A PC MPP is committing to his use of the word "lynching" to describe the questioning he received at a Toronto city council committee meeting, despite the term's historical connections to racially motivated murders.
PC MPP Aris Babikian, who represents Scarborough-Agincourt, appeared via conference call at Toronto's Planning and Housing Committee meeting on Monday, where he expressed his strong opposition to legalizing rooming houses across the City of Toronto.
"If this proposal is approved by the committee and city council you are going to forever ruin the peace, tranquillity and cohesion of our city and turn neighbours against neighbours and families against families," he warned, painting a picture of communities falling apart over the issue.
Rooming houses, which provide some of the most affordable housing in the city through multi-tenant homes, are only licensed in the old city of Toronto and Etobicoke and are legal but not licensed in York. Illegal rooming houses are often unsafe, as they lack the annual inspections that licensed rooming houses receive.
Illegal rooming houses are often a source of constituent complaints in Scarborough and North York, but the city frequently lacks tools to address them.
After he warned the committee that legalizing rooming houses in Scarborough would cause fires and devastation in Toronto neighbourhoods, Babikian received critical questions from councillors who questioned his familiarity with the issue.
The following day, he called it "nothing short of a mob lynching" in a statement, a term he stood by in a conversation with QP Briefing.
Asked by QPB if he was would like to retract the term given the historical context the term comes with, he instead doubled down.
"No, I am not walking back from that term," he said. "Because what happened in that committee was a lynching."
Lynching, an extrajudicial killing used to create both a public spectacle and send a message to minority groups, was a pervasive threat in the United States used to historically hold back civil rights from and express white power and dominance over Black people. The practice gained momentum in the Reconstruction period in the American South and was a symbol of oppression over many decades as African-Americans tried to gain and assert their civil rights.
"Lynching is a horrendous act used to target African-American people in the civil rights period and beyond," said NDP MPP Jessica Bell, who called on Babikian to explain why he used the term, which she found inappropriate.
But Babikian feels he was victimized by his city hall appearance.
He plans to complain to Toronto's integrity commissioner about the conduct by four city councillors, contending that they "abused their power," did not allow him to answer their questions, and they should face sanctions. He also wants apologies from them.
At the committee hearing, Babikian was asked questions from councillors Gord Perks, Shelley Carroll, Paula Fletcher and Ana Bailao.
"Are you aware of the current difficulties of enforcement, that under provincial law we don't even have power of entry in an illegal rooming house unless we're invited in. You're aware of that constraint?" asked Carroll at Monday's meeting.
"Well you have a bylaw officer—" responded Babikian, before Carroll interjected to direct him to the provincial limits on municipal enforcement. Babikian followed up by saying that framing the issues as one between legal and illegal rooming houses is "not fair to anyone." He continued to say, "What does the city do to shut down these places? Nothing."
"I'm not hearing an answer to my question," commented Carroll. "I'm not sure that I will."
On another question from Carroll, Babikian incorrectly responded that the most recent deaths from fire in a Toronto rooming house were in a licensed home. All of the deaths in Toronto rooming houses over the past decade have occurred in illegal homes.
Perks, who has advocated for licensed rooming houses for much of his time on Toronto city council, had a similar experience. He said that one issue is that low-income Torontonians do not have sufficient access to affordable housing, especially people who live on support from the $390 maximum a single adult can get from Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program. "Can you name a single apartment in Toronto that is rentable at $390?" he asked.
Babikian bristled at the question. "You are here just to make your point," he responded.
"They didn't want to hear my answers," he told QPB. "They were there intentionally to target me," he added, alleging it was a "sham meeting" and drawing comparisons to a "dictatorship."
Babikian also charged that it was "suspicious" that the rooming house report only came out two weeks before the committee meeting, which in his view did not allow sufficient time for residents to digest the report and add their input. The issue has been discussed at city hall for the past decade, and two weeks is a typical amount of time for agenda items to be posted before committee meetings. Consultations on rooming houses have occurred since 2014, two virtual town halls were conducted in May, and 11 virtual workshops took place in April and May, according to the staff report on the issue.
Asked how he could contend that there was insufficient consultation on this issue when the PC government has time allocated several bills and bypassed committee hearings on some of them altogether, he at first denied the practice by the provincial government. Asked when the public was consulted on the government's most recent legislation to invoke the notwithstanding clause for the first time he instead said the comparison was irrelevant.
Rooming houses have been an issue in Toronto for decades, with a patchwork framework of laws and regulations meaning that some of the city's most vulnerable people live in unsafe conditions where they do not feel like they have recourse to object, according to the councillors pushing for change.
"There are thousands of people living in unsafe, often squalid conditions," Perks told QP Briefing. Licensed rooming houses, like those in Perks' Parkdale-area ward, receive annual safety and regulatory inspections. Illegal rooming houses currently do not. "Unlicensed rooming houses are fire traps," he said, pointing to about a couple dozen deaths in Toronto in those conditions over the past decade.
He argued that rooming houses, rather than being a sign of blight, are the mark of a healthy and diverse housing market. "A successful housing market will provide a wide range of housing typologies at a wide range of prices," he contended.
Bell concurred with that assessment. "People who are low-income need to have a place to live in the most expensive housing market Canada has ever seen," she argued, saying that the party's stance is that rooming houses serve a "critical need" in the broader housing market. She added that the lack of regulations is the cause of unsafe rooming house conditions, and introducing licensing would help address Babikian's concerns about the impact on neighbourhoods.
Babikian's strong objection to rooming houses comes in a context where the PC government has argued that Ontario is experiencing a housing crisis at the moment, and needs to rapidly increase supply in order to ensure affordability for Ontarians.
Asked to comment on how Babikian's efforts to thwart rooming house legalization aligns with those objectives and whether the provincial government would intervene on the issue, a spokesperson for Housing Minister Steve Clark declined to comment specifically on the matter. "Our government is taking action to address the housing crisis, and we will continue to work with all levels of government to ensure that everyone has a safe space to call home," stated Krystle Caputo.
"As this is a local zoning decision for the local government, the minister has no comment."