First the fences go up, surrounding the tents that have popped up in public parks during the pandemic to provide shelter for homeless residents. Next, police, private security and city workers arrive—accompanied by trucks, horses, and a surveillance drone overhead. The evictions are fast and forceful. Soon after, officials follow up with machines and bins to collect and remove possessions. 

This strategy, reminiscent of the clearance of Los Angeles’ Echo Park by the LAPD in March, has played out in three Toronto parks so far this summer. 

Last week’s police raid on urban encampments in Alexandra and Lamport Stadium Parks followed a similar eviction in June at Trinity Bellwoods Park. Toronto police beat and pepper-sprayed demonstrators and arrested dozens, in a bylaw enforcement campaign Toronto Mayor John Tory called “reasonable [and] firm, but compassionate.”

These encampments being demolished are the most visible manifestation of Canada’s housing crisis. Their violent erasure shows the determination of city leadership to hide the problem. 

Less visible but no less violent are the markets and policies that produce and uphold the housing crisis, creating unnecessary scarcity of affordable housing, driving up prices for profit, and criminalizing homelessness. 

The consequences of the real estate game are in plain sight, built into the landscape. Its rules deepen class divides, violate Indigenous treaties, perpetuate racialized systems of inequality, and maintain precarity through territorial control. But people are resisting, and housing activism from rent strikes to solidarity with encampment residents has sprung up in Toronto and across the continent. In place of shelter being allocated and profited off of as a commodity in a private market, a push has grown for housing to be recognized as a basic human right.

Encampments have been under violent police siege in Toronto. Illustration: Daniel Rotsztain

Racism and discrimination built into the system

Some people experiencing homelessness live in public spaces, under freeway overpasses, on vacant lots and in parks. In clearing them, city bylaws are weaponized to attack people’s dignity and human rights. And the policing and surveillance of these spaces reveal patterns of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism and sexual and gender-based targeting. 

The inherent hostility of criminalizing public homelessness goes beyond bylaws, though. The violence against people who have no home is built into the very design of urban spaces. Think park benches with dividers that prevent people from lying down to sleep, the video cameras on poles and buildings that subject people to 24-hour surveillance, the spikes that make surfaces dangerous to use, or the rocks placed under highway overpasses that make it impossible to pitch a tent.

So it’s no surprise that the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity avoid public space. They stay in shelters, overcrowded places belonging to other people, or in other temporary or precarious situations. In Toronto, the top three reported causes of homelessness are migration, inability to afford rent, and eviction. Most people experiencing homelessness in Toronto want permanent housing. 

The clearance of encampments from the city’s parks echoes the original and continued dispossession of Indigenous people through broken treaties and stolen land, necessary for a profit-driven approach to land and housing. 

Illustration: Daniel Rotsztain

The violence of housing as investment

Though not new, housing crises have intensified in the neoliberal era, as real estate and rent have become even more central to economic growth. The drive to extract ever greater profits has meant new homeowners take on larger and larger debts and renters pay more. 

As real estate markets rise, home ownership becomes increasingly out of reach for more people. Instead of rebuilding Toronto neighbourhoods with well-designed decommodified flats that could house more people near schools and parks and away from traffic, houses are often renovated by homeowners to add rental units—often as basement apartments or rooming houses—that help supplement mortgage payments. 

These quasi-legal forms of housing often lack fire safety, exits, windows, and adequate space for tenants. In houses with older apartments where rent is set to inflation, tenants are increasingly subjected to renovictions and other eviction loopholes that allow owners to ‘flip’ tenants and charge higher rents. The price of a detached home in Toronto has increased 240 percent in real terms (over inflation) between 2006 and 2021. 

Apartment neighbourhoods have not escaped the housing crisis either. These homes, built in the 1960s and 70s at major intersections and along arterials, are home to many newcomers, racialized and lower income households. These areas have seen major increases in crowding over the last decade, and many are in disrepair due to landlord neglect. 

Although protected from demolition and condo conversion by Toronto’s rental protection policy, these buildings are increasingly being bought by financialized landlords such as real estate investment trusts (REITs), or pension and private equity firms, who use above-guideline rent increases, evictions, harassment, and neglect in order to turn over tenants and charge higher rents. 

Tenant activism, including high-risk rent strikes, pushes back against displacement and holds some landlords accountable, but the problem persists.

Condo, Airbnb, vacant condo, inclusionary zoning. Illustration: Daniel Rotsztain

Newer high-density neighbourhoods feature highrise condominiums on former industrial land, in downtowns and along major corridors. Condos are pre-sold to investors before construction, and most are small one-bedroom units. One-third of condos are rented out, and these units have become the source of new rental housing. Tenants can be evicted by the owner, and condo rents tend to be higher than older rental buildings. 

A policy called inclusionary zoning would require that a small fraction of new units in condos built near subway stations be offered at just below market rents. But this formula depends on preserving developer’s profit margins and falls dramatically short of the depth or breadth of affordability needed.  

Illustration: Daniel Rotsztain

Shelters are carceral, public housing inaccessible

City-operated shelters, temporary shelter-hotels, and contracted respite centres are a last resort for many experiencing homelessness. They are not permanent solutions and feel more like institutional spaces.

People are often prohibited from living with partners, pets, or belongings, or from socializing with each other. Placement in a shelter is often conditional on abstinence and curfew compliance, and access is typically limited to nighttime. Residents are also subjected to surveillance, with some considering shelters as an extension of the carceral state, especially when used coercively as the only option when encampments are cleared. 

City programs in Toronto are intended to connect people experiencing homelessness with an address and a permanent place to live, but the increasing scarcity of affordable apartments has resulted in limited availability of supportive housing. The wait to access these homes is three to seven years. 

Public housing. Illustration: Daniel Rotsztain

There is a small but significant stock of existing homes in Toronto that is protected from the assault of investment, including public housing, non-profit co-operative housing, and community land trusts. Toronto Community Housing is home to 110,000 people living in more than 350 high- and low-rise public housing buildings on public land across Toronto. Most rents are adjusted to 30 percent of income.  

The wait list for affordable public housing has grown to over 100,000 households, with waits as long as 15 years. Despite the demand, very few new units have been added in recent decades. In contrast, many public housing sites in accessible urban land have seen housing units rebuilt in exchange for handing over parts of the land to the private sector for condo development. 

Co-op Land Trust. Illustration: Daniel Rotsztain

The fight for affordable housing 

Home to more than 45,000 people living in 160 different buildings across the Toronto region, co-operative housing was largely established in the 1970s through partnerships between community groups and government programs. The St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood is an example of an entire neighbourhood of co-op housing. Co-ops support greater economic diversity within neighbourhoods and allow cross-subsidization of housing costs based on need. 

Demand for co-op housing far outstrips the current supply and waiting lists across the city are full. Land trusts legally separate land—collectively held in trust—from buildings, which can be rented or owned. Community land trusts promote democratic governance and collective management of land and are often structured around decommodified forms of housing, such as limited equity ownership or affordable rental. 

While the public sector typically plays a role in housing and land acquisition and structuring contracts, the initiative starts with social economy movements and community organizing. In Toronto, over 700 former Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) homes in single-family houses are protected as affordable housing in perpetuity by the Neighbourhood Land Trust and Circle Community Land Trust. The Island Land Trust is a limited-equity model where residents own their homes but live on public land. The demand for all these forms of community and social housing far outstrips what is available, but the sector is building capacity to expand. 

Illustration: Daniel Rotsztain

Decommodifying and decolonizing

There is great potential for expanding decommodified housing to meet the demand. Toronto’s Portlands are part of a large publicly owned area near downtown and on the water that are currently being reshaped with ecological and parks infrastructure as part of a project to renaturalize the Don River estuary. 

The plans by Waterfront Toronto and the city call for selling most of this public land to condo developers, but the alternatives are obvious. With the right priorities, the city could create decommodified housing for thousands of people. It could. also respect treaties such as the Dish with One Spoon and the Two-Row Wampum by decolonizing planning in this area in partnership with Indigenous land protectors and waterkeepers.

Driven by policies and markets that prioritize the profits of owners, investors, and landlords over the lived value of dwelling, the real estate game tears our city’s life and social fabric and limits our capacity for hospitality, necessary to meet the climate and housing crises alike. 

The handful of new decommodified or even moderately ‘affordable’ units being added in Toronto are dwarfed by the net loss of affordable units as rents and housing costs continue to rise, spurring more evictions, displacement and debt. With a collective commitment to housing as a life-sustaining infrastructure of care, and against housing as investment, we can change the rules to de-weaponize the real estate game and the carceral state that accompanies it.

Encampment residents, and those who stand with them, are at the most visible edge of this struggle.

This article draws from work by volunteer researchers involved with the Explainers Committee of the Encampment Support Network, notably Charles Tilden, Creig Lamb, Megan Franklyne, and Amie Tsang. The illustrations are drawn by Daniel Rotsztain

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