Toronto’s many faces of gentrification

How can we trust a city that blithely defines “affordable housing” as anything that goes for market rate, which these days is $2,000 month for your average one-bedroom?

Gentrification is a beast with countless faces in Toronto. Many of them have shown themselves in Parkdale. 

From the selling of rooming houses for conversion into trendy high-end closet spaces, to unaffordable housing planned by condo developers, to 5700 Inc.’s recent attempts to rebrand the neighbourhood “Vegandale,” the social, cultural and economic fabric of one of the city’s last affordable neighbourhoods is being reshaped. And it’s happening without meaningful conversation with those who currently call it home and will be forced out. 

These trends represent not only threats to Parkdale, but to the city as a whole. 

Lifetime Developments’ condo plan, besides offering zero units of affordable housing, will transplant 700-plus higher-income property owners – and their expectations for pricier local goods and services – at King and Dufferin. One of two condo towers proposed for the site will replace a 24-hour McDonald’s which currently serves as a de facto homeless shelter and living room to untold numbers of low-income residents. 

Meanwhile, Vegandale’s five new locations remind Parkdalians that even if your community has offered plant-based food options for generations at the area’s many Tibetan, Indian and Caribbean restaurants, someone wealthier can show up, slap a prohibitively steep price tag on it and pretend you were never there.

Parkdale is rapidly losing access to both the residential and commercial spaces that has allowed the area to flourish and no one at any level of government seems prepared to challenge the businesses that are taking those spaces away.

The city’s rubber-stamping of commercial condo projects continues to skyrocket, even while it’s closing down more and more of its own affordable housing stock. 

The city’s growth plan seems to prioritize anything that builds residential density, while requiring little of substance in return from those profiting from the condo boom. 

How can we trust the city when it blithely defines “affordable housing” as anything that goes for at or below current market rate, which these days is $2,000 month for your average one-bedroom?

“People in the lowest end of our rental market in downtown Toronto can either move out of the city or become homeless,” Ward 14 Parkdale-High Park Councillor Gord Perks told CBC Metro Morning last November. “There is simply no other option available. We’re not building low-income housing as fast as we’re losing it.”

The province, then? 

Since the Mike Harris government introduced “vacancy decontrol” in the 1990s, landlords have found a plethora of ways to get low-rent tenants out of their units and to hike rents to whatever they feel the market can bear. This paved the way for the displacement realty practices of investor-buyers in gentrifying neighbourhoods like Parkdale and no subsequent provincial governments have challenged the policy.

The now-defunct Ontario Municipal Board dismissed community opposition to condo projects, while it remains unclear if its successor, Local Planning Appeal Tribunal Ontario, will buck that trend, given Toronto’s extensive municipal support of condo development. 

With the arrival of the Ford regime at Queen’s Park, the notion of even light-touch regulation of rent, development or real estate practices seems a distant dream from a previous era.

Canada finally has a national housing strategy. However, most of its commitments will require three terms to be realized, and its pledge of 100,000 affordable housing units would barely cover Toronto’s own subsidized-housing waiting list. 

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation resources are still being spent insuring private home ownership rather than creating or maintaining affordable housing. Perks argues that CMHC’s emphasis on insuring mortgages for banks and financial institutions is “the single biggest influence on the housing market in Toronto.”

And that, “no amount of regulation is going to stop [the current development trends] until CMHC takes their foot off the gas and starts investing less in private mortgages and more in social housing.”

So, as Parkdale is being bought and sold by private individuals, the principles of the free market must remain intact, it seems, even as communities are picked apart by predatory businesses.

Toronto as a whole is being reconfigured by the whims of individuals whose only claim to authority is the size of the money pile behind their personal ventures.

Unsurprisingly, when urban planning is left in the hands of freewheelers whose only coordinating feature is individual self-interest, people whose lives don’t overlap with those particular self-interests tend to lose out. 

Hundreds of Parkdale tenants have engaged in rent strikes to beat back efforts by large-scale corporate landlords like MetCap from imposing above-guideline rent increases. They got organized, fought and won.

When the folks behind Vegandale announced their plan to open five locations on one city block, 250 residents came out to a community forum organized by the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust to oppose the plans. Now the company is beginning to engage with community groups over the backlash. 

When government has failed to protect communities, it falls on us to find ways to defend them. 

Liam Barrington-Bush is an author and activist from Parkdale. | @nowtoronto

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