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Professor Nemoy Lewis advocates for tenants rights, Black homeownership

School of Urban and Regional Planning professor brings research and innovation to teaching and advocacy
By: Bonte Minnema
November 10, 2021

Nemoy Lewis, tenant rights advocate and expert in Black homeownership

This year, Professor Nemoy Lewis joined the School of Urban and Regional Planning (SURP) at the Faculty of Community Services (FCS), bringing an innovative approach to teaching, research and advocacy. Lewis is a financialized housing and foreclosure expert. He has found innovative ways to replicate necessary field experience for planners online during the COVID-19 pandemic. He has taken new approaches to research and advocacy as he aims to quantify barriers to homeownership in the Black community and find new ways to advocate for tenant’s rights. He has been in the media often, lately, and recently published The Impact of Foreclosures on the Home Environments and Education of Black Youth in the United States, a chapter in the Routledge text Critical Approaches Toward a Cosmopolitan Education, external link.

“One of the things I like to stress is that as planners, we should plan for communities that actually exist, rather than taking an aspirational approach that all neighbourhoods should be taken upmarket,” said Lewis. “I want my students to know how anti-Blackness works socially and spatially in planning and that there are technologies and strategies used in planning that help create anti-Black space and the workings of race. I want students to notice how we look at sites considered desirable destinations and future grounds for gentrification. These processes do not happen in a vacuum.”

Innovation in teaching and experiential learning

Lewis is teaching classes on campus and online this fall. If it were not for the current pandemic he would have organized a five-day field trip to Chicago with Professor Christopher DeSousa, who also teaches at SURP. COVID-19 has forced the use of technology to explore the impact of planning policies and practices. “It’s important to see, in person, the impact of planning, although with technology we’ve made the experience as real as possible,” said Lewis. This year his classes will explore areas of two cities, Chicago and Milwaukee.

“I want to expose students to planning issues in other cities, to see what we can learn from their response to these issues. We met twice a day in the first week of October. Our agenda included various speakers who spoke to particular planning and policy issues. Including Kendra Freeman, external link from the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago, external link, who spoke about issues of policy that came out of the Chicago city council concerning equitable transit-orientated development, what that is and why the city is pursuing that particular policy to create access to transit. Members of Elevated Chicago, external link spoke about the Greenline south, a transit line from the downtown core to the south side of Chicago. Many activists spoke about their responses to the ongoing foreclosure crisis and their work on the ground to preserve housing in their communities on the south and west side of the city. The foreclosure crisis has led to vacant properties and abandoned buildings. Some have become dilapidated, eyesores and safety concerns. Falling bricks have led the city to spend money tearing down foreclosed properties, which didn’t help adjacent property values. Community organizations have been instrumental in preserving their community in racializing economically disenfranchised areas. When we look at the planning issues on the south and west side of Chicago, I want to centre the issues of racialized communities. I do this by including people and organizations we might not otherwise speak to, who lend a very different perspective to planning. The agency of community organizations in shaping the built environment is often missing from the discourse and learning. Community organizations are assets to communities that amplify the vibrancy of particular communities and help to preserve and shape the built environment.”

Lewis is also teaching an advanced planning studio course. Students work with community clients who are interested in obtaining research but don’t have the capacity to do the research. Students will help organizations develop policies or a redevelopment plan for a site. The point is, Lewis is bringing real-life problems to the classroom. Students will be involved in the understanding and the quantifying of issues and offering solutions that incorporate social and physical investments in the built or developed environment around them. “One of my biggest struggles is that I often feel like we aren’t always listening to the community concerning what they need, and we push an imaginary white cookie-cutter plan for each community. It is important to listen to people who are already in the communities we are planning for, and planning for them appropriately -- to create equitable and just spaces -- vibrant communities that they are proud to be a part of and recognizing their voices matter,” said Lewis.

GTHA Black homeownership research, intended to publish in 2023

Lewis has launched an innovative research project to better understand the realities and barriers of Black homeownership in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). The Black Planning Project, external link and Habitat for Humanity are also partners. His primary area of investigation is to understand and measure barriers preventing Black homeownership in the GHTA. Lewis aims to answer three key questions with this project:

  • What factors influence the homeownership experience of Black households in the GTHA, and what barriers/discrimination do they face?
  • What housing programs from governments have influenced these experiences? We know very little about the impacts of these programs on Black households specifically. 
  • How have non-profit housing organizations shaped the Black homeownership experience for Black households, and what limitations are there on the services these organizations provide? 

“We know that Black homeownership rates are low compared to other groups. Beyond that, very little research has been done in this area to inform us about the factors that affect this,” said Lewis. “We will be looking at finance and many issues concerning racism or anti-Black racism in the real-estate sector. For example: How are Black-owned properties appraised compared to those outside the Black community? We know practices such as redlining, practices that prevented Black people from obtaining financing for purchasing homes in middle-class and affluent areas also happened in Canada and played a considerable role in the development of Hamilton. It is also interesting because in the United States mortgage denials are tracked based on social-demographic characteristics to see if banks are investing in the communities where they operate. In Canada, we don’t do that. We know very little about how mortgages work and if that is a factor in the lower homeownership rates in the Black community. We do see the role homeownership plays in wealth and intergenerational wealth development, and understanding and measuring the factors that play a role in this will help planners to develop more equitable policies.”

This project will happen over 16-18 months, and in three phases: 

  • Interviewing key informants, realtors, mortgage specialists/brokers, and appraisers about the nuances of the challenges, which will help shape the survey questions in phase two. 
  • Surveying a minimum of 500 responses from Black homeowners that have attempted to buy or bought a home between 2006 and the present in the GTHA. 
  • Follow-up interviews with 80 selected homeowners from that group. 

He aims to produce his report in 2023. He has received $75,000 from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and $25,000 in-kind from various partners, including a Black business professional association, the Black North Initiative, external link, CP Planning, external link, and the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora, external link at York University. 

Lewis has several key outcomes he aims to achieve with this project: 

  • He aims to provide information to support homeownership and Black homeownership. 
  • Secondly, he aims to educate the public on the unique challenges in pursuing homeownership in the Black community. 
  • Thirdly, he aims to assist housing-based advocacy organizations in addressing these barriers. 
  • Finally, he aims to deepen our understanding of the challenges that Black households face in pursuing homeownership. These might include finding a realtor, affordable finance options, or how market conditions impact the geographies of housing and neighbourhood choices. 
“I taught a race and racism class at Queen’s University, and one of the interesting things was hearing about the various stereotypes about the Black community. There was a clear lack of understanding about the distinct challenges we face and how those challenges inform these stereotypes. I think that it’s important to educate the public on these challenges. It isn’t that the Black community doesn’t aspire to homeownership. They face different challenges that we need to address,” said Lewis.

New, innovative, research-based support for tenants

Lewis is working with Michelle Buckley, external link and Glenn Brauen, external link from the University of Toronto, Martine August, external link from the University of Waterloo, and Julie Mah, external link from the University of Florida to develop an online platform to assist tenant unions and associations in fighting against unaffordable or above guideline rental increases. “Typically, tenant associations find out about rental increases or applications to increase rents above the provincially regulated guideline after landlords have had time to put many legal steps in motion, which leaves them with very little time to respond,” said Lewis. “We have found a correlation between building permits and rental increases, however. This means that by searching public information, like commercial building permits, and ownership data, external link, tenant unions and associations can be much more proactive in preparing for and responding to unaffordable rental price increases and evictions. It amounts to financialized violence in many ways, so we want to build an online platform to help support them. We can also see geographical patterns within cities and communities that also exacerbate affordability and eviction issues within particular communities when we look at the data this way.”

“It is also interesting, when we look deeper into the ownership of large rental properties, we often speak in financialized terms like REITS (Real Estate Investment Trusts) or asset management firms and private equity. One of the things we miss is understanding who is financing the acquisitions of these portfolios of properties. Canadian pension funds and university endowments have played a role in displacing racialized people to secure pensions for their members for many years. We’ve seen several Canadian pension funds come under fire, external link for single-family rental investments predominantly in Black areas and pursuing evictions, external link and gentrification that they don’t pursue in predominantly white areas. This is one way that we have hidden racial components and anti-Black racism in the housing market.” 

Organizations across Canada are taking note of Lewis’s research and advocacy. Most recently the Canadian Human Rights Commission, external link has commissioned a report from Lewis. “I’m writing a report about the impact of financialized landlords and the impacts on racialized, primarily Black, renters. This report is going to be provided to the newly appointed federal housing advocate who will be informing parliament about the impacts of financialized landlords in Canada.”   Lewis’s innovative and impactful research, advocacy, and teaching style not only help shape our city, but his work will also help SURP students of today become the sought-after change-makers of tomorrow.