Affordable by Force – Eye Weekly (10.19.06)

Affordable by Force

This week, Toronto sets a controversial precedent by expropriating property to build affordable housing. But the project is far from simple, and it’s still a long way from being built

Travel west along Queen past Lansdowne and you’ll see the changes that have overtaken once-depressed Parkdale in the past few years — nearly every storefront is open for business, and though Thrift Town may not be cutting the edges of trendiness, upscale hangouts like Mitzi’s Sister and Not My Dog, and the impeccably clean M&M Carpet Inc., are all evidence of the neighbourhood’s resurgence.

However, the corpse of a three-storey rooming house continues to rot at the corner of Queen and Dowling, an echo of the neighbourhood’s recent history. The brick exterior of 1495 Queen W. has grown sooty grey-black with neglect, contrasted only slightly by fading white borders, fire-blistered and spotted with green mould. Exposed cement crumbles through large patches of chipped-off paint on the entranceway columns — evidence of the destructive intent of too much loitering. The small yard facing Dowling is a makeshift dumpsite littered with garbage bags, dismembered VCRs and a couple of overturned TVs. The few remaining windows are heavily boarded, but bear the bent and splintered abuse of attempted forced entry.

Constructed as an apartment building in the 1920s when Parkdale was an affluent suburb, the apartment was later converted into a 50-room boarding house comprised of tiny 64-square-foot rooms. As such, it served as a halfway house for ex-psychiatric patients and low-income residents. In 1998, it was gutted by a blaze that killed two residents, for which another resident was charged with arson and two counts of second-degree murder. Aside from occasional squatters and curious trespassers, the building has been vacant for eight years. Rapidly deteriorating and lacking any protective fencing, it has served only as a safety hazard worthy of City-ordered repairs, casting a frustrating shadow over Parkdale’s recent progress. But by Oct. 24, following a year-long process of expropriation, 1495 Queen W. will become city property and a test case for a new approach to social housing for Toronto.

For those unfamiliar with the term, expropriation is the process by which a government acquires land without the consent of the owner. The government pays for the property, but the owner cannot refuse the sale. Until now, expropriation has generally been reserved for public-works projects such as highways, parks and high-profile developments such as Yonge-Dundas Square.

By expropriating 1495 Queen W., the City set a new precedent in acquiring private property for public purposes by using their power for the explicit purpose of creating affordable housing. Although the owner can still appeal the offer, the paperwork will be complete and the City will own the property in title by Monday (Oct. 23).

Although the slow-moving bureaucratic and legal processes mean that the city may not actually take possession of the building until late 2007, the process still represents something of a triumph for anti-poverty activists. Groups like the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) say every little bit helps when it comes to providing actual housing where it is desperately needed.

According to OCAP’s Mike Desroches, “Nobody disputes that there is a need for more affordable housing. The expropriation process is shorter and less costly than buying and developing from scratch. It could be made even more simple by passing a ‘use it or lose it’ bylaw, whereby after a certain number of years, unused property would be automatically seized by the city. This would prevent property owners who are nothing more than slumlords from waiting for property values to rise while people literally sit on their steps freezing.”

Perhaps partly in response to anti-poverty campaigns focused on derelict buildings, councillors were asked last year by the shelter and housing department to identify any derelict or unused property in their ridings that could be converted into affordable housing. Although outgoing Ward 14 councillor Sylvia Watson has taken credit for making 1495 Queen W. the first property developed in response to that policy, many activists and residents dispute her claim, complaining either that she identified the property without public consultation, or pursued the issue only as a result of heavy public pressure.

In any case, public awareness has kept the issue buoyant throughout both the recent provincial by-election (which Watson lost) and the upcoming municipal election (in which Watson is not running).

Some feel the process is nothing to celebrate. Councillor Doug Holyday — one of the four councillors who voted against the motion to expropriate — says “the City can’t afford to be in the housing business when we can’t even afford the TTC.” He raises what may be an obvious philosophical concern: “We live in Canada and the City is taking away our right to property.”

His argument may be bolstered by an unlikely source — OCAP’s Desroches points out that the City owns plenty of unused property of its own. “The City is no better than the slumlords,” he says, sitting on surplus land waiting for its own property values to rise.

Holyday also suggests that instead of paying top dollar to expropriate property in a prime downtown location, the City could instead create twice as much housing in a more affordable area, say, north of Eglinton.

No specific plans for how to develop the property have yet been made, but we can assume that the debate over the who and the how of redeveloping 1495 Queen W. will be even more hotly contended than the expropriation itself. The Parkdale Residents Association (PRA) has already made clear the type of development they would like to see, so far giving the only tangible picture of just what “affordable housing” should entail. They envision one- and two-bedroom apartments suitable for low-income families located above street-level commercial storefronts.

Holyday would tend to disagree, indicating that a more profitable venture would better benefit the neighbourhood. Instead of affordable or social housing, “what the community needs is a good uplift, like a condominium. It doesn’t have to be at the bottom end of the scale.”

But we have to keep in mind that the debate so far has ignited over the very notion of outside planning. That’s why the PRA’s main concern is that any development involves what they refer to as “consensual planning.” PRA president Craig Peskett hopes that this community-based decision-making will avoid any more “erroneous decisions made by governments, developers and service agencies.”

Whether the City is setting a precedent of abolishing property rights, or evicting problem landlords, we will have to wait and see. As a case study, it may only prove that the process of expropriation is far too complicated and costly to be exercised again. At the very least, this attempt to address the ongoing problem of the City’s homeless underlines that the issue needs far greater consideration; simply converting unused property may not be so simple at all. It may still be years before anyone can again call 1495 Queen W. home. But if the dream remains unrealized, the shadow cast in Parkdale will stretch all the way back to City Hall.

Originally published in Eye Weekly.


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