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LETTER: Aurora council must act to provide adequate housing for all

'It’s time for Aurora’s politicians to reflect on treating everyone equally,' says letter writer in wake of rejection of York Region's rezoning application for an emergency shelter and transitional housing facility
Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas is shown during a recent meeting.

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Re: Aurora council rejects controversial shelter proposal by 4-3 vote, Feb. 14, 2024.

It is incredibly sad that in 2024 in Canada, privileged people still wield persuasive power, aided by the current mayor and some councillors of the Town of Aurora, to oppress urgent housing for those who need emergency and transitional support.

There is no argument about a housing crisis in this province, which motivated the premier of Ontario to hand out strong mayor powers to various mayors to commit their municipalities to accept more housing growth, and speed up the development application process.

However, the real crisis is an affordable housing problem.

Doug Ford’s special powers for mayors, however, is quickly backfiring. It’s not helping extra housing to be approved everywhere — especially in communities where wealthier, privileged people reside.

In Aurora, we have a perfect example of the mayor’s strong powers going awry. The mayor of Aurora is on public record stating he likely would not use the special powers if granted — alas, that isn’t the case.

At a Feb. 13 public planning meeting, there was a request to rezone a parcel of land owned by the Regional Municipality of York on Yonge Street in south Aurora. For three years, the region has been wanting to build a much needed emergency and transitional building for homeless men since homelessness is growing at a rapid rate in York Region. The application was denied by four (Mayor Mrakas, councillors Kim, Thompson and Gallo) of the town’s seven-member council.

The York Region-owned site was chosen more than two years ago. The mayor in his capacity as a regional councillor knew the region’s intention. Plus, Aurora’s council had previously gone through a public planning application from the region one year ago. At the Feb. 13 meeting, however, an organized group of opponents, who do not want homeless men as their neighbours, came out in full force with their hired land use planner to mount their objections, demonstrating the gap in power and resources between the haves and have-nots.

Aurora has a well-known, troubling history of opposing some forms of housing. Habitat for Humanity had hoped to build a home for a family on a vacant lot in 2002. Privileged neighbours from the surrounding neighbourhood objected to the home being built, stating the need for green space for their children to play on despite the size of the lot.

It wasn’t until 2014, 12 years later, that a Habitat home finally happened in Aurora — long after other York Region municipalities had welcomed and partnered with Habitat for Humanity for a number of years. The townhome was already built by a developer in a new subdivision, who opened the door for Habitat to take over the interior build of a single unit.

As there were no existing neighbours to object and the application for that development was approved prior to the developer partnering with Habitat, it meant council had no real involvement other than to boast politically that Aurora at last had a Habitat for Humanity home, too. Of course, several councillors (some who still sit on council today, who denied the region’s application) were on hand to smile for the media pictures with the Habitat for Humanity family.

Shelter opponents claim the site is unsuitable — not the end use. Newmarket Mayor John Taylor, who presented at the meeting in his capacity as chair of Housing York Inc., the seventh largest social housing provider in Ontario, said it is one of the best sites for servicing homeless men. Interestingly, the Aurora ward where the region hopes to build the shelter had the lowest in-person voter turnout in the last municipal election compared to other wards in Aurora. Overall, the last election saw around 30 per cent of Aurora’s population come out to vote, which is dismal and why we are still labouring under patriarchal-minded politicians. So, it begs the question: Why are small groups of objectors being given so much weight by the mayor?

The mayor, who chaired the public meeting, attempted at the outset of the meeting to set an arbitrary new process. It was clearly a deliberate attempt to limit the public’s voice and shape the meeting the mayor’s way. This is not democracy — it’s an abuse of the mayor’s power. Was this done because of the Ontario Human Rights Commissions’s (OHRC) letter to council last year cautioning them against planning based on any prejudicial comments or bias as referenced in the act?

Was the mayor truly trying to ensure no one said anything to breach the OHRC legislation, which is why he insisted all comments from the public had to be land use policy related? Or did the mayor misinterpret the OHRC’s letter? The letter was actually directed to the mayor and councillors from last year’s public planning meeting in regard to the inappropriateness of acting upon bias about the type of clients for whom the housing facility would provide service. The letter was never meant to curb socially minded citizens from speaking out about what they want for their fellow citizens in need — yet their voices were stifled by the mayor.

Isn’t it time to realize every person, no matter their race, class, culture, religion, citizen or immigrant, should have the same rights to be decently housed everywhere — including in Aurora?

It’s time for Aurora’s politicians to reflect on treating everyone equally. The more fortunate and privileged property owners in Aurora should not be given ‘special’ status or weighted influence by the mayor. Everyone deserves respect and dignity, including the least fortunate among us.

And to Councillor John Gallo: Do you really think your suggestion to consider the Aurora-owned property at Mosley and Yonge is a better spot for a men’s homeless shelter? While it might help to cover and absolve council’s past poor real estate purchase headed by the mayor, who wasted $7.5 million of taxpayers’ money to buy the property without a predetermined use, should one bad council decision get corrected by another bad decision?

Yonge and Mosley is a poorly thought-out location for the following reasons. There is little infrastructure downtown to support the potential clients’ daily needs. No grocery stores, banks, green space for exercise or growing food, or employment opportunities. As well, the train whistle noise — one of the objections to the regional site — can easily be heard at this downtown property. Concern ought to be similarly evaluated considering the whistles will intensify to every seven minutes when the second rail is installed later this year and council has been doing nothing about abating the train horns despite repeated requests from local citizens for years.

By suggesting the region build its housing facility on this town-owned surplus property, it would become an integral and highly visible part of Aurora’s supposed jewel — the $65-million Aurora Civic Square within Aurora’s cultural precinct. Most close-by neighbours, however, will most likely not oppose the shelter, considering the homeless have been a part of our downtown community for years. They are cared for and fed Wednesday evenings, Saturday mornings and Thursday afternoons by Trinity Anglican, the United Church and Presbyterian Church.

Some homeless have been known to sleep on church grounds and town park overnight. The Yellow Brick House and Second Stage Housing have been our neighbours for years with no problems, as well as an addiction rehabilitation centre. If our downtown neighbourhood has borne no ill effects, why would the region’s chosen site affect the estate homes as suggested by several opposing delegates?

It’s time for some members of Aurora’s council to reflect on serving all the people, especially if the municipality wants to promote the Town of Aurora as a caring, socially minded, fair place to live — because at the moment it is anything but.

S. Morton-Leonard