actions ever since the authorities decided they were a threat. In October, those cops were helpless to contain the snake march through the financial district. But last night they weren't even there. Instead, there were 250 people, sitting together behind the house, chatting, relaxing on couches, listening to live music from Ron Hawkins, and watching a film about their counterparts in Argentina.
We should be doing more of this. And OCAP plans to. One OCAPer who spoke last night reminded us that Toronto was full of buildings just like this one. So long as homelessness persists, people will have to do something about it. John Clarke from OCAP told the Globe and Mail that "they'll either have to give us this building or guard it. They can bring in every cop in the Western Hemisphere but the reality is we'll keep coming back until the place is opened up."
Justin Podur is a ZNet commentator and developer. He lives in Toronto. OCAP's website is www.ocap.ca