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City watchdog could soon have unit dedicated to investigating Toronto's housing policies

Unit would focus on fairness, promoting a human rights-based approach to housing
March 28, 2023
Ryan Patrick Jones

A key city watchdog could soon have a unit dedicated to investigating issues within Toronto housing.

On Wednesday, city councillors are set to consider a report on whether to expand the Toronto Ombudsman office's independent oversight over housing policies.

The new unit would be responsible for evaluating the implementation of the city's 10-year housing plan, with a focus on fairness and promoting a human rights-based approach, Toronto Ombudsman Kwame Addo says in the report.

"The mandate ... is to independently address substantive, procedural and equitable fairness issues as they pertain to access and treatment of people who are unhoused or living in housing precarity, along with the entire housing continuum from shelter access to affordable housing," Addo wrote in the report.

The recommendation comes as the city confronts an historic housing affordability crisis at the same as it seeks to meet a provincially-mandated target of building 285,000 homes over the next decade.

Housing unit would conduct systemic investigations
In December 2019, council passed the HousingTO 2020 -- 2030 Action Plan aimed at ensuring a diverse range of housing options for Toronto residents. At the same time, council revised the Toronto Housing Charter, committing the city to the "progressive realization of the right to adequate housing."

Since then, council has been looking for a way to independently assess progress on the city's housing goals. Addo says his office has the legislative authority and the tools to fulfil that accountability role.

"Our office already manages and handles housing complaints," he said in an interview. "This unit will build on the work of that we already do."

The ombudsman's office handled almost 1,400 housing-related cases out of a total of 3,587 in 2022, according to a previous council report.

While the ombudsman's general intake stream would continue to handle individual complaints, the new housing unit would be authorized to investigate and report on systemic issues relating to "housing discrimination and structural hurdles" in the City of Toronto's housing policies, Wednesday's report says.

The unit would also engage in public education, liaise with other accountability officers such as the Federal Housing Advocate, and act as a resource for city divisions and elected officials, the report says.

The unit would be led by a deputy ombudsman for housing, and would include seven other staff members, including four investigators, one lawyer, a research and policy analyst, and an outreach and communications co-ordinator, the report says.

Council has already approved the ombudsman's request for an $882 million budget for the unit in this year's budget.

Councillor wants role to be more than 'ticking a box'
Coun. Josh Matlow (Ward 12, Toronto-St. Paul's), who has been critical of former mayor John Tory's approach to housing over the past eight years, said he wants to make sure the ombudsman has the resources necessary to be effective.

"If they don't have the resources and the staff to be able to investigate, research and come up with recommendations that are necessary to improve the system, then it's really just a box that we're ticking off saying, 'We care about housing,'" Matlow, who intends to run for mayor in the upcoming byelection, said in an interview.

If passed by council, the change would likely mean more frequent reviews like the one the ombudsman's office concluded last week into the clearing of three homeless encampments two years ago.

Addo's final report into the clearing of encampments at Trinity Bellwoods, Alexandra and Lamport Stadium parks in the summer of 2021 concluded the city showed "significant unfairness" and "insufficient regard for the people it moved out of the parks."

The report included 23 recommendations meant to improve how the city approaches encampments in the future. An interim report released in July 2022 had already made eight recommendations.

Addo said in his final report that the city had already shown significant improvement when it cleared an encampment in Dufferin Grove Park between August and December 2021.

Meanwhile, Luisa Sotomayor, an associate professor who teaches urban planning at York University, said the ombudsman housing unit could help push the city to improve its policies in other areas as well.

She said its investigations and reviews could highlight housing issues impacting the city's most marginalized people -- including the unhoused, immigrants and people of colour -- and educate city staff and elected officials.

"It's an important measure in light of the City of Toronto's commitments to housing as a human right," Sotomayor said. "Currently, there's no body of accountability or institutional channel for violations of such rights to be investigated, so I think it's a positive development."

If created, Sotomayor suggested the unit could explore the provision of emergency and shelter housing post-pandemic, conditions inside rooming houses, and issues facing tenants.