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'We can do better': Aurora mayor rejects proposed shelter location

Tom Mrakas posts, then deletes video suggesting a better location could be found for 55-unit facility ahead of Feb. 13 meeting
Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas listening to residents during a public open house on a proposed emergency housing facility on Yonge Street.

Aurora Mayor Tom Mrakas is standing by his criticism of a proposed new emergency shelter for homeless individuals despite deleting a video he posted on social media on the subject. 

In the video the mayor posted Feb. 6, he suggested there should be a better site for the 55-unit shelter the Regional Municipality of York has proposed at 14452 Yonge St. With a Feb. 13 public planning meeting upcoming, Mrakas said a comparative analysis of other sites is needed for a fact-based decision.

Aurora council has to decide on this project “based on what, exactly?” Mrakas asked in the now-deleted video. “That it’s better than nothing? … We can do better.”

The proposed location has garnered fierce opposition from neighbouring groups. Many residents at a public planning meeting in 2023 professed concern about lower property values, and crime, though the Ontario Human Rights Commission wrote the town stating those are not valid reasons to deny the project.

Housing York has developed the proposal for the facility located near the Henderson Sewage Pumping Station to help address a significant need for shelter space in the community. It will replace Porter Place in East Gwillimbury, with York Region staff saying the Yonge Street location is more central with better service access.

But the location is not far  — about 83 metres — from train tracks, something that Mrakas called attention to in his video. Mrakas took a clip from the manager of affordable housing development Melissa McEnroe’s presentation at the planning meeting last year for the project.

“What does regional staff think of a site by the railroad tracks?” Mrakas said.

“Very unfortunately, for many many years, when the Ontario government, previously federal, they put them in very less-than-ideal spots,” McEnroe said. “There’s a lot of older housing buildings in York Region, Toronto and others that are located near railroad tracks.”

The clip is taken from a presentation McEnroe did highlighted how the proposed spot is in a central location.

“It is quite rare to find a site with this much space around it,” McEnroe said.

The region considered several sites, McEnroe said, noting they desired Aurora for its central location. She said “some came up, some fell through,” but with York Region purchasing the land for the pumping station, she said she saw it would be a suitable location for the shelter.  

Housing Services acting general manager Karen Antonio-Hadcock said the region determined Porter Place was too expensive to retrofit. The region considered other locations, such as the former Howard Johnson Hotel at 15520 Yonge St, she said. But the chosen location at 14452 Yonge met all the region's criteria, locational and financial, she added. 

Asked about the video deletion, Aurora communications manager Carley Smith said the mayor stands by the video but will expand upon it at the upcoming Feb. 13 planning meeting, with an updated video coming after the meeting.

Asked about the video, chair of Housing York and Newmarket Mayor John Taylor said there is a need to move quickly to build spaces to address homelessness.

"The current site is one of the best sites I have ever seen for a shelter and housing site. The site is also region owned," Taylor said. "The public has told us we need to do more and we need to act quickly. The opportunity is here to do just that. It is my deep hope that this site is approved and we can begin to move people from crisis to stability as soon as possible."

Housing advocates have pushed for the shelter to go ahead. Blue Door CEO Michael Braithwaite said he was deeply disappointed to see the video, adding that he endorsed Mrakas in the last election based on his backing of this site. Braithwaite said he broke a personal rule about endorsement to do so. 

“This is a good site,” Braithwaite said. “The region team has put hundreds of hours into analyzing this site to make sure it was the right site at a high cost. One of the benefits of this site is that it was owned by the region, as it would cost millions to buy land for this project elsewhere ... It’s my hope that the mayor and the council can remain open to great discussion to have all their questions answered on Tuesday.", an organized group of residents opposing the shelter site, said it welcomed the “calls for additional transparency into this process.”

“York Region doesn't seem to have given other locations any serious consideration,” the group said. “As development decisions are routinely controversial, especially those on the Oak Ridges Moraine, standardized criteria and objective evaluations against them would seem to benefit all concerned parties.”

Braithwaite said he hopes there can be respectful conversation in the days ahead.

“Remember, people experiencing homelessness are just neighbours without a home,” he added.

Aurora council will hear from the public at a public planning meeting Feb. 13 at 7 p.m. at the town hall. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the distance between the train tracks and the proposed site was about 190 metres. It is in fact about 83 metres. NewmarketToday apologizes for the error.