On an unseasonably warm January day, street nurse Cathy Crowe gazes up at an abandoned Victorian-era building on Sherbourne Street. As more than 80,000 requests for a subsidized home languish on Toronto Community Housing’s waiting list, the suggestions “Should be housing” and “Should be demolished” are scrawled on the red-bricked property’s boarded-up windows.
The decrepit former home of prominent Canadian businessman William Dineen at 230 Sherbourne St. is more than 100 years old. It seems at one point the building was being leased, but the “For Rent” sign advertising the furnished bachelor units is so faded it’s hard to read what it says.
There is, however, a legible City of Toronto notice directly above it.
“It’s been vacant for a couple years and now it looks like they’ve got a demolition notice up there,” Crowe points out. “If Rob Ford gets his way, we’ll lose more housing.”
She’s referring to the 675 Toronto Community Housing properties city staff recommended for the city to sell on the open market to generate funds for the housing agency’s roughly $650 million repair backlog.
Shortly after Crowe expresses her fears of walking up the building’s dilapidated, squeaky stairs, a man inserts himself into the conversation. He identifies himself as a local resident.
“I’ve heard they’re planning on tearing it down to build condos,” quips McLean Benjamin, who lives just down the street at 200 Sherbourne St. “We don’t need more condos around here. We need housing.”
As if prompted by his words, it’s only moments before Crowe and Benjamin have to fend off a homeless man pleading for change. It’s no surprise. After all, the corner of Sherbourne and Dundas streets is what Crowe calls the “epicenter of Toronto’s homeless disaster.”
Crowe, who wrote a book on the subject entitled Dying for a Home, has worked in the area as a nurse specializing in care for the homeless for more than 20 years. She can’t remember the last time an affordable housing unit was built here.
But only a few street lights away, along Sherbourne and King streets south of Richmond Street, condominium development is booming.
According to John Pasalis of brokerage Realosophy Realty, Toronto has 132 current high-rise condo projects under construction — more than any other city in North America, including New York, which has 86.
The Toronto real estate market is hot in other parts of the city as well, serving as a magnet for international investors and developers. In 2011, home sales soared by 17.5 percent compared to the previous year in the Greater Toronto Area.
“There are a lot of economists and others who have been saying, on the ownership side, that house prices in Toronto have been defying gravity and the trend in the United States and many parts of Europe where the markets are basically collapsing right across the spectrum,” noted Michael Shapcott, director of affordable housing and social innovation at the Wellesley Institute, a non-profit urban health think-tank.
“The Toronto housing market, on the ownership side, has remained relatively robust,” he added.
In particular, there’s a growing interest in ultra-luxurious homes in midtown Toronto, specifically those in the range of $2.5 million and greater.
“We are seeing certainly more international buyers buying these higher-end homes,” said Andy Taylor, a broker at Sotheby’s International Realty Canada. “My partner and I have dealt with more international buyers in the $2.5 million and above range in the past year than we have in the past four years.”
Taylor proposes several reasons as to why Toronto is seen as an attractive place for investors: the perceived stability of the economy, a high standard of living, good education, and what is seen as a strong, reliable banking system.
In the last six months of 2011, there were 102 sales of luxury properties in the Multiple Listing Service’s C12 zone, which includes highly desired midtown neighbourhoods such as Rosedale, Forest Hill and the Bridle Path.
That’s up from 72 in the same period in 2010.
“That’s a fairly strong number,” said Taylor, in reference to 2011’s statistic.
The high demand for luxurious properties in midtown’s upscale neighbourhoods has spurred a bidding war, with increasing real estate prices, and properties selling for more than their asking price at times.
“We had one listing in the Wanless Park area and it was listed at $899,000, and we sold for (more than) a million, with 12 offers, because there’s a demand to be in that location,” Taylor said.
A home in the Casa Loma neighbourhood recently sold $425,000 over the asking price.
Despite the interest, developers are not necessarily fulfilling the demand for luxurious properties. A current inventory of real estate worth more than $2 million in the C12 zone, not including condos, shows 43 properties.
That’s less than what is desired, Taylor says.
“I think there’s probably more than 43 people looking (for homes in the $2 million plus range) … My feeling is right now it’s a good market we’re in,” he said.
While lavish homes are being scooped up from midtown’s tony neighbourhoods at an ever-accelerating rate, Toronto’s housing disparity grows larger.
At the end of Dec. 2011, there were a record 82,138 requests for a home on Toronto Community Housing’s centralized waiting list. With an average of 280-300 requests being fulfilled each month, the waiting time for a subsidized home in Toronto is more than 23 years.
“Every single month for more than two years, they’ve set a new record,” Shapcott said. “Despite this, more and more people are signing up because there’s a desperate shortage of affordable housing.”
A number of recent developments further complicate what Crowe refers to as Toronto’s housing crisis.
Toronto Community Housing has pledged to find homes for the displaced families residing in the 675 properties, which contain 740 units. Shapcott says this will result in a longer waiting list because they are to be given first priority.
He likens the move to an act of desperation to generate funds for the struggling housing agency.
“It’s kind of like if you’re a homeowner and can’t pay the mortgage, and decide ‘Well, I’m going to sell my driveway or the top floor of my house,’” Shapcott said. “What they’re doing is cannibalizing their housing stock in order to pay the bills.”
Many Toronto Community Housing homes are in desperate need of repair.
Benjamin at 200 Sherbourne St. knows this well. He’s lived in his building since Cityhome, also known as the City of Toronto Non-Profit Housing Corporation, previously managed it. He says over the years, it’s steadily grown worse: his apartment has been broken into three times and is full of black mould after a drug war caused a flood on the first floor.
“My apartment, from the bottom of my bathroom right to my door is all mould,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get them to move me for about two years, they won’t move me. I’ve been stabbed in the lobby, they still won’t move me.”
The reason, he’s told, is the waiting list.
But rather than repair or replace their current housing stock, Shapcott says the city almost exacerbated the problem with a recent proposal to close down three homeless shelters, including one for men with addictions and one for elderly women with mental health issues. City council rejected the proposal.
“This is good news … because these are people who obviously cannot move into any kind of private housing, they don’t have the resources, they’re sick, they’re elderly, they’re poor,” Shapcott said.
“If the proposal had gone through, people who desperately need those beds to make the transition from living in homeless shelters to affordable housing would simply just be stuck back in the regular population and it would be bad for everyone concerned,” he added.
Toronto also faces a shortage of purpose-built rental units. While there was much government incentive to build rental buildings in the 1970s and 1980s, construction of rental units has slowed significantly.
“In the last 10 years it’s been pretty stagnant,” Shapcott said.
According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s December market survey, there were about 5,000 private rental units available, which Shapcott contends is quite low for a city of 2.5 million.
While many condo units are being privately rented, the rent is generally significantly higher than purpose-built rental units.
“Everybody looks to the condos as being a safety valve … the condominiums are not going to save rental housing,” Shapcott said.
Furthermore, the city’s affordable housing office, which facilitates development of new subsidized units, received a 10 percent cut. This will be somewhat offset by a motion by Ward 20 councillor Adam Vaughan that allows Toronto Community Housing to keep property tax savings it realized in 2011 rather than have it count as part of the city’s general revenue.
“Toronto Community Housing says it will find somehow someway in this budget to absorb that,” Shapcott said. “But what it definitely means is we’re not going to be seeing any new housing development.”
Shapcott said there’s no question the combined factors of lack of housing, selling off TCHC homes, and the cut to the affordable housing budget will coalesce into more people living on the street, which adds additional pressure to Toronto’s housing, shelter, healthcare and prison systems.
The polarity in the Toronto housing market will affect the average Torontonian in several ways. On the positive side, the increased demand for property in Toronto means the average home is slowly but surely increasing in value.
“Based on what we’ve seen in the past few years, certainly prices are increasing slowly,” Taylor said.
On the not-so-positive side, the potential increase in homelessness will result in a larger burden for the taxpayer as more people are sent to hospitals and prisons.
Shapcott also believes Toronto’s income gap will make itself more visible across the city.
“It’s going to be obvious not just in the poor neighbourhoods, but it’s going to be obvious throughout Toronto that we’re living in an increasingly divided city,” he said.
Crowe says the only way to solve the issue of affordable housing in Toronto is to re-establish a national affordable housing program like the one that was eliminated in 1993.
Provincial money would also help. Currently, social housing subsidies in the 905 regions are paid for by the provincial income tax.
“Unlike Peel or York or Durham or the rest of the 905, Toronto continues to see its subsidy to affordable housing come off the property tax bill, whereas in the 905 the subsidy for affordable housing is paid for by the provincial government,” Shapcott noted.
The City of Toronto website currently lists 10 affordable rental projects under construction. Seven are in the city’s core, while the other three are scattered uptown. Shapcott says this is a step in the right direction.
“We’ve got to see this situation where we’re not just building (affordable housing) downtown, but we’re building in midtown, in the outer suburbs, and so on,” he said.
The good news is the provincial and federal governments recently agreed to commit roughly $108 million in affordable housing funds to Toronto over four years.
But there’s still a long way to go. Back at Sherbourne and Dundas Streets, walking with Crowe is like taking a stroll down the boulevard of broken dreams. She points out several current or former federal buildings that she and other activists have unsuccessfully tried to get converted to housing, such as the Grand Hotel and Moss Park Armoury.
Outside the Salvation Army on Sherbourne Street, the homeless folk sitting on heated vents form an odd juxtaposition with the luxurious high rises popping up to the north and south.
To Crowe, the problem isn’t going away any time soon.
“The sad part is it’s getting worse,” Crowe said. “And there are still people who don’t understand the depths of suffering and hunger in our city.”
Benjamin understands. The mould in his apartment has caused him a fungal infection. It’s come to the point where his doctor says he needs to move out as soon as possible, because black mould releases neurotoxins and can be lethal. He has a chronic cough and frequently experiences headaches.
But there are simply no units available. Standing outside the William Dineen house, he stares wide-eyed in disbelief when he learns Toronto is building more condos than any city in North America — while only 10 affordable housing projects are underway, and 80,000 strong continue to wait on a list.
“I think they’re just letting people down,” he says with a shake of his head. “I’m basically on my death bed here … but I don’t want to live in a jail cell, you know?”