Arts·Point of View

If we value what art brings to our cities, we must understand that artists are part of an ecosystem

Musician April Aliermo shares her experiences trying to live and make art in Toronto — one of Canada's most expensive cities.

Musician April Aliermo shares her experiences trying to live and make art in Toronto

Condos in Toronto. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Finding My Place is a monthly column written by Filipinx-Canadian musician, songwriter, entrepreneur, educator and CBC Arts video correspondent April Aliermo. Check out the introductory edition here.

In the last five years or so, every time I'd return home to Toronto from touring abroad, there would be new glass condos built. At first they were a bit of a plainly designed eyesore, but now that there are masses of them, I enjoy the drive on the Gardiner, feeling like I am in a futuristic sci-fi novel. Aesthetics are one thing, but the reality of affordable living in the city I love is a depressing dystopia for some.

We all know about the average condo selling price of $500,000 and the continually increasing rent costs. Parkdale community members had a victorious rent strike but so many others really have had no hope. Finding affordable housing is a problem for people of various walks of life, but my personal experience is within artist communities. I know many artists who have moved to more low-cost cities including Montreal, Hamilton and even Windsor and Detroit. Others have opted for the countryside, a couple of hours outside of Toronto. A handful of local establishments are not able to keep up with high rent costs either — in the last couple of years I've lost one of my favourite Chinese restaurants (Noble) and one of my favourite venues (Holy Oak).

One's artistic career is able to begin and flouish when they have an affordable place to live and small, safe spaces to experiment and show their work in.- April Aliermo

If we value what art and music bring to our city, it's important to understand that the work artists and musicians bring to galleries and concert halls are part of an ecosystem whose external factors determine how its organisms thrive. One's artistic career is able to begin and flourish when they have an affordable place to live and small, safe spaces to experiment and show their work in. To avoid the mass exodus of artists and other lower-income people that happened in San Francisco and Oakland, we need new, alternative ways of thinking, living and working. I'm excited that we are finally making headway in the idea of creating laneway housing in Toronto. I know so many people that would be happy to make a home where empty alleyway garages sit. Going even further outside of the box, I am really interested in figuring out ways of minimizing the exchange of money for goods and services.

I was lucky to have an amazing living situation for the last couple of years. My slightly older, financially stable friends asked me to live with them in exchange for childcare. My duties ranged from transporting the two kids to school or extracurricular activities, to light meal preparations to occasional evening babysitting. I got to live in a beautiful room in their spacious Victorian home, with a lot of time to myself. I felt like I was in some kind of luxurious artist residency and definitely produced a lot of work. My friends are open, loving and generous people who are also very active parents. I never felt like I was some sort of live-in caregiver or hired help; I always felt like I was a fifth roommate helping my kid roommates out.

April Aliermo in the studio. (Renelyn Quinicot)

I know this particular situation wouldn't work for everybody. It requires a certain level of trust and openness on both ends and has to be the right fit in terms of personality and lifestyle. But what I'm saying is that having families who can afford to share their homes with struggling artists in exchange for childcare, company, cooking or some kind of service is one example of a creative solution to the housing crisis in Toronto. I'm sure we can come up with other new models for alternative living and working.

I know my friends would have been happy to have me stay a while longer, but in trying to establish more independence and stability in my life, I found a rare bungalow with two other friends for $2000 all-inclusive. We had the main floor and the landlord's very loud, very ill-tempered partner lived downstairs. We couldn't bear to listen to her shouting at her dogs or her grandkids and definitely could not tolerate being screamed at for things like leaving an empty box in our shared storage space. We left after three months.

Now, it's been difficult for me to find an apartment — so even though I love Toronto, I'm spending the next little while a few hours north. Maybe I'll return when laneway housing is in effect. Or who knows? Maybe I'll end up staying here, being an artist up in the countryside — like so many others.