Why there's a race against time to keep a downtown vacant lot from becoming a condo

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam and community members in Toronto's downtown east side are in a race against time to get the city to turn a vacant parcel of land into affordable, supportive housing — before it's sold to condo developers.

Affordable housing could help save downtown east side, Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam says

A photo of a property for sale on Sherbourne Street near Dundas Street East in Toronto. Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam wants the city to buy the land and turn it into affordable, supportive housing. (Colliers)

A city councillor and community members in Toronto's gritty downtown east side are in a race against time to get the city to turn a vacant parcel of land into affordable, supportive housing — before it's sold to condo developers in a matter of days.

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam says the area around Dundas and Sherbourne streets could one day look more like the St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood, a more vibrant, mixed-income area a few blocks to the south.

"This is a troubled neighbourhood," Wong-Tam, who represents Ward 13, Toronto Centre, told CBC News.

"Sherbourne and Dundas can look only to their neighbour to the south to see what a successful, inclusive, healthy neighbourhood it could be."

Toronto's downtown east side is anything but healthy and successful right now. It's wracked by homelessness and a drug crisis, both worsened by the pandemic. But Wong-Tam says the right mix of affordable housing, co-ops and retail can unlock its potential and buying a large parcel of land sitting near that intersection presents an opportunity. 

The problem is the owner has refused earlier attempts from the city to buy it, and now the property is being marketed to developers as an opportunity to build a condo tower.

Wong-Tam says affordable housing could help revitalize the area and make it look more like the St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood. (Spencer Gallichan-Lowe/CBC News)

"High Rise Development Opportunity at Sherbourne & Dundas," reads the listing from Colliers, a real estate and investment management company. There is no asking price. Bids will be accepted on Friday.

Wong-Tam has asked city staff to look at the feasibility of the city purchasing the property. A report is expected to be ready for council to debate at its meeting on Wednesday, with enough time, if approved, to make an offer on Friday.

"It can kick off the Sherbourne and Dundas revitalization, help bring in prosperity, inclusive city building and design. Affordable housing is going to be key to making this neighbourhood safer and healthier for all," she said. 

'We are spiralling out of control'

For Tommy Taylor, a front-line shelter worker, having the city purchase the property and control its development won't just improve the neighbourhood. He says it will save lives.

"This neighbourhood is in absolute desperate need of social, affordable and supportive housing," Taylor said in an interview.

"People, quite frankly, are dying out there."

Last month, an unidentified person was found frozen to death at a bus shelter on Sherbourne Street not far from property for sale. Taylor also says the recent controversy surrounding homeless encampments in Toronto parks proves the city is in a housing crisis and the need for solutions is urgent.

"We are spiralling out of control. The very least we can do is grab this property here, you know, make this a symbol of Toronto taking this housing crisis seriously," Taylor said.

While supportive housing and services can be built anywhere, Taylor says they work best in the communities where there is already a population to serve. In this case, he says there is a vacant lot in the middle of a neighbourhood full of people who need help.

"Here we're going to have another fancy condo in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, ripping this away from a community in need," Taylor said.

"The more you displace this community from the downtown east side, where their friends are, where these services are, it can be a death sentence to push them further away."


Trevor Dunn is an award-winning journalist with CBC Toronto. Since 2008 he's covered a variety of topics, ranging from local and national politics to technology on the South American countryside. Trevor is interested in uncovering news: real estate, crime, corruption, art, sports. Reach out to him. Se habla español.


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