It's a reality that doesn't sit well with folks proud of T.O's reputation as a well-integrated metropolis.
"Toronto is a city that's increasingly segregating," says David Wachsmith, speaking to 150 folks at the Parkdale Activity Resource Centre on October 29. "The rich and the poor will increasingly be looking at each other from across the train tracks."
Wachsmith uses as reference a series of maps produced by the Community-University Research Alliance that look for all the world like a trade show display. But only sad insight is being plied here: they show that income disparity between downtown neighbourhoods is growing sharply.
For this reason, Wachsmith and others partnered with artistic agitators the Toronto School of Creativity & Inquiry to form Abandonment Issues.
The centrepiece of their project is a map showing an increasing number of properties around the city in various states of abandon. Under a "lose it or use it" bylaw they propose, property left derelict for a given period could be appropriated and turned into social housing.
Most compelling are buildings that aren't abandoned but have "abandonment issues." These are represented by yellow pins on the maps and mark blocks of housing whose landlords neglect crucial repairs and flout building standards - sometimes to cut costs, sometimes as outright blockbusting.
"Abandonment is a process," says Wachsmith, "a decision not to change the bulb in the hallway, a decision not to make repairs to the unit."
Other speakers make clear that abandonment is a continuum extending well beyond brick and mortar. Those who blanch at the idea of appropriating property don't understand the full scope of the issue, suggests Anna Willats, speaking for the Women Against Poverty Collective, which briefly opened a squat in June.
"How could a fifth of poor people's income be grabbed out of their hands in one fell swoop by Mike Harris? Where was the private property argument there? When police seize things from people on the street, no one talks about private property," she says.
Josephine Grey, a Toronto Community Housing Corporation tenant and firebrand speaker, cuts to the quick while reflecting on navigating the system. She's filed a class action suit against the province, the city and the TCHC, an "arm's-length" city agency that's among the worst abandonment culprits. She's seeking a court order to repair faulty plumbing, broken windows, etc, in TCHC's 58,000 units.
"To me, it's really obvious," she tells the group. "My children, myself, we were just there to provide a resource in an industry of misery."
Afterward, I ask her to explain. In a calm, staccato rhythm, she recounts her experience years ago working on social program reform at the federal level. In the early 90s, that began to unravel. To her confusion, government staff she knew said the cause was NAFTA.
Ah, the 90s, before we realized (and well before we forgot again) the deadly symbiosis of global trade and local policy. Some of the staff she worked with told her, "Well, you know, some of these public services, they create competitive advantages."
Of Ontario's welfare system, redesigned by private American firm Andersen Consulting (now known as Accenture), she says, "People were getting paid $500 a day to figure out how to cut people off $500 a month. And they weren't even from here."
Then Grey explains how the encroachment of the private prison has influenced the juvenile justice system. "When [my youngest son] went into the system, [he] got all kinds of treatment and options and counselling. By the time my next child's in the juvenile justice system, he's in a fucking jail. I can't see him; he's got no counselling, no support, no school. Meanwhile, there's a company making a profit."
It's not often you meet someone who can move the conversation so deftly from local poverty to global policy, but it's this insight that brought Grey to the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing, who will release a report on Canada in January.
"They've identified poverty as a discrimination issue in this country. We need that perspective from an outside, objective view.'
Most pressing of all these issues is the city's slow abandoment of social housing, although in the face of downloading and funding cuts, it might more properly be called a retreat. For this reason - and despite her lawsuit - Grey seems willing to give the city one more chance to choose sides.
"Toronto needs to become part of this struggle." An activist council? Cherish the thought.
During the meeting, activists discuss their plan to make appropriation a real legal strategy, despite financial and legal barriers. One man suggests an anti-speculation tax similar to one used in New York: for each year your property sits derelict, your taxes rise by a certain percentage. Councillor Gord Perks listens attentively.
Willats dispenses an observation that could be seen as both a threat and a piece of friendly advice to the city. "One of the best ways to put poverty issues on the agenda," she says, "is to threaten to take away rich people's stuff."