Reema Patel is a Toronto-based writer and lawyer. She is the author of the novel Such Big Dreams.
After my first year of law school in 2009, I spent the summer in Mumbai working as an intern at a human-rights law organization. That June, a major fire tore through an informal housing settlement called Behrampada, a predominantly Muslim community nestled between a train station in a splashy suburb and a major commercial hub. The land on which it sits is considered a gold mine, waiting to be commodified into shopping malls or luxury apartments.
According to reports, hundreds of huts were gutted in the Behrampada blaze. News media reported conflicting numbers, but at least one person died, 29 were injured and 2,000 were left homeless. Officials did not determine the cause of the fire but residents and housing-rights advocates alleged foul play, pointing the finger at private developers looking to snag a piece of prime real estate.
Each rainy monsoon morning that I travelled to work on the local trains, I passed the carnage left by the fire. Roofs were missing, walls were blackened. It was as though someone had torched the place from the sky. Families were forced to pitch tents under the nearby skywalk. For weeks, the air surrounding the station was heavy with woodsmoke, petrichor and grief.
Although the destruction and displacement were not insignificant, the fire went largely underreported. Barely anyone in my Mumbai social circle who wasn’t a human-rights lawyer was talking about it. In fact, I heard more comments about how settlements like Behrampada were holding the city back.
Mumbai could be a world class city, like Shanghai, if it weren’t for communities like Behrampada, an unmemorable guy with an MBA lamented about his hometown one Sunday afternoon as we watched a tennis match with friends at a bar.
I didn’t really engage Mr. MBA, mostly because I didn’t want to admit I had no clue what made a city world-class. Gleaming skyscrapers piercing the clouds? Tree-lined boulevards? Perhaps it was the absence of things. Like the persistent trace element of sewage in the air. Or the unflattering sight of poor people who are priced out of a city that demands their labour but won’t house them.
After my internship ended, I returned home to Toronto. Throughout law school and afterward, I thought a lot about Behrampada, but back home I was a world away.
What myths contribute to our ideas about who is entitled to occupy land, and who isn’t?
Who has the right to a living space in a city, and on what terms?
I didn’t have answers to these questions. So I carried on: graduating, getting called to the bar and spending the next 10 years exploring a healthy mix of careers in law, ombudsman investigations and policy development.
As the years went by, I worked closely on municipal housing-related files, from social housing to shelters. It struck me then how different the housing crises in both Toronto and Mumbai seemed from each other.
In Mumbai, about 60 per cent of people live and work in informal settlements, with poor sanitation, hazardous working conditions and very little regulation of living conditions. Families of 10 share a 200-square-foot apartment. Babies are born to mothers living under a tarp on a busy street.
In Toronto, you wouldn’t see a baby living on a sidewalk, but you do see growing numbers of unhoused people, some of whom feel safer setting up camps on publicly-owned land than in shelters. You hear of families waiting for more than a decade to get into public housing. You see private landlords routinely discriminating against low-income individuals, especially those who are racialized or Indigenous. You see renovictions, and rooming houses in gentrifying neighbourhoods being bought and converted back into single-family homes.
It wasn’t until recently that I started to recognize the similarities in each crisis, as different as both cities are. In particular, the dominant policy solutions support political agendas favouring the real estate industry and the outsourcing of state responsibility to the private sector, creating new markets around poverty.
Being a “world-class city” is used as an aspirational tool by politicians, government officials, public intellectuals and the media in a way that reinforces the concentration of power and capital. The concept ignores a population’s social and economic needs, and normalizes consequences such as gentrification and displacement.
Mumbai had been on its world-class city trajectory since the early 2000s, after a report written by McKinsey & Company influenced the state government’s plans to make the city more attractive to international business investment. In order to create space for new, affluent residents and their consumption-driven lifestyles, the government relied on forced eviction of people living in informal housing settlements, destroying livelihoods and communities. Between November, 2004, and February, 2005, they demolished 80,000 homes in 44 informal settlements without any rehabilitation plans. Since then, public policy has focused on using slums as a vehicle to facilitate the clearing of public land by awarding development rights as compensation to private landowners to build rehabilitation units.
While the origins of the housing crisis in Toronto are multifaceted, major policy challenges boil down to the fact that municipalities in Ontario are responsible for delivering and expanding social housing and homelessness services without adequate funding from the provincial or federal governments. Additionally, provincial policies on social assistance, minimum wage and funding for mental-health supports have put further pressure on the housing system by affecting low-income residents’ ability to pay rising rents.
In Toronto, the dominant political discourse centres around building more affordable housing. This kind of thinking, which fits conveniently into election slogans, misses the fact that a person’s inability to find and keep affordable housing is affected by their income, employment opportunities, working conditions, access to education and training, access to mental-health and addiction supports, and social connectedness.
In the face of an aging population, increasing disparities in gender, race and ability, a global refugee crisis, climate change, and the financial and social effects of COVID-19, the housing crisis is unsolvable without federal leadership that holds provinces accountable and empowers municipalities, while also providing new revenue sources.
Cities are an important site of political struggle, and the state of housing in both Mumbai and Toronto casts light on the challenges that arise from profit-driven development. Without a collective social movement that both challenges the outsourcing of state responsibility to the private sector and demands intergovernmental co-operation and action, city-dwellers can expect to face a bleak future where an overreliance on the pursuit of profit further deepens inequality, and their social and economic needs remain unmet.
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