The Late 1980s Crisis in Toronto Public Housing Part I – Disability and Danger

Aerial photograph of a city landscape.

Aerial photo of MTHA development Regent Park circa 1980-1998. Copyright City of Toronto.

David M. K. Sheinin

This is the first of four articles on Toronto public housing in the late 1980s. This first article introduces the series then focuses on disability and public housing. The second addresses a new social role for the Metropolitan Toronto Housing Authority (MTHA) that included providing breakfast for children in need and mounting after-school programs on MTHA properties. The third considers tenant advocacy and the final article explores problems in public housing in the Jane-Finch neighborhood. To protect their privacy, initials substitute for the names of residents who are or may still be alive. Language used on “disability” reflects terminology used in the 1980s.

On May 25, 1987, SMJ sent a handwritten letter to John Sewell, Metro Toronto Housing Authority (MTHA) chair and former mayor of Toronto. Like hundreds of letters Sewell received from public housing residents—most of which he answered or addressed personally—SMJ’s note was all at once smart, raw, and to the point. She approached Sewell as a potential ally. “I am not a delinquent in my rent payments,” SMJ wrote, “nor am I a trouble maker.” She itemized problems in her unit that included unchanged door locks since occupancy, a bathroom floor in need of retiling, and poor plastering. She told Sewell of the “standard rehearsed excuses” from MTHA employees that included “We don’t have the tools necessary” and “I don’t have a work order for that.”

It got worse. SMJ wrote that some MTHA workers implausibly accused tenants of soliciting them while tenants reasonably accused workers of propositioning them. “We are not whores, pimps and dealers all, just as blue collar government employees are not all overpaid and under worked.” According to SMJ, tenants dreaded reprisals from MTHA staff for requesting repairs. “They fear eviction, improper use of keys to enter suites, mail tampering, destruction to home, pets or loss of personal belongings.”

Appointed MTHA chair in 1986 by Ontario premier David Peterson,[1] Sewell walked into a maelstrom. In addition to the sorts of everyday problems SMJ and hundreds of other tenants signaled, he tried to address fire hazards, elevators routinely out of order, and growing violence toward residents linked to gangs and illicit drug sales. Over his two-year term as chair, Sewell was increasingly at odds with MTHA general manager Kevin Gaul whom he found insufficiently attentive to the sorts of problems SMJ raised. Under Sewell’s leadership,  the housing authority tried to improve tenant consultation and encourage resident advocacy; recognize potential discriminatory barriers to single parents, people with disabilities and mental illness, and new immigrants; eliminate the harshness of eviction rules; and recognize the organization’s social function in assigning space for child care, after-school programs, and more. Residents were largely supportive of Sewell’s mandate and saw him as a positive force for pro-tenant reforms. This became evident in 1988 when the provincial government fired him as MTHA chair in a controversial move that saw an outpouring of support from residents and social service agencies. (More on this in the final instalment of this series).

However, despite his advocacy for tenants, conditions in Toronto public housing grew worse. Sewell was a pragmatic administrator dedicated to a financial bottom line. That meant evictions were inevitable for those unable to pay their rent. He faced the impossible task of balancing an insufficient budget, a paucity of public housing units, and an exponential rise in on-site violence in a city that over the preceding two decades had seen hundreds of rooming houses and other low-cost housing units bulldozed by property developers. The data were grim. In 1987, a study by the Canadian Council on Social Development found that 54.7 percent of those in temporary housing shelters in Canada were unemployed. Current and ex-psychiatric patients accounted for 20.1 percent; 51.5 percent were receiving social assistance; 9.4 percent had been evicted; 33.3 percent were alcohol abusers and 15.0 percent drug abusers; while 3.1 percent were physically handicapped. It might have been a list of those who had recently lost and were most at risk of losing their public housing homes to eviction in Toronto.

The Death of Gertrude Wright

In 1980s Toronto, how people understood disability was so ambiguous and so open to interpretation that disabled MTHA residents often followed one of two paths. They were evicted for non-payment of rent or for changes in their personal circumstances that made them ineligible for an apartment. Alternatively, with the assistance of health professionals and community service agencies, facing eviction, they were able to negotiate some sort of individual arrangement with MTHA that allowed them to stay in their homes. The death in 1987 of Gertrude Wright, a pioneer in the fight for the rights of those with disabilities, prompted an alarmed call to action by the investigating coroner. In her report, Dr. Margaret Milton underscored the urgency of dramatic changes required of public housing bureaucracies in Ontario. She called for immediate and specific action to accommodate disabled persons. For three reasons, however, progress in the MTHA through the 1990s was sluggish. There were insufficient funds. MTHA managers were not prepared to act with the urgency Milton had demanded. And combined with these factors, because as a matter of law, disability remained so vague a descriptor, much remained unchanged for residents with disabilities.

In April 1988, JD faced eviction for reasons MTHA managers had addressed for hundreds of other residents. The Children’s Aid Society of Toronto had taken custody of her children. This meant that she was no longer eligible for an apartment the size of her current residence. But in addition, she had fallen behind on her rent payments, so could not occupy a smaller apartment, according to MTHA rules. Furthermore, MTHA employees had decided that her alcoholism was related to her non-payment of rent and had spoken to her about her alcohol consumption. That is, MTHA had unreasonably blended a moral judgment on alcoholism (a medical condition) with the question of non-payment and apartment size. Though JD was disabled, this was not taken into account by MTHA.

Jane Finch Community Legal Services wrote MTHA on JD’s behalf noting that, in keeping with her changed family situation, she had requested a smaller apartment, had a medical conditions that rendered her disabled, and now asked that housing continue to be provided to her for an extended period “thereby enhancing rehabilitation and subsequent recovery.” There was an attached letter from JD’s physician itemizing medical conditions that included alcoholism, suicide attempts, chronic pulmonary disease, and squamous cell carcinoma of the cervix. The physician noted that JD’s alcoholism and pulmonary disease “constitute a real physical barrier” for her to maintain employment and estimated that “these disabilities” would improve over the next year.

As was often the case when residents had community organization support, John Sewell addressed the case himself noting that MTHA had already obtained a writ of eviction but had not served it yet. JD was in arrears $1000 on a monthly rent of $92 (and there were unpaid damage charges). Two months before the letter from Jane Finch Community Legal Services, Sewell participated in an MTHA case meeting with JD to discuss her “money and alcohol problems” and to decide whether, if she cleared arrears, she might be transferred to a smaller unit. Now, responding to pressure from Jane Finch Community Legal Services, he directed simply that she be placed in a one-room unit—case closed.

Restricted to a wheelchair for 25 years, Gertrude Wright faced a slew of medical problems that, beginning in 1975, had brought her under the care of Dr. Sydney Gershon at St. Michael’s Hospital. Twenty-two years later, at the coroner’s inquest into her death, Gershon testified that during her many visits to the hospital, Wright refused to stay in care longer than was strictly necessary. Because she fell frequently, sending her home each time caused Gershon ongoing concern. “I was taking a calculated risk. We got away with it for 10 years,” he stated grimly.

A bilateral double amputee who lived on her own in an MTHA apartment at 200 Wellesley Street East, Wright had followed up complaints to the MTHA with a lawsuit against the Ontario Housing Corporation (OHC, which oversaw the MTHA) for its failure to remodel her home to provide access for the handicapped in government housing. That pioneering lawsuit fell by the wayside when she died.

The coroner, Dr. Margaret Milton, described her cause of death on April 10, 1987 as cardiac arrest due to staph-septicemia and pyleonephritis which had drawn on her history of hypertension, epilepsy, diabetes, a heart attack and several strokes. For a double amputee, Milton wrote, “the fact that she broke her wrist could have produced additional problems in her ability to look after herself.” “Our health care system is set up,” Milton went on, “to encourage this independence and to provide medical, therapeutic, and assistance services…. But along with that, our housing system did not necessarily provide an environment which would have enabled Gertrude Wright to live her life at her greatest potential.”

Milton’s recommendations to the government were more forceful. She wrote that “all ministries should review their programmes to ensure they are designed so that all persons, including disabled persons, be able to direct their own care, and live independently, and this right should be respected by the government, physicians, health care professionals, and the general public.” Though advocacy groups such as Persons United for Self Help in Ontario (PUSH) had been calling for such changes for years, that an officer of the Crown would make so bold a criticism of the status quo was revolutionary. There was more. Milton called for an immediate overhaul of government home care services to enable clients to live full lives; a central, transparent registry of disabled accessible and modified public housing units; and obligatory consultations by local housing authorities with architects trained in barrier free design toward accessibility modifications. The Ontario government would provide new funding to make certain that each of the recommendations and the modification of public housing be implemented immediately.

There were additional specific recommendations for MTHA. The agency should immediately issue a personal offer to disabled tenants to modify their units in a manner that would suit their needs, and hire an occupational therapist to assist tenants in deciding on modifications. A public housing unit would have to be modified to meet tenant needs before occupancy and should a disabled tenant need a transfer to a more accessible home, “that should be reason enough to grant a priority transfer.” Milton argued further that no future government funded public housing in Ontario should be built without barrier free designs and at least 5 percent of all units be accessible to the physically handicapped. Construction of new housing to meet the needs of the disabled and to end the current housing crisis in Toronto should begin immediately. In the meantime, modifications of existing MTHA apartments should be undertaken now to eliminate waiting lists for accessible housing. Local MTHA managers should have no discretion on such modifications.

As a result of the Wright inquest, the Ministry of Housing commissioned PUSH to report on affordable housing for persons with disability. The report was submitted in September 1988. Much of it brought to light Gertrude Wright’s experiences. Twenty percent of OHC tenants ran into significant delays in repairs and modifications to their units. Some had waited as long as three years. Both tenants and housing managers seemed unclear as to who was responsible for modifications. Tenants were told there was no money for repairs. Some were injured as a result of poor snow removal, or trapped at home because of snowbanks or non-functioning elevators. As had Margaret Milton, PUSH argued that repairs, modifications and maintenance of relevant units “must take place quickly and judiciously.”

MTHA took limited action. A June 1988 MTHA report counted wheelchair users in Toronto public housing by district and by apartment size (there were 250). But it also signaled MTHA’s evolving, informal position that change would not take place quickly, and may even lumber along for a long time. It suggested a new system by which wheelchair users “considered at risk” be moved more quickly than others to modified apartments. Yet, MTHA found that there was no process in place to alert management staff that an offer of a new apartment was being made to a disabled person. “Common sense,” the report continued, “indicates the check [of the offered apartment] should occur before the offer, in case the unit or building cannot be made accessible.” That was impossible when managers were unaware of offers made. There was also no procedure to ensure flexibility of available move-in dates in MTHA to assure basic modifications might be completed before a tenant were to change homes. There were no proposed solutions to these problems.

MTHA struck a Committee on the Disabled that included senior managers and also concluded tangentially that change would likely be slow. Some of the language at committee meetings disparaged residents. Minutes of a 4 October 1988 meeting reported that automatically operating doors had been installed at 15 Tobermory Drive (MTHA housing in the Jane and Finch neighborhood) and “the kids in the building have yet to discover how to break them.” At every turn, the committee projected delays. Attempts to find a supplier for bathroom/bedroom adjustable grab bars have “met unavoidable delays.” Because of change in the tenant executive at 225 Morningside Avenue, information on modifications to common areas remained “unavailable.” A discussion about the installation of a porch lift for a unit included the detail that even without the modification, the family would not move and that the cost of modifying the unit in question was greater that modifying costs to other units. Cost would have to be a determining factor in which modifications to make in public housing, with decisions on priorities falling to the committee. If modifications represented a precedent, overall cost to the MTHA over time would also have to be considered in decision making. Undefined “unusual modifications” would only be approved on a case by case basis.

The radical tone struck by Margaret Milton in her coroner’s report did not bring the change she had insisted was needed. The beginnings of accurate, broad legal descriptors of disability that addressed Milton’s concerns came only in 1990 with a major revision of the Ontario Human Rights Code. But the problems that the Gertrude Wright, JD, and hundreds of other public housing cases had raised became legally actionable only after dozens of legal precedents in the decades that followed that forced change in public housing. One example is Yale v. Metropoulos (1992) where an Ontario Board of Inquiry found that a landlord discriminated against a blind woman when they cancelled an apartment viewing without notifying her and on discovering her condition. It was not until fourteen years after the death of Gertrude Wright that a Board of Inquiry found in Iness v. Caroline Co-operative Homes Inc. (2001) that it was discriminatory for a landlord or their representative to treat SMJ and other tenants as “promiscuous” simply because they were tenants on social assistance.

David M. K. Sheinin is professor of history at Trent University and académico correspondiente of the Academia Nacional de la Historia de la República Argentina. His most recent book, co-edited with C. Nathan Hatton, is Statues and Legacies of Combat Athletes in the Americas (Lexington Books, 2024).

Further Reading:

Human Rights Code, R.S.O. 1990, c. H. 19, amended 2023. https://www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/90h19

Smith, Nancy. 1995. “Challenges of Public Housing in the 1990s: The Case of Ontario, Canada.” Housing Policy Debate 6 (4): 905–31. doi:10.1080/10511482.1995.9521209.

Sutor, Greg. Still Renovating: A History of Canadian Social Housing Policy. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016.

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[1] In 1986, MTHA was a dependency of the provincial government. Today, it’s successor body, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation is run by a board appointed by the City of Toronto.

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