Co-op housing smear has no merit

Monday, June 21, 2004


Written by Scott Piatkowski

For nearly 15 years, Jack Layton's political opponents have being trying to smear him on the basis that he and his family once lived in a housing co-op. Every time they do, the false allegation that he was somehow cheating the system by doing so is thoroughly refuted. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop the same falsehoods from being brought up again and again.

A recent Toronto Life profile noted that “Having enjoyed the comforts of the Eggleton era, the city’s right wing feared a Layton win and hauled out its heavy weaponry, calling him a leftist ‘loony’ and painting his choice to live in co-op housing on Jarvis Street as a sneaky way to pay subsidized rents. Though the charges were false, he and Chow had to cope with staged protests outside their building. ‘There was a lot of red-baiting,’ says Layton’s former ward mate, Pam McConnell.” Layton himself has called the attacks as “brilliantly executed smear attempt”.

Now that Mr. Layton is increasing his visibility and popularity on the national stage and becoming a real threat to the political status quo, his opponents are again working overtime in trying to smear him. How pathetic that this is all they have (or think they have) on him.

The co-op smear was recently posted on Liberal MP Dennis Mills' website (disguised as a constituent comment) and has reportedly been repeated by Liberal campaigners on doorsteps in at least three ridings. Other recent “sightings” have included:

  • On February 17, Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis responded to an NDP question about the sponsorship scandal by saying, “I am wondering if the honourable member would like to go down the path of Jack Layton and Olivia Chow living in co-op housing. Did we forget that? No.”
  • Later in February, a letter writer to the CBC program The House repeated the allegation. My letter was read on air, and described as "one of many" that the show had received which refuted the charge.
  • In March, CBC.ca columnist Larry Zolf (who apparently doesn’t listen to The House) charged that “the couple [Layton and Chow] lived in a co-operative housing unit when their joint income was far above their fellow tenants.” The comment was subsequently removed from the article and a correction posted.
  • On May 31, Toronto Sun columnist John Downing charged that “Layton and Chow blossomed in the incubator of leftist downtown Toronto politics. They're used to living off the public purse of fat expenses and perks. Who can forget when they… tried to brazen out living in a subsidized co-op apartment?”
  • On June 4, Gillian Cosgrove of The National Post wrote that “[Jack Layton and Olivia Chow] once lived in a taxpayer subsidized co-op apartment.... It took some audacity, then, for Mr. Layton last week to accuse Paul Martin of being responsible for the deaths of countless homeless Canadians.”

One of the truly impressive and innovative aspects of co-op housing is that it is DESIGNED to be a mixed-income community. Ghettoizing low-income people has never worked; co-ops do. It seems that his political opponents cannot understand why someone who could afford to live in more luxurious accommodations would instead choose to live in a modest apartment in a community that features a wide diversity of incomes and backgrounds. But Jack Layton did and, frankly, I think that its something of which he can be justifiably proud. As a recent Toronto Life profile noted, “these choices were all born of a belief that politics is less a job than a lifestyle.”
Jack Layton paid full market rent when he lived in the co-op, and received no government subsidy. His co-op membership did not deny housing to a single low-income person. When he first moved in, Olivia Chow was already living there with her mother. The two households were later combined into one. By all accounts, they participated in their co-op community like any other member. The reality of co-op housing is that, if market payers don't fill the market units, those units are left vacant and the co-op can't pay its bills. The mortgage doesn't get paid, the roof doesn't get fixed, and everybody in the co-op is at risk of losing their home.
When confronted, some critics argue that the $800 per month rent paid in 1989 was a bargain, and point to a CMHC mortgage subsidy paid to the co-op. But, this mortgage subsidy is necessary to operate a housing co-op during its initial years of operation (or, put another way, it’s the financial gap that prevents the private sector from building affordable housing). Layton and Chow made special arrangements to repay their portion of that subsidy to CMHC.
This is not a scandal, and never was a scandal. The only scandal relating to co-op housing that we should be discussing during this election campaign is the fact that Paul Martin’s 1995 budget pulled federal government money out of programs to build more housing co-ops.

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