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Planning our way out of poverty: Racism and Toronto’s housing crisis

It’s time this city had a real investigation into where our public money goes and who benefits from it


Kensington Market, Toronto, Canada. Photo by Dan D./Unsplash.

The cities of Europe are in peril once again, and soon the threat will come for us. The North American settler narrative persists: if we don’t prevent the problems of urban decay, we will succumb to them as our Western European ancestors have. The narrative that was constructed, the stories we’ve told ourselves, have existed since the early settlement of colonial outposts in Canada. The overcrowding and disease rampant in European cities, the reasons that so many settlers left for the New World, will threaten the North American urban way of life. Housing unaffordability and poor health will become a problem for all, not just those currently living in the inner suburbs of our cities.

The tale is repeated over and over by power and authority figures in the largest of Canada’s colonial outposts, Toronto. The main conflict for the storytellers is how to maintain Toronto’s delicate private property structure while preventing the violence associated with conditions of poor housing and disease from tearing the structure apart. The institutions of Toronto that uphold the system—security, social housing, community services funding, and public health—have joined forces over the past two decades in attempts to allay the resistance to the housing crisis and unlivable wages that is intensifying in the neighbourhoods of Canada’s largest city. The ways in which the Toronto power elite has exploited the cautionary tale of European urban crime and disease as a means of managing the threat of resistance are laid bare in Parastou Saberi’s book, Fearing the Immigrant: Racialization and Urban Policy in Toronto.

Avoiding the ‘Paris problem’

Saberi, a visiting research fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick, opens her book with a discussion of the emergence of the so-called ‘Paris problem’—the notion that the radicalization of youth is occurring in majority-immigrant neighbourhoods as a response to poverty. The Paris problem was one of the driving forces behind the development of community-based policing programs, such as the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS). Introduced in 2006 by Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair, TAVIS, with its initial $7 million dollar provincially-funded budget, became the impetus for militarized policing in immigrant neighbourhoods.

The program was a failure. The increased presence of officers in the street intensified police violence. An increase in raids, carding, and subsequent detentions occurred, and tensions between police and communities escalated. Under TAVIS, the School Resource Officer (SRO) program began, and officers appeared at targeted schools where children were made to feel intimidated. Community workers, activists, and academics asserted that TAVIS had in fact led to more evictions, racism, and gang violence in the neighbourhoods identified by the program.

Intelligence-led policing, a data-driven law enforcement model, drove TAVIS officers to connect with landlords, and in particular Toronto Community Housing (TCHC). Without making it public to the residents of TCHC communities, TCHC and Toronto Police struck an agreement that allowed authorities onto TCHC properties without having to go through the usual channels of private property entry. According to Saberi’s research in the community, young people were confused as to why they were being questioned, and their fearful reactions elicited higher incidents of carding and harassment. As tensions built so did punishment, and in some cases entire families were evicted from their homes.

After much criticism of the program, most notably by federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, efforts were made to ease tensions. Provincial funding for the program was cut in half in 2015 while overall funding for Toronto Police increased by $4.7 million. However, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders showed no signs of engaging in any critical reflection on the 10-year-old program. Saunders maintained his support for TAVIS with little or no evidence of it actually making a difference in the targeted neighbourhoods. Neighbourhood Initiative Officers were deployed in the communities to create a softer, more amicable presence, yet their work was typically undone by the more heavy-handed Rapid Response Team.

Atkinson Housing Co-Operative in Toronto. Designed by architect Jerome Markson and originally built as the Alexandra Park public housing project, it was later converted to a housing cooperative between 1992 and 2003. Photo and caption courtesy Midwest Modern/Twitter.

Guardians at the gate

Once it was clear that TAVIS had not only failed to prevent crime and violence but actually exacerbated racism in the city, Toronto’s elites and policymakers decided the emerging Paris problem was due to segregation and the exclusion of poor immigrant neighbourhoods from the market economy. A shift toward a social health perspective ensued. With community policing efforts failing, it became fashionable to look at crime prevention through the lens of the internationally popular concept of Social Determinants of Health (SDH), shifting responsibility from the police to the more trusted institutions of social and public health.

Throughout the book, Saberi draws attention to the links between Toronto’s approach to the targeted immigrant neighbourhoods and international development, particularly in its view of underdevelopment, poverty, and poor governance in countries considered failed states as the triggers for global instability. Toronto Police, for example, participated in Canada’s operations in Afghanistan and are familiar with counterinsurgency tactics, which they readily applied to the policing of immigrant neighbourhoods.

This tendency to draw parallels with international development ties in with SDH discourse. The use of SDH legitimizes epidemiological criminology, the belief that crime is an infectious disease that can spread if not cured. While looking at the material problems of inner-city neighbourhoods from the perspective of SDH and epidemiological criminology may appear to be a constructive, even progressive, approach, once the thinking is manipulated to push forward the liberal agenda of protecting private property structures and promoting unaffordable but profitable housing developments, the problems with the approach become evident. The practices have only heightened frustrations, displacing rather than addressing the source of the problems. Urban policy development has thus focused on what Saberi calls the amelioration of violence rather than the eradication of violence.

Accordingly, this form of preventive policy development based on SDH has opened the doors for the United Way and Toronto Public Health to involve themselves more in community development programs. It would not surprise anyone working in Toronto neighbourhoods that the United Way sees itself as a gatekeeper to community development projects and a trustee of community development funding.

While ignoring the consequences of private property and capitalist social relations as the root of Toronto’s poverty, the liberal humanitarian institutions of the city hoped to address the perceived Paris problem by revitalizing targeted neighbourhoods through urban design. Revitalization through design, along with United Way-funded community programs, was a bid to pacify poor people by making them more resilient to their unchanging circumstances of unaffordable housing and low wages.

One example is the United Way’s report, Poverty by Postal Code 2: Vertical Poverty. Produced in 2011, it initiated a series of redevelopment projects and municipal zoning changes intended to address the social and health conditions of people living in high-rise rental units. Saberi points out that by producing reports like Vertical Poverty and adding superimposing maps of income and disease over maps of the locations of high-rise apartment buildings within Toronto’s inner suburban neighbourhoods, the United Way has deepened its relationships with Toronto Public Health and urban developers.

Because of this report and its main recommendation to rezone these spaces as mixed-income neighbourhoods, tower renewal gained currency as a concept taking aim at public housing and privately-owned rental properties throughout targeted neighbourhoods. Municipal policies were introduced with the aim of paving the way for renewal projects.

Under the leadership of the city’s chief urban planner, Jennifer Keesmat, zoning changes were approved by the City of Toronto in April 2013. Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) zones were welcomed without any concern for whether the changes would lead to rent hikes for the residents in the targeted areas. These changes contributed to the ongoing gentrification of Toronto and opened more doors for developers to gain ground. Saberi notes that once again, instead of addressing the crisis of the disappearance of affordable housing in the city, architects like George Saunders, along with the United Way, Toronto Public Health, and the City of Toronto, conceived renewal as a development opportunity that would bring what Saunders called “the villager” into “urban civilization.” In other words, assimilate the immigrant into Canadian consumer society.

Yonge Street, Toronto. Photo from Flickr.

A valuable book for Torontonians

Saberi’s book is a comprehensive investigation of the perpetuation of racism and poverty in Toronto. It’s only fair to point out that this is a comprehensive, if somewhat dense text. It would be useful for the findings of the book to be reproduced in an accessible format for a broader reading public. Community workers, neighbourhood activists, and residents of the targeted boroughs in Toronto need to be able to recognize and understand the outcomes of the policies and processes Saberi analyzes. Before any more money is funnelled into the United Way and before any more community consultations are held on residential zoning changes and tower renewal programs, people need to see this research and understand what is happening to their communities.

The complex web of Toronto’s liberal humanitarian institutions was well overdue for some disentangling and a thorough interrogation. Saberi has begun to unravel this web, and it’s time this city had a real investigation into where our public money goes and who benefits from it.

In Toronto, we try to plan our way out of poverty rather than tackle the growing housing crisis and the persistence of low wages. Dealing with housing unaffordability and wages that do not keep pace with inflation would threaten private property owners and the delicate social relations of capitalism. By brandishing the image of European cities as crowded spaces rife with infectious diseases—including the disease of crime—we cede the power and authority to design our city to the institutions implicated in the causes of the crisis to begin with. Toronto Police, the City of Toronto, United Way, and Toronto Public Health have joined forces to restore law and order through an intricate set of reports and zoning bylaws that play on the fear of the immigrant.

If you have ever raised an eyebrow in reaction to some of the large-scale multi-million dollar security and urban development projects in contemporary Toronto, you should read this book. It is a well-researched deep dive into the ways in which the liberal humanitarian institutions of Toronto and its liberal bourgeoisie seek to use targeted research and urban planning to ameliorate the violent consequences of poverty while safeguarding private property and the inequitable system it sustains.

Kimberly Wilson is a member of Canadian Dimension’s coordinating committee. Kim currently works as a community literacy worker in Toronto’s West End. She is a freelance editor and writer and holds a Master of Arts in Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies from Trent University.


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