“The voices of refugee claimants will be critical”: Meet Toronto’s new deputy ombudsman for housing

“The voices of refugee claimants will be critical”: Meet Toronto’s new deputy ombudsman for housing

Reema Patel is taking up the brand-new mantle of housing watchdog. Her first task: investigating the city’s decision to turn asylum seekers away from shelters

Reema Patel, Toronto's new deputy ombudsman for housing, standing outsideIn the summer, scores of asylum seekers from several African countries found themselves sleeping on the streets in Toronto after being turned away from the city’s shelters. It was a dramatic symptom of Toronto’s ever-escalating housing crisis and a bad look for a city that claims to uphold housing as a human right. It also made a great case for Toronto’s newest watchdog, Reema Patel, who was hired as the city’s first deputy ombudsman for housing in July. Patel and her staff are charged with holding the city accountable to its housing commitments and making sure it acts fairly in administering services like shelters. It’s fitting, then, that her first investigation is into the bungling of shelters for asylum seekers. Toronto Life caught up with Patel to discuss holding the government accountable, the housing crisis and the surprising link between fiction-writing and policy-making.

So, ombudsman, what exactly do you do?
My role is brand new—it was set up earlier this year. Essentially, I oversee systemic investigations and systems reviews into the City of Toronto’s delivery of housing services, which includes public housing, rent subsidies and shelters. The “deputy” part of my title is important—there is an overall “ombudsman” already, Kwame Addo, who deals with municipal issues more broadly. He’s my boss, and at the end of the day, any reports we release come from him.

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Does your unit have the power to investigate anything related to housing? Can I call you about my landlord?
We don’t have jurisdiction over private property or landlord-and-tenant issues like leases. What we do have is the authority to oversee the actions and decisions of all City of Toronto divisions. So anything housing-related within the city’s control.

What was it like getting the new unit off the ground?
It was an honour but also a tremendous responsibility. Given the seriousness of the housing crisis in Toronto, I want to be constantly innovating, learning and, above all, listening. Since we started this summer, we’ve fully staffed the unit with seasoned investigators and policy workers, started making connections with the community, and launched our first systemic investigation. We’ve built a lot of momentum in a short period.

This isn’t your first role in government. You’ve also been an investigator in the ombudsman’s office, a policy maker and a lawyer for the city. What first made you want to get involved?
I really believe in holding governments and power structures accountable to the people they serve. I try to see things through an equity lens. When I worked in policy, I worked on changes that would help seniors stay in their homes as they grew older rather than getting moved around. We made sure all of our communications were available in tenants’ first languages, which helped them ask for repairs, stay on top of rent and generally not fall through the cracks. When this job came up, it seemed like the perfect blend of everything I’ve done so far.

You have powers that apply to the City of Toronto, but that’s just one level of government—and one with very little disposable income. Does it have a chance of solving the housing crisis?
Not alone. It’s going to take collaboration and coordination from all levels of government, not to mention real commitments and proper funding. But, even on its own, the city does have space to make improvements in the services it delivers. Our office is here to make sure it does.

Which involves conducting investigations like the one you’re working on right now, into the city’s decision this past summer to turn asylum seekers away from its shelters. How is that going?
In order to protect the integrity of our investigations and of our witnesses, we don’t talk about active investigations. We want to speak to as many people as possible, and divulging the names of people we’ve already spoken to could have a chilling effect on others. That said, the ombudsman has a statutory power to issue a summons to anybody he feels is able to give evidence on a particular topic.

Impressive. Does that apply only to city staff or to anyone at all?
No, not just city staff. It could be you! If someone is called before us, they’re instructed to answer to the best of their ability. We’re also able to access any city records we ask for. Those are really our most important investigative powers.

When your current investigation wraps up, what’s next? Can you force the city to change things based on your findings?
The ombudsman is able to make recommendations to the city, which it can choose to accept or not accept. We can’t operate like a court and give orders, but ever since this office was created, in 2009, the city has accepted every single recommendation the ombudsman has made. That’s a testament to not only the sway that we have but also the thoroughness of our investigations. And we keep track of whether the city has implemented our recommendations—whether it has actually done the things it said it would do. In almost every case to date, it has.

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How will your team decide what to look into next?
We’re doing outreach and engagement to connect with people who are affected by the housing crisis or those who provide front-line services to people facing housing precarity. We want to keep our finger on the pulse of what’s happening across the housing spectrum in Toronto.

What’s your own housing situation these days?
I’m actually a homeowner, in Bloor West Village. It’s a bit farther out from the city centre than I ever thought I would be, but you only have to look at property listings to see that prices soar the closer you get to downtown. It’s not bad, though—I can walk to High Park, we’re right on the subway line and we’re close to my mother-in-law, which was important. I’m pretty happy.

Has becoming a homeowner changed your perspective on housing issues in any way?
It’s really important to recognize where you stand with respect to any kind of social issue you work on. For me, that means understanding that I have the privilege to be able to own a home in a city where so many people can’t even afford to pay rent. Knowing this helps me remind myself that my role is to seek out and centre the voices of people who are precariously housed.

You’re up for parental leave next year—congrats!—so someone else is going to be taking over your role for a bit. Who’s filling your shoes?
Luke Brown—he’s the ombudsman investigations counsel for our office. We’ll be working together to make sure he’s fully equipped to continue with all the momentum our unit has built so far.

Aside from being a deputy ombudsman, you’re also an award-winning novelist. What drew you to fiction?
Fiction has been in my heart since I was a little kid. I started writing my novel, Such Big Dreams, right after law school. It may not seem like there’s any connection between evidence-based policy-making and building fictional worlds, but I see both as involving a commitment to telling human stories in order to make someone understand a situation that they themselves are not a part of. You see that with the housing crisis: it’s very easy for people to say, “Well, I’m not homeless—this issue doesn’t affect me.” But, when you tell the story of someone’s experience with a policy problem, it can help others empathize, and that shifts public opinion. Policy and fiction writing are aligned—or so I tell myself.

Such Big Dreams is set in Mumbai, not Toronto, but do you see any parallels between the two cities?
While they have their differences—Mumbai is much more dense than Toronto, and the scale of homelessness is far greater—certain demographics are still over-represented when you look at who deals with homelessness and housing precarity. In Toronto, Indigenous people are disproportionately represented. That’s in no small part due to colonial practices within policies, programs and legislation that create systemic and societal barriers to housing. You also have the same tension that comes from some people treating housing as a vehicle for wealth and investment, rather than a social good or a human right.

You’ve written a novel, and now you’ll be writing (deputy) ombudsman’s reports. Can we expect them to be full of the same beautiful prose and symbolism?
Ha! No purple prose here. My priority is for our report to be written in plain, clear language that can distill complex policy frameworks into easily understandable concepts. The more accessible our report is, the wider its readership will be. If there’s one lesson I’ll take from my fiction writing, it’s that centring the voices of refugee claimants will be critical to telling a vivid, human story that engages readers.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.