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Historicist: Ousting Sewell

The province refused to renew John Sewell's contract as chairman of the Metropolitan Toronto Housing Authority in 1988, which blew up in its face

Cartoon by Andy Donato, Toronto Sun, September 13, 1988

Cartoon by Andy Donato, Toronto Sun, September 13, 1988.

The headline was tucked in the bottom right corner of the 1988 Labour Day weekend edition of the Saturday Star: “Get rid of Sewell Hosek asks Premier.” Queen’s Park columnist Rosemary Speirs reported that following a blow-up in Ontario Housing Minister Chaviva Hosek’s office, the rookie politician recommended to Premier David Peterson that fiery former Toronto mayor John Sewell’s contract as chairman of the Metropolitan Toronto Housing Authority (MTHA) not be renewed when it expired that November. “John Sewell may be a chairman who bruises bureaucrats and angers housing ministers in his drive for more, better-run public housing,” Speirs observed. “But isn’t dynamic leadership during a time of housing crisis worth the price?”

Hosek didn’t realize the forces she was about to unleash. What followed was one of the noisiest of the scandals during the two decade existence of the MTHA before it helped form the Toronto Community Housing Corporation in 2002. Beyond outrage from the media, opposition, and tenants, the messy end of Sewell’s tenure included figures who tied into the scandal which helped sink Peterson and the Liberals at the polls in 1990.

Sewell had been involved in housing issues from the time he was first elected to City Council in 1969. During his mayoralty (1978-80), he had to deal with concerns raised about Cityhome, the city-owned non-profit housing corporation which specialized in mixed-income projects, like the St. Lawrence neighbourhood. Throughout 1979 and 1980, Cityhome was turned into a political issue by aldermen Art Eggleton and June Rowlands, who felt its homes should only be offered to low-income tenants—Rowlands was especially incensed that families with incomes up to $44,000/year (adjusted for inflation, approximately $135,000) were allowed to live in subsidized spaces at a time when there was a crunch for low-income housing. Representatives of the real estate industry consistently criticized the agency for receiving advantages unavailable to private developers. Cityhome proponents like Sewell pointed out the subsidies helped achieve the desire income mix. Everyone tossed around every statistic they could find supporting their argument.

During the 1980 municipal election campaign, mayoral candidate Eggleton seized on the optics of privileged people getting into Cityhome, even though he had sat on its board for years. “He rode with the herd,” Sewell reflected recently in his book How We Changed Toronto, “supporting Cityhome when it looked good and now attacking it when it looked bad. He saw the opportunity of making political mileage with his attack.” Housing commissioner Barry Rose was fired, partly serving as the scapegoat for bad management which preceded his term. Eggleton and Rowlands made a series of proposals, including adding citizen representatives to the Cityhome board, instituting stronger approval checks, limiting spaces solely to low-income tenants, and placing a moratorium on further development. Few of what were viewed as strictly political moves were enacted after Eggleton won the mayoralty and Rowlands was returned to council. Sewell feared that, following his defeat, Cityhome would be scrapped, but the agency went on, its housing across the city eventually winding up under the watch of TCHC.

Amid the political tussles over Cityhome, the province formed a new agency to watch over the Ontario Housing Corporation’s (OHC) Metro Toronto properties. Launched in August 1980, the new MTHA was one of a series of agencies created to oversee OHC sites in individual cities. The initial hope was to change the gloomy image of public housing. Sewell occasionally noted MTHA issues during his mid-1980s stint as a municipal columnist for the Globe and Mail.

Cartoon, Toronto Star, September 13, 1988

Cartoon, Toronto Star, September 13, 1988.

In November 1986, Housing Minister Alvin Curling announced that Sewell had been appointed to a two-year term as chairman of the MTHA, promising that his interest in community affairs would “bring a new sensitivity to the day-to-day management of public housing in Metro.” When Sewell took over, MTHA oversaw around 32,000 units officially housing 100,000 tenants. “It’s unfortunate that MTHA either has no image or a negative one,” he wrote the day following the announcement. “It’s one of Toronto’s best resources. Whatever problems it has are far outweighed by the good job it does supplying affordable housing, as a visit to any other large city on the continent will reveal.”

Once aboard, Sewell aggressively attempted to reform the agency, which should have surprised few who had followed his career. He strove to deepen tenant involvement, forming working committees for them to sit on. His relations with tenants were such that some called him directly to fix their problems instead of an eternal wait via normal procedures. A program was launched to remove the large backlog of abandoned cars sitting in MTHA parking lots, some of which had been rotting away since the dawn of the 1980s. Building superintendents were hired, with promises of more on the way.

Sewell’s enthusiasm led to conflicts with other officials. “Everybody knows that when you ask John Sewell to deal with an issue, you get prescriptions,” the Globe and Mail’s John Barber observed. “And, of course, everybody knows that the medicine is invariably laced with a heavy dose of astringent personality. It never goes down easily.” In spring 1988, he announced plans to redevelop three sites located at Birchmount and Finch, Jane and Finch, and Moss Park, but did so before the OHC could arrange any cost-sharing agreements with the federal government. Getting involved in day-to-day details soured relations with MTHA general manager Kevin Gaul, which reached a low point when Sewell recommended his firing (a later report by Coopers Lybrand vindicated Gaul’s role, and the two ironed out their differences).

During the 1987 provincial election, one of Premier Peterson’s star candidates was Chaviva Hosek. The former university professor and president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women brought solid feminist credentials, even if some of her actions—such as posing for a Flare magazine photoshoot in pricey clothing—dismayed some of her colleagues. Elected in the Toronto riding of Oakwood, Peterson quickly placed her in the housing portfolio.

It didn’t take long for Hosek and Sewell to clash. When rumours began swirling in September 1988 that Hosek wanted Sewell gone, there was thought that the minister was using complaints about his abrasiveness and pushing changes too quickly as an opportunity to flex her muscles. Sewell refused to give any details about the blow-up reported by the Star Labour Day weekend, other than “I wouldn’t call the meeting cordial.”

Front page, Toronto Star, September 3, 1988

Front page, Toronto Star, September 3, 1988.

The week the story of their conflict broke, Hosek was attending a Liberal party caucus meeting in Atikokan. By September 7, she began hinting that she was contemplating not renewing Sewell’s contract (“the jury is still out”), and turning his $55,000/year full-time position into a part-time job. While noting he had done good things for the MTHA, she felt that a consultant’s reports demonstrated operational problems. Sewell’s defenders swung into action—housing activists, tenants, and several MTHA board members planned a press conference at City Hall for Monday, September 12. Sewell also had support from the provincial opposition benches. NDP leader Bob Rae demanded Hosek be dumped, suggesting she had caved to Liberal party hacks and that her treatment of Sewell hinted at unelaborated-upon ties to the development industry.

Rae’s reference to hacks may have alluded to several Liberal appointees to the MTHA board who weren’t defending the chairman. The loudest critical voice belonged to Patricia “Patti” Starr, a prominent fundraiser who also served as chair of Ontario Place. In her early statements on the affair, Starr felt that most of the 12-member board was unhappy with Sewell’s performance because he acted without their approval.

Hosek decided she needed to gain control of the situation. In a rare Saturday press conference held on September 10, she announced that Sewell’s contract wouldn’t be renewed. The chair position would become a part-time one at a pay rate of $260/day. Sewell’s replacement was board member Jean Augustine, principal of St. Gregory’s Elementary in Etobicoke. Besides two decades as an educator and heading the National Congress of Black Women, Augustine brought solid Liberal credentials to the role, having served on Peterson’s transition team when he assumed power in 1985. Hosek claimed she acted quickly to end uncertainty for MTHA staff and tenants. Again praising his accomplishments, Hosek declared that Sewell was being replaced because the position didn’t last forever and that the government has the right to bring in another person.

Sewell learned of the decision via phone mere minutes before Hosek’s presser. He considered appealing to the premier.

Source: Toronto Star, September 11, 1988

Source: Toronto Star, September 11, 1988.

Outrage was swift. Rae felt it was a cynical power play. “It’s the Ontario equivalent of a coup d’etat, making the announcement on a Saturday afternoon,” he said. “It really means anybody who criticizes or tries to push the government to do more on housing is going to be forced out.” Interim Progressive Conservative leader Andy Brandt felt the matter was handled shabbily (“Any time a full-time activist individual is replaced by a part-time Liberal, you’d better start asking questions.”).

Columnists and editorials in the Globe and Mail and the Star criticized the decision. “It appears that Peterson and Hosek are primarily concerned with keeping politicians and bureaucrats happy and only secondarily with people getting housed,” Star city columnist David Lewis Stein observed. Given their long loathing of Sewell, it wasn’t surprising that the Sun approved the decision, happy to see “an urban busybody who loves to teach and preach” get the boot.

The MTHA board was split, with some members promising to show up at the pro-Sewell press conference on the 12th, while others were happy to complain to the press. Most of the venom came from Starr, who thought Sewell should “act like a grown-up” and bow out quietly. She felt that by reaching out to tenants, he raised their hopes too much. Her complaints, especially in an interview with Rick Salutin for Toronto Life, depicted somebody who believed being a good government lackey was better than working to improve conditions to help long-suffering residents.

We voted to tell him not to go to the tenants and tell them he’s going to get them housing. We have all these people who think something’s going to happen. Our anger is that people were used to pressure the government…Maybe the constant going to tenants is not the way to deal when government made a job for you. The government appointed him, and can unappoint him…That’s their right!

Several tenants attended the news conference supporting Sewell, fearing their hopes for improvement were now dashed. They had a long list of complaints about hellish conditions. Later on, interviewed by Salutin, MTHA resident Wanda MacNevin summed up the frustrations created by Sewell’s dismissal:

I keep getting told people have power, and I’ve experienced some things in my life that seemed to show it. But this demonstrated to me that tenants have nothing. There are so many people in housing who care, and can make housing a good place to live, and we were on that road with John Sewell, we really were. But that’s not what the government wants. They want to keep housing people in their place. And what kind of society do we live in if we have to be kept in our place? It’s very scary stuff when you think of it that way.

As for Augustine, her attendance record was attacked, having missed five of the last nine board meetings. She signalled her dedication to her new role by resigning as principal, accepting an administrative role with her school board. Some, including the Coalition of Visible Minority Women, felt her hiring as a black woman was an attempt to diffuse Sewell’s ouster and questions about the province’s commitment to affordable housing. In an angry letter to the government, they took great pains to suggest their problem was with the government, not Augustine: “We are afraid this type of action will fan the flames of racism and create a backlash…The appointment pits a black female against a white male who has championed the cause of the poor and the working class.” Augustine remained in the position until 1992 then went to Ottawa as an MP, becoming the first African-Canadian woman to serve in cabinet.

Peterson backed Hosek’s decision, saying it was final. When asked if reducing the chairman position to a part-time role showed public housing issues were being pushed aside, Peterson said “that’s a completely superficial way to analyze a situation.” Others argued Peterson fired Sewell to save Hosek from having to publicly back down.

Source: Globe and Mail, September 20, 1988

Source: Globe and Mail, September 20, 1988.

During Sewell’s remaining time at MTHA, the press published stories surrounding his ouster on a near daily basis. Columnists, especially the Globe and Mail’s Michael Valpy, dug deep into figures connected to the decision. Questions were raised about campaign donations Hosek received from the development industry and Starr’s tight ties to Tridel (whose president, Elvis DelZotto, was also president of the Ontario Liberal party). Government officials continued to avoid giving concrete reasons Sewell got the axe, frequently praising his work. This prompted a cottage industry of theories regarding motivations, ranging from partisanship to rumours public housing might be sold off. “I have heard several of Sewell’s arch-enemies rising to his defence like you wouldn’t believe,” noted veteran political observer Colin Vaughan. “They said to a man Peterson has made the biggest political mistake of his life.”

Sewell carried on his work, but also wrote an in-depth piece for Now Magazine outlining how he thought MTHA could be improved. He criticized the agency’s “can’t do” culture, and wrote that he was only the latest in a long line of people canned for trying to improve conditions. On his last day in the office, he held a press conference blasting Hosek, for doing nothing to redevelop several projects, and management, for encouraging low morale and poor service. He called on tenants to push for reforms like improving security and reducing bureaucracy. As for keeping Augustine in a part-time role, he noted MTHA dealt with more people than the population of one province—“Would anybody think of having a half-time premier of Prince Edward Island?” While some suggested he should take another kick at the mayoralty, Sewell would teach at York University and continue his municipal and social activism.

Things did not go well for those eager to see Sewell go. During Sewell’s last weeks in the job, MTHA dealt with a contract bid from Del Property Management, an arm of Tridel, to manage two properties. Starr passed on confidential information to Tridel’s lawyer. She also denied calling a senior government official to lobby in favour of the Del contract. The bid was accepted. As stories began to circulate about Starr’s overall political donation activities, she turned down another three-year appointment to the MTHA board, claiming she was too busy with her duties chairing Ontario Place and involvement in a non-profit housing project for the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW, whose Toronto section Starr was president of). Starr’s donations of money via the NCJW’s charitable foundation to Liberal candidates, including Curling and Hosek, and revelations of her very close ties to Tridel blew up into the “Patti Starr Scandal,” the lingering stench of which played a role in the Peterson government’s defeat in 1990.

Before then, Hosek paid the price. It was felt that as a novice minister she had received bad advice from the likes of Starr. Her close links to the construction and development industries became liabilities. She was shuffled out of her housing portfolio in August 1989, and lost to NDPer Tony Rizzo the following year.

The MTHA would endure more scandals, the most drastic occurring in July 1994 when Housing Minister Evelyn Gigantes fired the entire board. The move was made after an audit trashed the agency for poor financial controls, lousy management, and a strong risk of fraud. The all-volunteer board was deemed to be too inexperienced to handle the financial complexities of such an organization. Scandals have continued to dog the MTHA’s successor, TCHC, while tenants continue to deal with the frustrations Sewell hoped to fix.

Additional material from A New Housing Agenda for Metropolitan Toronto (Toronto: Social Planning Council of Metropolitan Toronto, 1984); How We Changed Toronto by John Sewell (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2015); the July 8, 1980, November 8, 1986, November 10, 1986, September 5, 1988, September 13, 1988, September 20, 1988, September 23, 1988, November 2, 1988, March 9, 1989, and August 3, 1989 editions of the Globe and Mail; the September 29, 1988 edition of Now; the December 1988 and January 1989 editions of Toronto; the December 1988 edition of Toronto Life; the November 20, 1979, October 4 1980, September 3, 1988, September 8, 1988, September 10, 1988, September 11, 1988, September 12, 1988, September 21, 1988, September 23, 1988, November 23, 1988, November 24, 1988, and July 15, 1994 editions of the Toronto Star; and the September 8, 1988 and September 13, 1988 editions of the Toronto Sun.

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