Why advocates say expropriating unused buildings could help solve Toronto's housing shortage
As election nears, advocates are pushing city to take over several lots on Sherbourne Street
On a brisk Thursday afternoon, dozens of housing advocates and community members gathered together on Sherbourne Street in front of a chain link fence.
On the other side? A massive, empty lot.
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Attendees at the rally, organized by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), are calling on the city to expropriate the land, and a nearby house, then transform it into affordable housing — potentially putting a small dent, organizers say, in the city-wide supply shortage.
It's the latest push for bold change on the housing file amid an election where affordability has been a key talking point among the prominent mayoral candidates. This includes John Tory's remarks back in April that housing issues must be "tackled with urgency," Jennifer Keesmaat's ambitious goal of building 100,000 affordable rental housing units over the next decade, and Saron Gebresellassi's calls for Toronto's housing shortage to be deemed a "crisis."
It's no secret that wait-lists for subsidized housing are growing — with more than 96,000 households currently lined up, according to the latest city numbers — while market rents keep rising.
Meanwhile, the number of affordable units hasn't kept pace with demand; since 2009, the city's goal has been to approve 1,000 affordable units on an annual basis, but the target was only hit for the first time last year.
"The city should take any and all land possible that's not being used and build social housing," said Yogi Acharya, an organizer with the coalition pushing for the expropriation of 214-230 Sherbourne St., a cluster of lots near Dundas Street East.
The group's rally earlier this week is their latest move following months of activism. Last spring, OCAP pushed the city to purchase the land when it was up for sale. Acharya said the 30-room house and adjacent vacant lots were later taken off the market.
He believes that could lead to another unaffordable condo tower in a neighbourhood that's the "epicentre" of poverty and homelessness, "where the consequences of the deadly housing crisis we're seeing in this city are most visible."
But there's been no concrete action yet from the city. After council directed city staff to explore the possibility of buying or taking over the properties earlier this year, the city's affordable housing office issued a June report which did not recommend expropriating the land at that time.
There's also debate over whether or not expropriation is an ideal approach in the city's toolkit.
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Standing near the empty Sherbourne Street lot, neighbourhood resident Thorben Wieditz — a housing advocate and spokesperson for home-sharing regulation advocacy group Fairbnb — said the city should be taking a "use it or lose it" approach.
"There should be some mechanism to expropriate properties in the middle of a housing crisis," he said.
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Mayoral candidate Sarah Climenhaga, who has also made housing a key focus of her platform and debate appearances, agreed a city takeover could be the right move amid a neighbourhood where housing is "desperately needed" and once available in the same strip.
"Extreme measures such as these will not be needed in the future if the city takes a proactive, financially responsible role in creating more housing and maintaining our existing housing stock," she added.
Tory's campaign team, in contrast, said the approach the incumbent mayor supports is working with the development industry. "Expropriating privately-owned land would mean years of court battles and extra costs," said campaign spokesperson Keerthana Kamalavasan in a statement. "As the Mayor has shown, partnerships have been proven to be far more effective."
Others say the city should be using all the tools at its disposal — be it working with developers or taking over land.
The Federation of Metro Tenants' Associations (FMTA), a tenant advocacy group, is among the dozens of housing organizations behind a recent "housing pledge" put to council candidates.
The pledge calls on council and mayoral hopefuls to support five steps:
- Upgrading the shelter system and working to prevent homelessness.
- Establishing a sustainable funding formula for Toronto Community Housing-owned homes.
- Shifting the definition of "affordable housing" to reflect household income instead of market rent.
- Supporting zoning policies ensuring affordable homes are part of every new development.
- Mobilizing Toronto's resources to provide more affordable housing in all city initiatives.
"The best form of rent control that you can have in terms of a housing market is more supply," said Geordie Dent, executive director of the FMTA.
Among prominent mayoral candidates, Dent said Keesmaat, Climenhaga and Gebresellassi all signed the pledge. Tory did not.
'We can't go and buy everything'
Regardless of whoever becomes the next mayor, work on the housing file — including the possibility of purchasing the Sherbourne lots — is happening behind-the-scenes.
Sean Gadon, director of the city's affordable housing office, said staff are looking into an affordable housing acquisition and expropriation strategy to replace the current ad-hoc approach. He said they're expecting to report back to the next council in 2019, including details on the cost of this particular purchase.
"You look at it and say, it's grass, it's dilapidated buildings," he said. But the actual price to the city would be in the tens of millions of dollars to both buy and develop the lots.
There may be sites where that's appropriate, Gadon said, such as a building destroyed by fire in the late 1990s on Queen Street West that was expropriated by the city and turned back into housing. However, in many other cases, he said, it doesn't make sense when land already owned by the city is available.
With limited public dollars, and no specific capital fund designated for affordable housing acquisitions, Gadon added: "We can't go and buy everything that happens to be vacant."
But like many candidates and advocates, he's among those who believes the city can, and should, do more.
"We have to figure out how to do some of this work more innovatively and cost-effectively," Gadon said. "And we're very, very keen on the partnerships we can have with anyone in the community, and that involves non-profit organizations as well as the private sector."