Toronto ACORN

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Member Profile: Natalie Hundt

Natalie Hundt is a student, activist and mother of two daughters, ages 6 and 9. She was born in Kitchener but raised internationally, giving her the opportunity to study health and sociology in Europe. Upon returning to Canada in 2006, Natalie discovered that her credentials are not recognized in Canada, posing major obstacles to employment and forcing her to move to a low-income high-rise apartment building in Scarborough.

In 2006, Natalie received a knock on her door from a Toronto ACORN organizer who asked her if she had any issues in the building or the neighborhood. Ms. Hundt was so frustrated with the unresponsive property management company that she joined the organization immediately with the hope that something could be done.

Natalie quickly became a leader in her local Toronto ACORN chapter that was working to fix her apartment building, and has seen how powerful organized tenants can be in affecting change. She has since attended community meetings, rallies, deputized at city hall, spoken at town halls, and Toronto ACORN leadership schools, and built her knowledge of legislative government at all three levels. This knowledge, combined with her enthusiasm for tenant organizing has equipped Natalie with the ability and confidence she needed to take a real leadership role in her community.

Toronto Star: Immigrants gouged on money transfers

December 10th, 2010 by Carol Goar in the Toronto Star

They fought to get their landlords to clean up their cockroach-infested apartments and won. They fought to get payday lenders to lower their astronomical borrowing rates and won. Now ACORN Canada, a network of low-income Canadians, is embarking on its most ambitious project.

It has just launched a campaign to get North American banks to reduce the “predatory” fees they charge immigrants and migrant workers to transfer money to their families back home.

ACORN made its first move Monday. It released a report showing the rates charged by Canada’s chartered banks, their American counterparts and two money-transfer companies to send $100 to various destinations.

The figures were startling. Fees ranged from $3.70 to $66.25 (not including the pickup charges usually imposed at the receiving end).

Here is a sample, using a transfer of $100 from Toronto to Mexico:

• MoneyGram, which has the lowest fees, charges between $3 and $10 (depending on the service and destination) plus an exchange rate fee of 70 cents for a maximum total of $10.70.

New report on affordable housing

Dec. 1, 2010 - ACORN Canada was disappointed with the release Monday of Premier McGuinty’s long term affordable housing strategy.  After years of advocating for a provincial housing plan that will address the affordable housing crisis in substantial way, ACORN members, tenants, and low-income residents across Ontario expected much from the Province.

As the Toronto Star pointed out in their editorial response to the release of the housing plan, it "...[the housing plan] is little more than a series of regulatory changes” in the place of a comprehensive plan to address housing affordability.

Today, ACORN Canada along with the Wellesley Institute are releasing our own report on a key policy that was left out of the housing plan: Inclusionary Housing.

Inclusionary housing policies are powerful tools that Ontario municipalities can use to build new affordable housing.   They work by changing zoning practices to mandate affordable units in all new residential development, thus creating a permanent stock of affordable housing located in every new housing development, and thereby spread across the community.

Toronto Star: Anti-Poverty activists take wait and see approach to dealing with Mayor Ford

Oct 30th, 2010 by Laurie Monsebraaten in the Toronto Star

Downtown Toronto may still be reeling from last week’s municipal election, but in the city’s suburbs where Rob Ford swept every ward, anti-poverty activists and social service agencies are cautiously optimistic.

“We’re hopeful,” said East York mother Elise Aymer, of ACORN, a 20,000-member group of low- and moderate-income residents in the city which champions tenants’ rights, living wages and tighter rules for the payday loan industry.

“I think Rob Ford’s message of fiscal accountability resonated with many Torontonians of low- and moderate-income,” she said.

Aymer lives next to the ethnically diverse and economically challenged Crescent Town area, one of the city’s 13 priority neighbourhoods targeted for social investment under outgoing Mayor David Miller.

“I hope (Ford) will keep in mind the needs of low- and moderate-income people and the things ACORN fights for,” she said.

Unlike the 1995 provincial election when Conservative leader Mike Harris demonized the poor as “welfare cheats,” there was very little poor-bashing in Ford’s campaign, said social policy expert John Stapleton.

“Ford has a very strong populist bent and the man has spent a lot of time in public housing talking to people who are down on their luck,” he said.

“It’s just so unclear how it will shake out at city hall with him in the mayor’s office.”

Rabble.ca: Protesters call for a federal affordable housing strategy

Oct 20th, 2010 by John Bonnar on Rabble.ca

Mike Creek was once homeless so he knows how difficult life is for people living on the streets and in the shelter system.

“It’s a shame that we live in this country and we don’t even have a housing strategy,” said Creek at a rally Tuesday outside the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing in Toronto, part of a national day of action to support Bill C-304. “We need to put pressure on our MP’s to make sure that this bill gets passed.”

Bill C-304, an Act for a National Housing Strategy introduced by NDP MP Libby Davies last year, will be up for final debate Wednesday in the House of Commons.

“You need to pick up a phone and call your MP and tell them you want a housing strategy now,” said Creek who works with people every day who have experienced homelessness. “I see what a home can do in their lives. Without a good home you’re impossible to do anything.”

Creek is the coordinator of the Toronto Speakers Bureau, Voices from the Street, where he learned research, public policy and public speaking. He is one of three Ontario directors on the board of the National Anti-Poverty Organization (NAPO), and is also a board member of the Gerstein Crisis Centre.

A psychiatric consumer/survivor who has overcome cancer, physical and mental abuse, homelessness, and poverty, he believes that housing is a human right.

“Subsidized housing is wonderful but it’s also got to be safe and secure,” said Patricia Diaz. “My daughter at the age of 12 was raped and at 13 was gang raped in those areas.”

Edward Lantz, the chair of the St. Jamestown chapter of ACORN which has been fighting for affordable housing for the last six years, said people have to decide every month whether to pay the rent or buy food.

“And that’s why we have a large influx to the food banks,” he said. “Many live in squalor conditions, paying fair market rent for shanty dwellings.”

In 2006, the United Nations called on Canada to immediately tackle its national housing crisis. It said that the federal government “needs to commit stable and long-term funding and programmes to realize a comprehensive national housing strategy, and to co-ordinate actions among the provinces and territories, to meet Canada's housing rights obligations.”

As of June 2009, according to the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association, there were 140,000 households on municipal waiting lists for affordable housing. In Ontario, the number of applications has increased 9.6 per cent in the last two years.

“Canada remains the only country of the G8 nations that does not have a national housing program,” said Lantz. “And this is unacceptable.”

In Ontario, he said that the government promised ACORN that it would release its report on affordable housing in June. But ACORN still hasn’t received anything.

“So Mr. McGuinty, get your ass in gear and lets get some affordable housing down here from the provincial level as well,” said Lantz, who also had a message for Toronto municipal politicians and candidates.

“We find it imperative that city councilors and the new mayor demand affordable, livable housing from the provincial and federal governments for all people.”

Including parents with disabled children.

Sylvia Villaron has a 14-year-old multiple handicapped child, one of 4.4 million disabled Canadians. There are thousands of families who are caring for severely disabled children; one third of young children with disabilities come from families living below Statistics Canada’s low income cutoff.

“Having a child with a disability is linked with family poverty,” said Barbara Germon, a social worker with Bloorview Holland Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. “It is no surprise that families of children with disabilities are over-represented in their need for affordable housing.”

Disabled children and their families wait for up to 12 years before they can move into an affordable housing unit. In the meantime, they pay market rent to live in overcrowded, inaccessible basement apartments with little space for wheelchairs or other equipment.

“Parents carry disabled children up and down stairs,” said Germon.

Ken McLeod is a member of the Dream Team, a group of consumer survivors that advocates for more supportive housing for people living with mental health and addictions issues. He grew up in a troubled home with an alcoholic father and experienced feelings of worthlessness. Eventually he became socially isolated and was never able to hold down a job so he could afford a permanent place to live.

“But I’m one of the lucky ones who is recovering from mental illness by having access to a safe, secure affordable home,” said McLeod, who lives in Houselink Community Homes, a supportive housing agency that helps members keep their homes even through episodes of serious illness.

“Supportive housing is the most cost efficient way of addressing the issue of homelessness,” he said. A 2008 City of Toronto report stated that a one-day hospital stay costs the province $1048, a psychiatric in-patient bed $665, incarceration $143 and emergency shelter $69.

“It costs the province only $55 a day to house someone in supportive housing who has experienced homelessness or mental illness. The math is simple. So should be the solution.”

In the past, Canada had a national housing strategy. But in 1993, Finance Minister Paul Martin announced that the federal government would no longer fund affordable housing projects.  Three years earlier, when in opposition, Martin criticized the Conservatives for doing little to solve Canada’s housing problems.

“When you don’t have a home you don’t belong,” said Dri, a long time resident of Tent City, Toronto’s first major settlement formed in 1998 when a group of homeless individuals built shacks and lean-tos on a property on the waterfront owned by Home Depot.

“No matter where you are somebody can ask you to move along.”

Original article available at: http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/johnbon/2010/10/protesters-renew-call-federal-housing-strategy

Toronto Star: The 39% Problem

Sept 20th, Daniel Dale 2010 by Toronto Star

Mark Woodnutt stands outside a Toronto Community Housing building in St. James Town. As he speaks to a reporter, a man with an unkempt beard and a baseball cap watches him intently.

“Sometimes we really need to convince people that their vote counts,” says Woodnutt, a volunteer with the advocacy group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). “There’s a certain amount of apathy, and — “

“You here for the election?”

Woodnutt wheels to face the man who interrupted him. His name is Mohamed Gedi. As it turns out, he is not at all apathetic.

Gedi, a 31-year-old tenant, is wearing a “Global warming ain’t cool” T-shirt.

In the past, he has voted for Jack Layton in a federal election and George Smitherman in a provincial election.

He wants the local bus stop moved to a more convenient location, he says, and then, unprompted, criticizes controversial statements Rob Ford has made about gays and immigrants.

Then he has a question, which illustrates the lack of clarity about municipal elections in voters’ minds: “How,” he gently asks Woodnutt and two ACORN leaders, “is the mayor elected? Is it like a prime minister is elected — same system as provincial, federal? Everyone belongs to a party?”

Voter turnout in the 2008 federal election, 59 per cent, was a record low. So was turnout in the 2007 Ontario election, 53 per cent. Both of those figures prompted rounds of national and provincial hand-wringing. But turnout in the 2006 Toronto municipal election was much worse.

The official figure was 39 per cent. The true figure may well have been lower; about 250,000 foreign-born residents whose citizenship could not be confirmed were purged from the voters’ list two months before the election.

Politicians at all three levels face some of the same impediments to their get-out-the-vote efforts: cynicism, indifference, frustration. Municipal elections, however, pose unique challenges.

Campaign budgets are smaller, an average of $26,867 in 2006. Campaign volunteers are harder to recruit. The leaflet, not the television advertisement, is the primary advertising medium.

Perhaps more significantly, because incumbent councillors almost always win, it can be hard to convince constituents that voting is worth the effort. Denied the helpful shorthand of a party label, council candidates can also find it difficult to explain how they differ from their opponents.

A large number of voters, meanwhile, lack critical knowledge about the municipal political system. Many, says Mohamed Dhanani, who is challenging Councillor John Parker in Ward 26 (Don Valley West), do not understand that the mayor has the same one vote as every councillor. Many others, says Sharad Sharma, who is challenging Councillor Suzan Hall in Ward 1 (Etobicoke North), believe, as Gedi did, that municipal elections are explicitly partisan.

“Coming from India into the Canadian system,” says Sharma, a first-time candidate who immigrated in 2002, “I believed people would be more advanced, more knowledgeable, and the voter will be more informed. But, ironically, I found it entirely the opposite.”

That Sharma’s Ward 1 had the lowest turnout in the 2006 municipal election, 33 per cent, would not surprise political scientists. Eighty per cent of ward residents were visible minorities; 64 per cent were immigrants; average household income was $16,000 below the citywide average.

Much of Toronto’s voter turnout problem is thought to be the inescapable result of such demographic factors. Some groups, the conventional wisdom suggests, do not show up at the polls no matter what.

This notion is challenged by an unpublished statistical analysis of 2006 Toronto voting by Myer Siemiatycki, a politics professor at Ryerson University, and graduate student Sean Marshall.

They found only a tiny correlation between income and turnout. They also found that turnout in immigrant-heavy wards was significantly closer to turnout in wards with small immigrant populations than in 2003, when the percentage of immigrants in a ward was the key factor related to ward turnout.

The factor that most affected changes in ward turnout between 2003 and 2006 was the competitiveness of council races — suggesting that local dogfights can bring people to the polls no matter what their demographic characteristics.

Ward 26, which includes both the detached homes of leafy, wealthy Leaside and the cramped low-income apartments of Flemingdon Park and Thorncliffe Park, had the highest turnout in 2006. Its race was a no-incumbent free-for-all involving 15 candidates. Parker defeated Dhanani by only 214 votes.

“I think what these results say to candidates is don’t take any voters for granted, and don’t presume there is any group in Toronto that cannot be mobilized to turn out and vote if they perceive there are issues and candidates that are speaking to their concerns,” says Siemiatycki.

“There is volatility to voter turnout and participation. Gone are the days where you could predictably generalize about which groups will vote, what the correlations might be between demographics and voting. They are susceptible to contextual influence; they are not systemic and inherent.”

It is not clear, however, whether turnout differences between areas with few immigrants and many immigrants, and between areas with low income and high income, shrunk in 2006 because immigrants and the poor started voting in greater numbers or because non-immigrants and the rich neglected to participate given that the mayoral outcome was certain.

The traditional disparities, Siemiatycki says, may reappear this year. And given that the mayoral campaign has centred on issues of spending and taxes, he says, home ownership may reassert itself as a key factor. In 2006, he found, areas with high tenant populations managed to slightly outvote areas with high ownership rates — a reversal from the historical norm.

Regardless, he says, “Total voter turnout remains pathetic.”

Better Ballots, a local advocacy group, has drafted 14 changes to the municipal election system, partly in an effort to boost turnout. These include holding the election on a weekend, adding term limits for councillors and introducing municipal parties. If electoral changes are made, says project lead Rob Newman, “then maybe people would feel that their vote would count, and they would come out.”

Leaside is the highest-turnout part of Parker and Dhanani’s highest-turnout ward. Many of its residents do not need to be told their voices are important; in sidewalk interviews this week they described a community of politically savvy professionals highly concerned about their city and their neighbourhood.

“It’s a really involved neighbourhood in every aspect,” says Merzana Martinakis. “Schools, safety; parents are always volunteering, they’re on every single board. . . .”

“We’ll be away, so we’ll go to the early poll,” says Lynne Cook, 57. “That’s how important voting is to us.”

In St. James Town earlier the same afternoon, ACORN’s Edward Lantz slowly attempted to persuade tenant Kim Nguyen, 55, to support candidates who support tenant rights. But when Lantz directly urged her to vote, Nguyen, an immigrant from Asia, said, “Me? I’m too small. . . ”

NOW Magazine: Voices in the void

Oct 1st, 2010 by Ellie Kinzer in the NOW Magazine Toronto

The emergency meeting of One-Toronto that brought 300 to the Church of the Holy Trinity Monday night, September 27, was both gratifying and slightly impossiblist.

The proceedings, which moved with military precision and no audience participation (save a Tabby Johnson singalong), were geared to reframing the current election debate. Backed by a coalition of labour, arts, enviro and social justice groups, OneToronto is dedicated to a vision of the city that “builds on its successes, cares for its neighbours, protects the environment and values community.”

So far, so good.

Chair John McGrath tells the enthusiastic crowd that he’s troubled by the negativity in the campaign. “There’s too much no and not enough yes,” he says, laying out OneToronto’s terms: “We won’t be endorsing any candidate; we want candidates to come to us to adopt our approach.”

Then a roster of impressive activists takes to the stage. Tam Goossen makes a pitch for pushing diversity issues, and Toronto Environmental Alliance’s Franz Hartmann says people have bought into the notion that something is terribly wrong with our city, but there are huge strengths we have to build on.

Annie Kidder scores thunderous clapping when she warns, “Beware of those who want to cut the fat from the system: one man’s or woman’s fat may be another’s flesh and bones.”

Prince Waifeh, an Acorn member, says, “Politicians ignore low-income people, so low-income people are ignoring the politicians.... We have to talk about issues that really matter.”

And former mayor David Crombie offers eloquent pleas for grassroots processes and reminisces about his youthful fight to save this very church, stressing that “the public has to be the push behind City Hall.”

Believe me, I really want to get excited, but my engines, I’m afraid, are starting to sputter. Animator-in-chief Jack Blum of REEL Canada urges the repetition “until you’re sick of it” of the following: 1) Facts, not fury. 2) Protect what’s great about the city. 3) My city includes everybody.

The idea is to ask candidates these questions: how would they tackle climate change, improve city services, invest in communities and further equity and diversity?

Everyone is told to write letters to editors, send video clips to OneToronto’s YouTube channel (onetoronto.ca), tweet messages to the site and text five friends to get them to email questions to candidates.

“We want to get more voices out there than the ones we hear,” says McGrath. Suddenly, sparks of light flicker through the sanctuary as cellphones get turned on for the networking effort.

Here’s my problem. I love all the stuff where people find each other online and feel all mass-movementish. Still, if the purpose is to thump Rob Ford, folks in this room contacting five of their buddies isn’t really going to be that effective, if you see what I mean.

More importantly, I’m not sure whether this crowd under the vaulted ceiling realizes what mix-and-match policy weirdness there is in this election. The David Miller legacy (if we dare use the word), though unacknowledged, hangs in the atmosphere.

So amidst all the chatter on fiscal responsibility and value for tax dollars, you’ll see even conservative-minded candidates, Fordists excluded, scraping together positions on OneToronto’s four concerns. It’s happening on the ward level, too. But while you can ask the four questions, what are the correct answers?

All mayoral hopefuls – minus Ford, who sticks rigidly to script – appear to favour the priority area plan and the liveable city. Conservative Sarah Thomson (no longer a candidate) pushes radical road tolls. Right-wing Rocco Rossi now likes bike lanes and wants to dramatically increase arts funding. George Smitherman’s got the Green Energy Act covered, but he’s also put privatizing garbage service on the table, and a tax freeze.

The truth, it seems, is more than a few questions away. But beyond references to the “values we share,” policy fine points aren’t a big item in the pews tonight. It’s all cozy and fun, but I’m really not sure we’ve made much headway.

Toronto Sun: Woman sleeps on balcony to escape bedbugs

Oct 2nd, 2010 by Ian Robertson in the Toronto Sun

East York resident Lori Howard would dearly love to come in from the cold.

But since bedbugs began biting inside her new flat, she has been sleeping — and changing clothes — on her 10th floor balcony.

“I never had it before,” Howard said Saturday, a day after joining an Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now protest outside the 15-storey privately owned Dawes Rd. building.

ACORN, a tenant activist group, staged the rally to publicize the infestation.

Two days after leaving Vaughan and moving into her new $775-a-month one-bedroom unit, Howard began noticing nasty red bites.

With welts soon all over her body, “I thought I had contracted scabies ... something inside me,” the temporary service factory worker said.

“I’ve seen cockroaches here, but I’ve never found a bedbug ... just blood splotches on my sheets in the morning.

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