Jon Harstone, champion of affordable housing development

January 7th, 2022 by Iler Campbell LLP

We were saddened, as with all of Toronto’s housing sector, to learn that Jon Harstone, champion of affordable housing development, died suddenly on January 1, 2022. What follows is a tribute Brian Iler delivered at Jon’s retirement party in early 2019.

Jon and I go back a long way ‑ some 46 years.

I first met Jon when we were both twenty‑somethings, out to change the world, inspired by the upwelling of hope and potential for social change that pervaded those times, coming out of the sixties.

Everything seemed possible, and opportunities abounded to make a difference.

Jon decided to grab one of those opportunities – the brand new CMHC program providing funding to co‑operatives to build, acquire and self‑manage affordable housing on a non‑profit basis.

That CMHC program, Jon would be quick to point out, was the product of an accord between the NDP and the minority Trudeau Liberals, who needed the NDP’s support. Jon’s always understood the value of political action through political parties, particularly the NDP.

Let’s buy a building, and turn it into a co‑op, he said. And he did.

Dufferin Grove Co‑op is one of the first housing co‑ops in Toronto. It provided a lot of the leadership for co‑op housing, and social housing, over the next decades.

I dug up its incorporating document, dated  March 22, 1974, two days after I became a lawyer. Jon’s the first incorporator, and all of the incorporators were in their twenties.

The objects read

Co-operatively:

(a) TO purchase land and houses; ….

(b) TO hold, maintain, repair, alter, demolish, reconstruct, manage, collect or receive revenue from such houses and land; ‘and

(c) TO encourage better understanding of co-operative principles, and to contribute to. the betterment of the community

That’s not just Dufferin Grove’s objects – that’s a pretty apt summary of the entirety of Jon’s career – contributing to the betterment of the community by providing housing to those in need.

With CMHC funding readily given – even to a bunch of kids, really ‑ the co‑op bought a 24‑unit apartment building on Melbourne Avenue in Parkdale. That was Jon’s first real estate deal – and mine. We did many more over the years.

When the government programs that funded so many housing co‑ops and non‑profits over the 70s 80s, and 90s disappeared with the election of first Brian Mulroney, and then Mike Harris, almost all social housing development came to an abrupt halt.

Jon, though, saw an opportunity to continue without government subsidy, albeit on a much smaller scale. He knew there were large sums held by some church organizations, and starting a new organization to put some of them to work for non‑profit affordable housing made sense.

He formed St. Clare’s Multifaith Housing Society ‑ in 1998 ‑ named after a saint because, he figured, those church organizations would be more likely to give to an organization named after a saint.

St. Clare was an odd choice – canonized in 1255, she was designated as the patron saint of television in 1958 by Pope Pius XII, because when St. Clare was very ill, she could not attend mass and was reportedly able to see and hear it on the wall in her room.

She is also the patron saint of eye disease, goldsmiths, embroiderers, eye disease, good weather, and laundry workers.

Jon knew that when he suggested the name, of course. You can imagine the twinkle in his eye.

And it worked. The money came in.

That meant that, when no one else could figure out how to do it successfully, Jon was busy finding properties to buy, developing business plans, talking conventional mortgage lenders into taking a chance on a brand new organization with no track record, and successfully cajoling the City – really Sean Gadon ‑ to provide the support it could, and that made all the difference.

St. Clare’s projects could be counted on to be financially successful, thanks to Jon.

He told me once, quite proudly, that people were having lots of children in St. Clare’s buildings.

Why’s that, I asked?

Jon explained that, because they had finally found secure and affordable housing, they could with confidence decide to have children.

One of those unexpected and very concrete indicators of Jon’s success.

Now, Jon will object, insisting that it wasn’t just him, it was many people who worked closely with him, and that together, they did well.

In a sense he’s right, but it’s been Jon who’s been central, who attracted, inspired and motivated so many of us to join him for the ride.

We’ll miss those fascinating tangents that happen so often when we talk – where he’ll embark on a delightful story about West Toronto neighbourhood history or offer an arcane insight into medieval Italian church architecture – or how housing policy would be so much better if policymakers just listened to him more. He’d be right on that, of course.

There’s a quote from Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management, in the forward to Jack Quarter’s book Social Economy, a Canadian perspective that I’d like to share with you. He wrote

The social economy has always been with us; for as long as there have been government and for profit businesses there have been people who have sought to advance the broad prosperity of our society from the peripheries of these two behemoths.

These people recognize a pressing social need and work diligently to address it outside of the standard strictures of business and government.

They are driven by a recognition that there is some necessary work that government and business are not equipped or inclined to do effectively.

Doesn’t that just describe Jon to a T?

Jon, we’ll miss your enthusiasm for everything you do.

That said, Jon, we wish you a long, and satisfying retirement.

Filed in: Co-operative Law, Firm News, Housing

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