Sunshine Valley, a landscaped community of 197 cottage-like homes, fits into the triangle between O’Connor, St. Clair East and Victoria Park in the former East York. Its street names tell us this is a living war memorial: Valor Boulevard, Warvet Crescent, Vicross Road. There are also roads named for Topham, Barron and Merritt, winners of the Victoria Cross. There’s one named for Furnival, but he’s a mystery.
Sunshine Valley was built on what had been an apple orchard between 1944 and 1946. Simple design, modest dimensions – 700 square feet on the main floor – and prefab materials allowed construction of as many as 26 houses a week.
Some call the community Topham Park. But in its early days, when sun poured down on what was then a treeless landscape that swarmed with kids, it was Mac the bus driver who hollered, “All out for Sunshine Valley!”
Sunshine Valley’s war vets and most of their children and grandchildren are gone but their homes remain, on crescents, cul-de-sacs and oceans of grass. Many of them have been altered by rear and side additions, new window openings and porches but mostly in ways that do not spoil their original character. Four houses have been demolished, though, and replaced with what are, by local standards, monster homes, the threat of which has prompted the city to initiate a Heritage Conservation District (HCD) study.
It’s a move not welcome by all, but the economic arguments in favour of heritage are strong. Many studies show that where districts are designated heritage, resale values tend to be higher than similar buildings that are not HCD.
All for Victory Housing
The Great Depression of the 1930s created a housing shortage that became a crisis loaded with a question after the outbreak of the Second World War. Where to house the thousands of workers who must move to Canada’s industrial towns to contribute to the war effort? In Ontario alone, the number of industrial migrants would be more than 46,000.
On February 28, 1941, Wartime Housing Limited (WHL) was incorporated as a Crown corporation under the War Measures Act managed by the Department of Munitions and Supply under “Minister of Everything,” C. D. Howe. The Cape Cod-style single-storey and one-and-a-half-storey Victory Housing built by Wartime Housing was simultaneously sneered at as “strawberry boxes” and praised for being “progressive,” “distinctive” and “experimental.”
More importantly, they were cheap and their construction by local labour was fast, erected from floor to chimney in less than 36 hours. Victory Housing was meant to be short-lived.
Standardized wall, floor, ceiling and roof panels were made on site and erected on posts or blocks so the houses could be easily removed when no longer needed. But by 1944 the homes were being built on permanent foundations because it was clear by then that demand for low-cost family housing was about to explode. Some 620,000 men would be demobilized at the war’s end, 48,000 of them would bring home war brides. Canada was primed for a baby boom.
Between 1941 and 1947, 31,000 Victory Housing units were built in 73 municipalities across Canada, on serviced lots purchased for $1 each. Their locations were carefully chosen and provided with schools, community halls and social programs to ensure they were truly communities.
In 1943 Lionel Scott, head of WHL’s Tenant Relations department, explained to his directors that providing these amenities was pragmatic as well as idealistic: “The very care of the democratic way of life for which we are fighting lies in healthy, local communities alive to, and dealing with local problems, which in their total make up national problems.”
Sunshine Valley’s original Community Centre is now Springdale Spiritualist Church.
The national need for affordable housing remained acute, but in 1947 the government brought the scheme to an end. WHL was absorbed by the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation after 1979), which favoured private over public ownership and development. Canada’s capacity to provide low-income housing of all kinds has been inadequate ever since.
When WHL wound down, Victory Housing homes were sold to their tenants. By 1952 all but 1,500 of the total 29,452 wartime houses built in Canada had private owners.
The Victory Housing buildings that remain are modest compared to today’s monster homes but spacious compared to barely affordable shoebox condos. Their generous landscaping inspired by the garden city movement founded in England by Ebenezer Howard provides an abundance of space for games. In Sunshine Valley, the cul-de-sacs and grassy circles inside its perimeter of main roads are as safe as they can be, without excluding vehicles altogether.
Treasured by their owners for their charm and history, these small properties on relatively large lots are seen by developers as potentially another subdivision for the wealthy, which is why Sunshine Valley is worth saving, by designating it a Heritage Conservation District.
Richard Longley is former president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.