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Driving the Churches Away

Toronto is a city of 2.6 million where churches are small and real estate is costly. For this reason many churches meet in gymnasiums and cafeterias they rent from the Toronto District School Board. But now, very suddenly, the TDSB has taken action to get churches out of its schools. At the end of August each of these organizations was notified that they would face an imminent increase in rental fees. The next day they learned that this increase would range from 140% to 800% and that it would begin to go in effect in just four days. Unless the Board can be convinced to change course, they will effectively drive hundreds of churches from its nearly 600 schools.

At the end of August, the TDSB announced to their permit holders that effective September 1, 2012, they would streamline the organizational categories under which they distribute rental permits. As of that date, religious organizations (and only religious organizations) would no longer receive subsidies offered to other not-for-profit and charitable organizations. These subsidies are provided by Ontario’s Ministry of Education in their Community Use of Schools Program which allocates funds to underwrite many of the costs associated with fair, equal and diverse use of school buildings.

As the Board revoked subsidies, it simultaneously announced that it intended to raise rental prices for all tenants by 43.7% effective January 1, 2013. Between the rental increase and the loss of subsidies, most churches will no longer be able to afford to rent school buildings. Many of them will have nowhere else to go.

Grace Fellowship Church of East Toronto, a two-year-old plant of Grace Fellowship Church (where I am one of the pastors), has approximately 70 people in regular attendance and meets in Greenland Public School in the heart of Don Mills, a neighborhood on the east side of the city. Pastor Julian Freeman received notification on August 27 that his church’s rental rates would be subject to an imminent increase. The next day he learned that effective September 1, just four days later, the rental fee would increase from $468 for 4 hours of weekly use to $2,300 per month for 3.5 hours of weekly use, a 391% increase.

Pastor Freeman told me,

We were saddened by the news of our rate hike. I grew up going to TDSB schools, and worked for the School Board as a young adult. I’m glad to be in this facility, which is situated in the middle of a residential neighborhood, close to malls and bus lines. On the School Board’s website they indicate that they desire for their facilities to be “hubs” for community activity, and that permits will not be seen as an opportunity for revenue, but rather, as a service to the community. It’s too bad that they are not living up to their word.

But more important than just the cost issue, it seems to me, is the blatant discrimination against religious groups in general, and Christian churches in particular. The changes to the permitting policy specifically target “faith-based groups” alone. This doesn’t affect anyone else and is for no other reason than the fact that we are “faith-based.” It seems to me that decisions like this sets a reckless trajectory for the future of our city and our country. Our Trustee was friendly and helpful and offered to help us work on bringing down our cost somehow, but to me the issue is the systemic discrimination even more than the particulars of the cost increases we’ve incurred. The TDSB must be called to account for this.

As of August 30, Grace Toronto Church, with approximately 450 attendees under the leadership of Pastor Dan MacDonald, was already paying the highest rental rate of any church renting Rosedale Heights School for the Arts for $6,561 per month. On that day Grace Toronto was notified that effective September 1, only two days later, they would be reclassified so they would now have to pay premium rather than charity rates. This nearly doubled their rent to $12,224 per month; effective January 1 the rate will rise to $15,895 per month, an increase of 142% over the previous year.

Pastor MacDonald is calm but perplexed:

We are glad that we just finished studying the book of Daniel when this broke out! God is sovereign, and He will be glorified in this, and we are strangely excited to see what He will do. However, we are mystified: we were told that the reason for the increase was that the school board was losing money on renting to us. I find it hard to fathom how this could be when we paid almost $400 an hour. The interesting thing is that the actual people we pay to be there on Sundays, from the school board, are more angry with the school board than we are over this.

I think the Board needs to be held accountable for three things. First, on what basis do they justify changing our classification as a charitable organization? The provincial and the federal governments recognize us as such; why not the school board? Second, under any reasonable judicial system, raising rents 150- 800% requires more notice than 48 hours notice. In any landlord-tenant situation, this would be a lawsuit waiting to happen. Third: rental fees should have some basis in actual cost, since the school board’s own policies state that rental costs of their facilities should not be used as a revenue-generating device. So, we invite the school board to show us actual costs that would be the basis for their fees. I am pretty sure that renting Rosedale Heights school for 4 hours a week costs them less than the $190,000 they are planning to charge us in the future.

If you are not a Toronto-area resident, please pray that the Lord would work through this situation. Toronto real estate prices are extremely high and to this point public schools have been nearly the only affordable options for new and small churches. Toronto is among the world’s most unchurched and most diverse cities, with over half of its residents having been born in another country. This action threatens to drive away churches from a city in desperate need of far more, not fewer, churches.

If you are a Toronto-area resident, please contact your School Trustee to ask them to reinstate churches as subsidized organizations, and your Member of Provincial Parliament to register your protest against the unfair and unwise use of Provincial subsidies.