05/18/2017 01:39 EDT | Updated 05/18/2017 01:40 EDT

Toronto Has An Affordable Housing Crisis. Parkdale Has An Emergency

Parkdale has an authenticity that most of its residents wish to protect. This authenticity reflects who the community is and its residents as they are, not the aspirational façade of corporate and brand-dictated homogeneity. What may be missing from the urban development models are fresh approaches.

Like many parts of Toronto, Parkdale is changing. Fast. While a Starbucks-on-every-corner is being kept at bay, many of the area's residents are being squeezed out. Fast. They aren't the first.

In 1878, long after the Mississauga peoples were pushed out, Parkdale was incorporated as a village. It became populated by mansions for the city's wealthy which were converted into rooming houses throughout the 20th century. These units became a key part of the area's affordable housing plan. This plan is changing. With a full-court press, gentrification is giving property owners the opportunities to make millions. Fast.

Of the estimated 198 rooming houses in Parkdale, 28 have already closed. Fifty-nine are at risk of closing. This means that almost 1,500 residents have lost their homes, will lose their homes or are in danger of losing their living space. Ninety per cent of Parkdale residents are renters. So with home and property values exploding, the threat of housing insecurity is very real.

Around 2007 (don't quote me), I remember hearing Richard Florida speak. At the time, he was advocating a process of urban development by which artists and queers naturally navigate towards neighbourhoods and properties in need of re-development. Our presence tends to increase community ties, crime decreases and possibilities amplify. Our tendency to find potential and profit for what mainstream economic development has cast aside would cue a process that, if cities played it right, could bring new prosperities.

But to whom? After artists and queers reinvigorated a neighbourhood, property values would increase as more and more people wished to live, work and visit these areas. A "creative class" would move in. Young and hip creatives flush with cash would be on the lookout for the next trendy enclave. Restaurants would appear. Galleries would open. Boutiques would spring up. In no time at all, big capital would move in with large-scale condo and retail development. From what I've seen, the reality seems more like a gated community -- one whose gates are invisible, but just as material as iron.

Sitting in the audience, I remember the moment it hit me what Florida was saying. I went cold. The audience cheered. What was to happen to those displaced by these creatives? What makes a "creative?" Am I a creative? I was living in Parkdale at that time and could see this process beginning to take shape. It was only a matter of time before we were next on the firing line. We had only to fall under the wheels of a developer bulldozing our large shotgun apartment over a family owned shoe store to make way for a Gap. Not surprisingly, Florida sought to soothe the discomfort by suggesting that those displaced would move onto other areas in need of development. Cold comfort.

To be fair, Florida has since recanted his creative class idea after seeing that the percentage of people actually moving into newly hip areas is quite small and that the number of those displaced to the 'burbs or elsewhere has grown. In any event, Toronto has an affordable housing crisis on its hands. Parkdale has an emergency.

Parkdale residents during a rally outside their apartment building to protest rent increases despite outstanding maintenance issues in their apartments. (Photo: Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Last weekend, Larisa Gutmanis' The Parkdale Experience took on the challenge of raising awareness of the area's housing crisis in order to demonstrate that art and community may offer solutions that the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) and the city seem to find intractable. The experience led five "families" of 15 strangers along a yellow-brick road scavenger hunt stretching over a kilometre.

Along the way we faced eviction, lack of housing and toxic plots of land while being confronted (and educated) by actors from Luis Fernandes' Unit 102 theatre company. The project required us to work together. It fostered inclusivity, communication, interdependence, connection and care -- the very values many of us hope to find in our communities. While throwing seed "bombs" into toxic plots of land, we learned which housing and other resources are available; which might be available after a one- or two-month waiting period; and that by coming together as a community we can come up with solutions to seemingly intractable solutions.

Rent strikes, land trusts, food networks and co-ops are fighting back. And hard.

This process, Gutmanis advises, is exactly what is happening within the Parkdale community. Rent strikes, land trusts, food networks and co-ops are fighting back. And hard. Parkdale has an authenticity that most of its residents wish to protect. This authenticity reflects who the community is and its residents as they are, not the aspirational façade of corporate and brand-dictated homogeneity.

But, Gutmanis explains, not everyone is on board with the push back against gentrification. Some business owners and residents she interviewed see the neighbourhood changes as positive developments. New shops and new businesses bring new customers and new sources of income. This increases the property value and tax base of the city, which in turn increases the availability of resources for social services and resources for those who lack. That's the argument.

Almost 40 years into the neo-liberal revolution brought to bear by the likes of Reagan, Thatcher, Mulroney and Ontario's Mike Harris, we know that resources don't always trickle down. Florida, for instance, now argues that we face a crisis of gentrification, affordable housing, segregation and inequality. Hence, my chills back in 2007.

What may be missing from the urban development models are fresh approaches for community involvement in planning and development models. The consults we use with neighbourhood residents don't seem to be cutting it. Here in Toronto, the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) hears appeals by developers faced with what they see as resistance among City Councillors and residents.

Facing resistance, the OMB often gives approval. From 2009 to 2011, 72 per cent of development applications refused by the city were then approved by the OMB. The province claims to be making efforts to reform the OMB's adversarial nature but it doesn't seem that the voices of those who are being displaced have a substantive seat at the table. In part, because what kind of mechanism can include the homeless, the mentally ill, the newcomers, the insularity of our urban tribes? Questions such as this are what the Parkdale Experience and other activism in Parkdale (and elsewhere) seeks to address.

Gutmanis has plans to bring the the Parkdale Experience to future venues while raising awareness, educating and fostering solutions to pressing problems by working together. While a community-based scavenger hunt may not be the most efficient problem-solving tool, its principles are. Through thoughtful consideration of needs and resources, compassion towards others and taking actions that foster inclusivity and wellness, our cities have a shot at thriving -- together.

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