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The Crisis Goes Beyond Toronto Life's 'We Bought A Crack House' Couple

06/01/2017 06:20 EDT | Updated 06/02/2017 01:31 EDT

If your social media feeds have been anything like mine this week, aside from a "covfefe" break they've been burning up with Toronto Life's latest real-estate troll: "We Bought a Crack House."


If you haven't read it yet, the magazine sums up "the reno from hell" thusly:

"It was a crumbling Parkdale rooming house, populated by drug users and squatters and available on the cheap. We were cash-strapped, desperate to move and hemmed in by a hot market. Five years, three contractors and $1.1 million later, our home reno nightmare is finally over."

Now some folks were mad about the contractor woes, which was presumably what the couple expected, but many others were infuriated by their entitled attitude expressed in the piece, which readers felt sought sympathy for what happened to the couple while lacking empathy for what happened to the home's in-crisis now-former residents.

Their self-awareness didn't seem to stretch much beyond wondering "whether the tenants, angry at being evicted, had vandalized it" and an apparently irony-free reference to anti-capitalist graffiti.

Mixed-income neighbourhoods are always better than economic segregation.

While the couple is being mocked mercilessly online -- check this GoFundMe campaign -- they merely set themselves up as symbols of gentrification by writing the piece and are only a small part of the problem.

In fact, gentrification isn't the problem, either -- just the unbridled kind.

Gentrification doesn't have to displace people if it's managed, because mixed-income neighbourhoods are always better than economic segregation.

Full disclosure, I live nearby so I am also part of the problem, though I didn't displace any vulnerable residents before moving here nine years ago. But, much like the couple in the article, I did choose to raise a family here because it was all we could afford.

Now the reason Parkdale is -- or at least was -- affordable is because of the neighbourhood's large percentage of low-income residents (the average household salary is below $50,000) and those with addiction and mental health struggles, not unlike the former residents of that rooming house.

toronto rooming house

Rooming house on Maynard Avenue in Parkdale. (Photo: Ken Faught/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

And the reason why this percentage is so high -- and why Parkdale has so many rooming houses in the first place -- is because it used to be a wealthy enclave full of Victorian mansions. But they began moving away after the Gardiner Expressway was built, cutting the residents off from the lake.

Then in the 1970s, the "deinstitutionalization" movement resulted in two local psychiatric hospitals releasing their patients into the community. So the old mansions were converted into multi-unit rooming houses, providing shelter for poverty-stricken single people, many with mental health and addiction issues and all with nowhere else to go.

Now what was also not mentioned in the article is that Parkdale is currently going through a rooming house crisis as rich people return to buy and convert them back.

The Globe and Mail made a rooming house conversion their Home of the Week earlier this year when a pair of lawyers put their now-single family dwelling on the market for $2.2 million.

It's not all their fault, but I do believe in ethical consumerism.

"It's all we could afford back then," said the owner, "reminiscing about the decision to buy a ramshackle building with seven units crammed into two-and-a-half storeys."

Last month, a study on rooming houses by the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, a non-profit founded in response to gentrification concerns, found that 28 rooming house and bachelorette buildings have been converted over the past 10 years, costing the area 347 affordable housing units. It also found that 59 more rooming houses are in "imminent risk," threatening to make 818 more people homeless.

Now is this trend the fault of the Toronto Life couple?

Many on my Facebook wall and in my office are arguing nope. Obviously it's not all their fault, but I do believe in ethical consumerism. Buyers are as responsible as sellers, even when the transaction is totally legal on both ends, because the free market has no ethics so it's up to us to decide where and how to spend our money.

This couple got the place "cheap" precisely because it was a rooming house, so they financially benefited by kicking out the tenants who may no longer have a roof over their heads. (Or would have financially benefited if they had a better contractor.)


Meanwhile, just down the block there's a rent strike going on because tenants are angry over rent hikes and a lack of repairs in their apartment towers and the Toronto Star recently reported that "every Toronto Community Housing project in Parkdale -- over 1,200 units in all -- is expected to be in 'poor' or 'critical' condition by 2021."

But the problem is bigger than one couple, and it's not solved by keeping them out of the area. It's also not solved by keeping vulnerable people in rooming houses that are run like slums.

I've seen Parkdale's gentrification firsthand since we moved here and some of it has been positive -- streets are much safer with more people on them at night, there are many vibrant new small businesses alongside the old ones, young families have livened up the parks and community centres and when a group of NIMBY condo dwellers tried to stop a new methadone clinic, it opened anyway.

Parkdale's mix of incomes, cultures and experiences is precisely what makes it such a wonderful neighbourhood.

The free market doesn't care so, ultimately, the city needs to step up and deal with the situation.

But gentrification has also pushed housing to crisis level. Parkdale is full of services and amenities -- soup kitchens, legal aid, health clinics and community centres, not to mention the nearby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction -- so these residents can't just be priced out of the area.

That's why that study warned "continued loss of rooming houses in Parkdale will be catastrophic to the lives of hundreds of mostly low-income, vulnerable residents who depend on Parkdale's social and community supports and are at risk of eviction, displacement, and homelessness."

It also noted that Toronto's social housing waiting lists surpassed 177,000 people last year while the city's 4674 shelter beds reached 96 per cent occupancy and called for a non-profit and public sector strategy "to preserve, maintain, and develop this disappearing stock of affordable housing."

The free market doesn't care so, ultimately, the city needs to step up and deal with the situation -- and they, too, are currently conducting a study.

They could start by buying up privately owned rooming houses, ensuring that they remain available but are also livable rather than rat-infested slums.

They could perhaps pay for it by increasing property and land transfer taxes. Or, as one friend suggested, they could open a municipal bank. Or maybe dip into the upcoming influx of marijuana money, or finally get the province or feds to pony up.

toronto rent protest

Tenants in Parkdale buildings protest Above Guideline Rent increases. (Photo: Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Regardless, it would be a good investment because the Housing First model has proven that people who are housed cost the government much less in health care and policing than people who are homeless.

The article's writer, Catherine Jheon, by the way, later emailed Metro to say that they now "understand why the story and my insensitive descriptions triggered anger around real issues of affordable housing, homelessness and more."

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So if this uproar leads to progress in Parkdale, then we can thank them for making people angry enough to finally see what is currently happening to our most marginalized community members.

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