Could this mother and son become homeless?


Fear and loathing faces eviction victims as  Toronto neighbourhood gentrifies

By Ysh Cabana

She is known as Ate Mayeth to some. Ma. Theresa De Mesa has babysat for scores of families living in Toronto.

For more than three decades, she has lived in Parkdale, an inner-city neighbourhood next door to the “Filipino town” in the Jameson-Queen Street area in downtown. The 61-year-old single mother has also been the sole caregiver to Anthony, her 34-year-old son, with disability for years. Despite being a longtime tenant paying $1300-a-month rent at 1251 King Street West, she is struggling to keep up.As if living through a pandemic wasn’t bad enough, she collects disability payments (ODSP) as her son, who cannot speak properly nor hold heavy things, cannot fully contribute to the household rent and expenses.

The 189-unit tower at 251 King Street West is home to the single mother and son.
(Photo: Ysh Cabana)

Evicted due to “clutter”

Now, they are at the mercy of the Landlord and Tenant Board (LTB) while the building management Nuspor Investments has applied for them to be evicted from their home. The property manager says the situation has become unworkable, not due to arrears, but because of too much “clutter” and their unit was not prepared for pest control treatment. 

She was represented by Parkdale Community Legal Services in the  LTB hearing where an agreement was made that she would declutter her unit and the building would pay for her to store some of her belongings. Other tenants helped sort out and moved them to an outside storage unit. But the property manager said the unit was not decluttered in a reasonable state of cleanliness.

Asked if she had begun searching for other places to move in, her body was shaking because she’s terrified, she said, knowing it isn’t that simple to find an affordable rental these days.

Already vulnerable

De Mesa’s milieu isn’t unique. Low-wage workers and people receiving social assistance benefits are disproportionately experiencing the economic and social effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A McMaster University study found recipients of social assistance had higher levels of concern on housing insecurity–over four times as worried about eviction and three times as worried about having to move–even with the eviction ban in place from March 16 to September 14, 2020. Racialized respondents are statistically more likely to report such problems. One-fifth who responded in an online survey identified as racialized, and half were from the GTA and Hamilton.

Peter Graefe, an associate political science professor, and Mohammad Ferdosi, who is working on a PhD in political science,  surveyed nearly 800 respondents who received payments through the federal or provincial programs. Those receiving provincial benefits under Ontario Works (OW) and the ODSP were 10 times more likely to report not having enough food to eat, or spending days without eating, and increasing access to charitable donations compared to those receiving no government assistance, according to the study, which was published on McMaster’s website.

Recipients of social assistance and the $2000-per-month Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) said they experienced higher debt in the period of the study, from August to December 2020.

Those on ODSP continued to receive only $1,169 per month, with a one-time pandemic top-up of $100 per month until the end of July 2020.  That amount was just two-thirds of the CERB level, but still above the $733 per month provided to Ontario Works recipients who did not qualify for CERB.

With the economic shutdown in March, access to grocery stores, restaurants and food charities became more complicated. This was a particularly difficult situation for immunocompromised people, a group overrepresented among ODSP recipients, researchers found. Because their benefit rates did not change, the COVID-19 fallout had a huge impact on already vulnerable Ontarians.

The survey also found that those on federal and provincial assistance were more likely than those employed to take on debt or fall behind on their debts. The report adds that while the incomes of those on provincial assistance did not drop during the pandemic, the costs did rise, and survival strategies based on mutual aid became difficult under lockdown.

Parkdale organize

Some people say that there is not an even playing field between tenants like De Mesa who are disadvantaged by the online hearings compared to the landlord’s party on the other side. Before the pandemic, hearings at the LTB fell under the open court principle, and members of the public could attend any hearing. But given the necessity of in-person attendance, the eviction process basically happens in secret, said Emina Gamulin, a tenant and organizer in Parkdale.

The shift to online hearings has changed that, and inadvertently created a situation where tenants can protect one another by watching and documenting what happens. They can even interrupt hearings via speaking up, both anonymously and on the record, to defend people facing eviction. But the challenge remains in bridging the digital divide for older adults and people with disabilities.

So with eviction applications and hearings still ongoing, tenants can easily be forced homeless amid the pandemic. A spokesperson for the LTB confirmed that between April 2020 and March 2021, the board conducted 24,946 hearings related to eviction applications, but that it “does not track hearing outcomes.” Last year Ontario passed Bill 184, which in some cases would even allow landlords to evict tenants without a hearing. Tenant advocates say these moves to rush eviction hearings is a concerted threat against the surge of tenant organizing especially with the case of De Mesa whose support has only come from her neighbours. 

The 189-unit building where she currently resides has been a witness to grassroots community organizing within a historically working-class and low-income neighbourhood. In 2018, Nuspor had sought rent increase, on the basis of recouping expenses from renovations in the aging building, which the tenants dismissed as cosmetic because badly needed repairs to their units had remained unaddressed. The tenants refused to pay rent for months at the rebranded Waldorf Tower  and organized direct actions that ultimately forced the landlord to cancel the rent increase.

With matters not finished  and another hearing scheduled,  people don’t have many options. Neighbours are hoping for success in  De Mesas’ favour.

For fellow tenant Parmbir Gill, there’s no falter in the fight to save the De Mesa family from being evicted. “They are disabled, live on fixed incomes, and cannot afford market rent anywhere in or near Parkdale. They will very likely become homeless if they’re evicted. As their neighbours, we cannot let that happen,” said Gill.

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