Anti-poverty group wants vacant downtown properties turned into affordable housing

A group of anti-poverty activists is urging the city to expropriate a section of land in the Cabbagetown area before it's sold to developers in an effort to combat a lack of affordable housing in Toronto.

Mayor John Tory says 11 sites already identified for conversion to affordable housing, report coming this fall

A hand-scaled model of the affordable housing development proposal by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, the Open Architecture Collaborative Toronto (OACTo), and various academics and activists for 214-230 Sherbourne Street. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

A group of anti-poverty activists is urging the city to expropriate a section of land in the Cabbagetown area before it's sold to developers in an effort to combat a lack of affordable housing in Toronto.

At a media conference at city hall Wednesday, the group, including architects, academics and organizers with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), put forth a plan to build up to 260 rent-geared-to-income public housing units at 214-230 Sherbourne St., a series of seven properties currently sitting vacant in the area.

Among the properties is one 1900s-era building long home to rooming houses, now largely empty. The group says the properties' owners put the buildings up for sale in 2018, but later took them off the market after city council considered purchasing them. The city hasn't moved on expropriating the properties since, it says.

"Across from the property, an ever-growing homeless population endures the brutality of living on the streets," said OCAP organizer Yogi Acharya, who fears even more homelessness if condominiums go up at the site.

Condominiums, the group said in a news release, threaten to make the area even more unaffordable in a neighbourhood "overwhelmingly populated by the poor."

'Displacement amid a deadly housing crisis'

Organizers said their plan responds to a "loss of housing options for poor people in the downtown east because of encroaching gentrification, which is resulting in their displacement amid a deadly housing crisis."

The group says the design was informed by community consultations in the surrounding communities of Regent Park and the Dundas and Sherbourne area, with feedback sought on the overall building, ground-floor programs, public space aspects and domestic space aspects. 

Toronto Mayor John Tory says expropriation is an option available to the city, but that there is a careful process that council has to go through and that it can't select processes just based on the proposal of a single group.

Tory noted the city has already put up 11 pieces of city property to be converted into affordable housing and that a report is coming this fall that would identify other possible sites.

"We have a report that's coming to the city council this fall that actually tries to identify sites where it would be appropriate for us to either acquire the site or otherwise work with private-sector people," he said.

City council report coming this fall

"I'm sure somebody will look at the Sherbourne Street site as one possibility," he said, adding "drawing all this attention to it doesn't help us in terms of getting a reasonable price."

The mayor also added he's hopeful that a proposal for an affordable housing allowance that would help to subsidize the cost of rent will get approval from provincial and federal governments, and will also help with the city's affordable housing challenges. 

The mayor did take issue one of the group's tactics to draw attention to their plan: to bring a wheelbarrow full of soil to his office.

"Certainly, I don't think it really helps for them to dump a load of dirt out front of my office just because they feel this particular site should be picked," Tory said.

OCAP is otherwise following the proposal process by pitching the idea to Toronto's housing committee Wednesday. 


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