Canada, Toronto, MEDIA, Squatters clean, repair building

Squatters clean, repair building Poverty activists won't end protest until city takes over By Kerry Gillespie

A group of anti-poverty activists - long vilified by politicians and police for its attention-grabbing antics - is working overtime to turn the occupation of an abandoned Parkdale building into more than that. Using donated materials, supporters of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) are cleaning and repairing floors, walls, ceilings and everything in between in their bid to turn 1510 King St. W. into affordable housing. But the group hopes professionals, with government money, will soon take over.

Dubbed the Pope Squat, OCAP occupied the building while Pope John Paul II was in town two weeks ago, to draw attention to the city's housing crisis. Yesterday, the squatters laid down the terms under which they would leave: The province must turn the building over to the city, so it can make good on its promise to use it for affordable housing; and four people who have been living in the building since July 25 must be found homes. But the councillor for the area has other ideas. "The longer they stay, the bigger risk they take that there won't be any social housing there at all," said Chris Korwin-Kuczynski (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park).

He is determined not to let occupation of abandoned buildings become a trend - OCAP has already identified 35 others in his Parkdale ward. That's why he crafted the motion, overwhelmingly approved by council last week, to ask the province for ownership of the building to turn it into affordable housing only if the anti-poverty group leaves immediately.

"If they think they'll leave it and we'll double cross them, that is not the case," Korwin-Kuczynski said.

But he warned if they stay and are eventually forced out by the police, and the building still falls into city hands, it won't be used for affordable housing. "We'll sell it.

"You have to make a stand," he explained. "This can't become a trend; anarchy can't decide the future of anything." As far as Toronto police are concerned, the squatters can stay until the building's owner asks for them to be thrown out under the Trespass to Property Act.

"Until the owner comes forward and says, `I don't want them there' ... there's nothing we can do," said Sergeant Robb Knapper. The owner appears to be the province, according to Brendan Crawley of the attorney-general's office.

The building was defaulted to the crown when the owner disappeared and didn't pay his mortgages or debts.

But there are "numerous issues that muddy the title of the property," Crawley added. And until those are dealt with - including the numerous mortgages and liens on the property - the province isn't prepared to comment on what it will do with the property.

"We're working to clarify this as quickly as we can," he said. If it is converted to affordable housing, the building could hold up to 26 people.

"This is the perfect opportunity for (Premier Ernie) Eves and his cabinet to show that they are somehow different from the Mike Harris government (that) did all this social destruction," said NDP housing critic Michael Prue, during OCAP's news conference yesterday at Queen's Park.

"The purpose of this is to call on Mr. Eves to react, to do something, to show that he is different from Mr. Harris, to show that he cares about the plight of the homeless in Toronto. It is a simple act."

When asked whether letting OCAP win this showdown would encourage activists to take over more buildings, Prue said the confusion over ownership makes this building different.

"You're not going to see hundreds of buildings being occupied," he said. But OCAP spokesperson Sue Collis admitted the group is planning future occupations.

"We're in the process of identifying other buildings," she said. In the Parkdale neighbourhood alone, OCAP has identified 35 abandoned buildings.

Collis said they are doing title searches to see if any are government owned and therefore potential sites for future occupations.

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