Fast-tracked plan to build apartments for people experiencing homelessness gets push-back from neighbours

People in the Dundas Street West and Dovercourt Road area will get a chance Wednesday evening to express their opinion on a controversial, fast-tracked building project that will bring 44 people experiencing homelessness and low-income individuals to the community.

New plan calls for 44 low-income bachelor apartments to be ready by September

Gustavo Jabbaz, who lives across the street from the site of the new development, says he was shocked to learn that city planned to build apartments for people experiencing homelessness and low-income individuals. (Mike Smee/CBC)

People in a west-end neighbourhood will get a chance tonight to express their opinion on a controversial building project that will bring 44 people experiencing homelessness and low-income individuals to the community.

At issue is the future of a vacant lot near Dundas Street West and Dovercourt Road where the Toronto Police Service 14 Division station once stood, on Harrison Street.

Local residents say they'd been led to believe 13 single-family homes were slated for the lot. But that plan was scuttled in April when council voted to fast-track the construction of a modular 44-unit building instead. 

Scheduled to be ready for September, the building is to be reserved for people experiencing homelessness and will also provide affordable housing for people with low incomes. 

City staff say the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit homeless shelters especially hard, spurred the decision to fast-track the project. So far, 610 COVID-19 cases have been linked to city shelters. As of June 24, five shelter-users have died of COVID-19, city staff say.

Staff will hold the second of two virtual town-hall meetings Wednesday evening from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. so people in the neighbourhood can provide their feedback.

Abi Bond, executive director of the city's housing secretariat, says local residents will get a say in the project's design. (Greg Bruce/CBC)

"As COVID hit us, we wanted to expedite our response to homelessness, and a quicker delivery of housing," said Abi Bond, executive director of the city's housing secretariat.

"Because we hadn't reached a conclusion on this site and because the location is so good, we decided to shift gears and look at a different kind of housing delivery on this particular site."

But the speed with which the city shifted gears on the site plan has angered some in the community.

Michael Smele said the suggestion that single-family dwellings would be built on the site "fit in really well. It's a very family [oriented] community — lots of schools nearby, lots of daycares."

He said the current project is happening too quickly and without proper consultation — a concern shared by neighbour Gustavo Jabbaz.

Local resident Michael Smele says the project should be halted until there is a clear plan in place, and a budget, for the proposed 44-unit apartment building. Some locals say they'd been led to believe that families would be housed on the site. (Mike Smee/CBC)

"On June 2 we got this pamphlet saying the plans have changed; we're going to put in a site for homeless people," he said.

"No consultation, no questions, no nothing."

The city held the first virtual town-hall meetings last week, but not everyone who wanted to speak was heard, according to Smele, who sat in on the meeting.

As of Tuesday afternoon, a petition asking the city to rethink the plan to build a modular apartment building had close to 400 signatures.

Shay Zeyad, who lives in the community, says she has no problem with apartments for the homeless being built in the area. (Keith Whelan/CBC)

Not everyone in the neighbourhood is against the planned use of the site, though. 

Resident Shay Zeyad told CBC Toronto: "I think it's a great idea."  As someone who has a home, she said, "I don't have the privilege to talk about other people who don't."

Both Bond and Coun. Ana Bailão, who represents the area and also chairs the city's planning and housing committee, denied that the plan to house 13 families on the site was ever carved in stone.

"In April, council came to realize that we needed a better response to the homelessness issue that was in front of us," Bailão said. 

Ward 9 Coun. Ana Bailao, who chairs the city's planning and housing committee, acknowledges the project is moving quickly, but says residents will have an opportunity to provide feedback. (Doug Husby/CBC)

"We have 8,000 people who are sleeping either on the street or in our shelters and we think that providing housing with dignity and trying to respond to the pandemic with more permanent solutions is a good way to move forward."

And Bailão acknowledged the city is moving ahead unusually quickly.

"There is no question that it is moving fast, but we've asked the city to do unprecedented things: We've asked businesses to close their doors for months, we've asked people to stay home," she said.

"We've had to respond to this pandemic in unprecedented ways."

An artist's rendering of the building that's planned for the site of the former 14 Division. The plan is to house 44 individuals there by September. (City of Toronto)

Both Bailão and Bond said neighbours will still have a chance to offer their input. But according to Bond, that input will be limited to things like the height of the building, and the density of the development.

"We've been trying to be clear with the community that no one gets to choose their neighbours," Bond said.

"So this isn't a consultation about who is moving in. This is a consultation about the project itself."

Bond said the project is being designed to help the homeless tenants transition permanently from the streets to their own homes.

"Supports will include meal services, providing or connecting residents to primary health services, community supports and services such as education, employment and life skills," she wrote in an email.

Those supports will also address mental health issues, she said.

"Services often provided in supportive housing that can improve mental health and well-being include trauma-informed and culturally appropriate services, in-reach counselling services, peer supports, food program, community gardening, and staff support to reconnect with friends and family," she wrote.



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