TORONTO — They call themselves a well-kept secret in Toronto’s Jewish community, but on Oct. 14 and 15 – right around the end of Sukkot – they plan to increase their profile as “the official housing agency of the Jewish community.”
The Kehilla Residential Programme will hold its fourth annual “Sukkahville” international design competition, at Nathan Phillips Square in downtown Toronto.
Eight architecturally unique sukkahs will be on display, chosen from 80 applicants, attesting to the interest and creativity of designers, said Nancy Singer, executive director of the agency.
What’s more, the competition and exhibit is meant to draw attention to the issue of affordable housing, she said.
Kehilla was established in 1982 and is affiliated with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. It has 338 units in three buildings along the heavily Jewish Bathurst Street corridor, “under the Kehilla umbrella,” of which 228 are subsidized. The organization also provides property management services for other groups, Singer said.
As Singer describes it, the needs are great and the resources are modest. There are some 10,000 people in the Jewish community on a waiting list for affordable housing. People can wait from six to 10 years from the date they apply.
“We don’t have a lot of product in our inventory,” she added.
The issues of subsidized housing and homelessness were addressed last month at a public forum at Congregation Darchei Noam, Toronto’s only Reconstructionist synagogue. Singer was one of several presenters who outlined the plight of those living without a permanent home.
Toronto City Councillor Joe Mihevc called affordable housing a human right, and “human rights trumps everything. Civilized societies build structures of human rights and defend them. All residents should have safe, secure and well maintained homes.”
He said society benefits when people have adequate housing. Homeless people do what they must to survive, and that can include living in stairwells and stealing food. Mihevc presented an economic case for social housing, saying homeless people cost society more through increased health care and police interventions than they would if they were provided with adequate housing, he said.
It costs only $23 a day to house someone, but $665 a day to hospitalize them, $142 a day if they are in prison and $63 a day to maintain them in shelters.
It makes financial sense to house people in permanent residences, he concluded.
More than $800 million has been allocated by the city to renovating and repairing its housing stock of 30,000 units. But it will cost $2.6 billion to bring the city’s housing up to snuff and he called on the provincial and federal levels of government to come up with the rest.
The waiting list for subsidized units has grown to 85,000 from 65,000, he added.
Relating the housing issue to the season, Darchei Noam’s Rabbi Tina Grimberg said that during Sukkot, Jews are enjoined to put up temporary dwellings, open to the elements. In ancient Israel, Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs “knew what homelessness was.” Living in a temporary shelter in a place like the Negev “is a cold reality,” she said.
But today, when people reside in a sukkah and look at the stars above, they’re picnicking. “We all have a place to go.”
Others are not so lucky. “All people are created in the image of God, so it’s up to us to be sure everyone has a home to go to.”
Sukkahville “is an important message about the need for permanent, affordable housing,” Singer said.
Last year, the agency raised $104,000 through Sukkahville and this year organizers have set a target of $180,000, half of which has already been raised.
In addition to operating and managing non-profit residential buildings, Kehilla is assisting 20 families – referred to it from Jewish social service agencies – with rent subsidies. It hopes to add 10 more in 2015.
Kehilla launched its rental assistance program in 2011 “to bridge the gap between market rental rates and what a Jewish person in need can afford.”
There is a premium cost to living near or along the Bathurst corridor, Singer said.
Low income families are eligible for up to $300 in monthly housing support. With the extra income, the families are more able “to live Jewishly,” she added.