The Current

One of Toronto's last affordable neighbourhoods is no longer affordable for many long-term residents

As housing costs skyrocket across Canada, some communities fear gentrification will price them out of the neighbourhoods they love, and leave them with nowhere to go.

Amid housing crisis, more communities across Canada are grappling with gentrification

A mother, father and their four children smile for the camera on a grey couch.
Rosanna Araujo, right, with her husband and four children. The family of six is living in a cramped two-bedroom home in Toronto's Weston neighbourhood — but they can't afford to move. (Submitted by Rosanna Araujo)

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With two adults and four kids squeezed into her two-bedroom apartment, Rosanna Araujo recently got rid of her dining table because it was eating up too much space.

Now she eats most of her meals standing over the kitchen counter. 

"It's not big enough," said Araujo, who works for a non-profit and lives in Weston, a neighbourhood in northwestern Toronto.

"We flirt with the idea [of moving] often, but we cannot afford to go anywhere. We can't afford to rent in Toronto."

Araujo, 39, and her husband both have good jobs, but feel like they're at their financial limit. They participated in a public forum on housing affordability in Weston hosted by The Current this week. 

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Araujo estimates that a place big enough to meet her family's needs would cost $4,000 a month — a 64 per cent increase on their current rent. 

WATCH | How the housing crisis impacts Toronto communities:

How is the housing crisis impacting you and your community?

2 months ago
Duration 5:29
Residents from in and around Toronto spoke with The Current about how the housing crisis is affecting them and their communities. This was part of At What Cost?, a special forum held in Weston on Sept. 25.

Until recently, Weston was considered one of the more affordable neighbourhoods in Toronto, avoiding the pitfalls of gentrification that have driven residents from so many other neighbourhoods in the city. But in the past five years, as housing prices and living expenses have soared across the country, Weston has not been spared. 

More residents like Araujo are facing the impossible choice wrought by skyrocketing rents: drain their bank accounts to pay ever-higher rents, or leave the community they love?

Even if they could move to a bigger place, Araujo says she would rather stay in Weston, a neighbourhood she loves for its diversity and sense of community, as well as its easy access to trails along the nearby Humber River. There's a mix of single-family homes and high-rise apartment towers nestled around a busy shopping street, and a popular weekend farmers' market.

Long-time Weston resident Sharlene Henry said she's seen rents in the area jump by as much as $1,000 in the last five years. She said the spike has been driven in part by the 2015 opening of the UP Express, a rail link connecting Pearson International Airport and downtown Toronto, which has a Weston stop.

Henry, 49, said these changes amount to gentrification, which has left her community wondering if they still have a place here.

"It feels like they want all of the people of colour out of this community so that they can charge high, [exorbitant] prices," she said.

WATCH | The fight to keep Canada's historic Chinatowns alive:

Inside the fight to keep Canada's historic Chinatowns alive

4 months ago
Duration 2:18
A Vancouver man is putting his music dreams on hold to try to help save his city’s historic Chinatown from gentrification and soaring real estate prices. Chinatowns across North America are struggling as the affordability crisis pushes once-thriving businesses and longtime residents to the brink.

'Housing is just unobtainable' 

Weston isn't the only community facing these challenges. As Canada grapples with a deepening housing crisis, issues around rising costs and gentrification are playing out across the country — from community-led efforts to protect historic Black communities in Nova Scotia, to rapid change in small-town B.C., to attempts to preserve Vancouver's struggling Chinatown.

A report this month showed rental costs across Canada have increased by 9.6 per cent in the past year, to an average of $2,117 a month. Separately, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. estimates that Canada needs to build an extra 3.5 million new units by the end of the decade, over and above what's already in the works, in order to ensure enough housing supply to close the country's affordability gap.

Bryan Douthwright is an advocacy manager at the Weston King Neighbourhood Centre, which helps people struggling with access to housing, health care and basic necessities such as food.  

Douthwright said the number of people needing help has skyrocketed in recent years, and now includes not just low-income residents, but some earning a moderate income. 

A man with blonde hair in a ponytail, septum piercing and short beard/moustache poses for the camera in a hallway with art hanging on the walls. He's wearing a brown plaid button-up over top of a white t-shirt
Bryan Douthwright helps people struggling to access housing or even basic necessities in Weston. He says he's seen a growing need in recent years. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Part of his role is to help people find housing, but he said that's "honestly impossible right now." 

"Housing is just unobtainable. People will be spending 100 per cent of their income on rents," he said. 

Henry has lived in Weston for 20 years. With three kids at home, she works full time as an autoworker and her partner works two jobs to make ends meet. She's also chair of the tenants association at her building, 33 King St., which is currently involved in a rent strike

(Dream Unlimited, the owner of 33 King St., declined an interview with The Current, but said in a statement that it had made accommodations for tenants facing financial difficulties, and has created affordable units at one of the buildings involved in the rent strike.) 

Henry wants to see more affordable housing built, and limits on year-over-year rent hikes reintroduced. In 2018, Ontario Premier Doug Ford rolled back rent controls for buildings built after November that year, in an effort to spur the construction of new purpose-built rental units.

"My ultimate fear is that my kids pack up and leave — and not for that amazing job or career, just for affordability," Henry said.

"There's no reason why someone has to pick up and leave their family, friends, school, job and go to somewhere where they don't know anybody just to find affordable housing."

A woman with red glasses and long dark dreadlocks poses in a hallway with art hanging on the walls. She's wearing a t-shirt that says, 'tenant union' and a button that says, 'rent strike.'
Sharlene Henry is an autoworker and activist who is campaigning for a better deal for the tenants in her Weston building. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

What should governments do?

Earlier this month, the federal government announced it would cut the federal goods and services tax (GST) from the construction of new rental apartments, in an effort to spur new development.

It also pledged $74 million to build thousands of homes in London, Ont. — the first in what it hopes will be a series of agreements with municipalities to accelerate housing construction.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre criticized the government's plan as not going far enough. He's proposed measures that tie federal funding to housing starts. Funding would be withheld from cities that fail to increase the number of homes built by 15 per cent, while those that pass that threshold would receive bonuses.

Jeff Brenner is a partner at Castlepoint NUMA, a Toronto developer hoping to build in Weston. He said developers understand that a "good, functioning city" requires housing for residents at all income levels, but banks expect a certain profit margin before they finance a development. Units that are affordable for residents can often sell at a loss for the developer, he said.

"In order to deliver more affordable housing … it's really going to take all three levels [of government] to kind of come together there to help unlock that," he said. 

A man with short brown hair and a blue suit speaks into a microphone onstage at a forum. Behind him there is a sign that says, 'The Current.'
Toronto developer Jeff Brenner said his industry understands that a 'good, functioning city' requires housing for residents at all income levels. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Ene Underwood, CEO of Habitat for Humanity GTA, agrees that all levels of government could help reduce the obstacles around "land, time and money." For example, they could make more land available for home building, while also requiring that a certain percentage be earmarked for affordable housing, she said. 

A helping hand

A stone's throw from the Humber River in Weston, a new condominium is nearing completion — built by a non-profit developer that helps home buyers with a hefty chunk of the down payment.

"We take what would conventionally be the profit from a project, and lend that to our purchasers to bolster their down payment," said Heather Tremain, CEO of Options for Homes. 

Martha Gonya recently moved into the new Weston building. She's a single mother on a teacher's salary, and thinks it's telling that someone with her job needs this kind of help. 

"I thought, this is my last chance to own something in Toronto," she said, adding that otherwise the $400,000 mortgage would have been "completely out of reach."

Tremain said 56 per cent of Options for Homes' homebuyers identify as racialized.

WATCH | When did Toronto run out of rental housing? 

When did Toronto run out of rentals?

2 months ago
Duration 9:23
Toronto’s rental market is in dire need of more supply. But back in the 1960s and 1970s the city had a healthy stock of apartment buildings. So what happened? CBC Toronto’s Shannon Martin explores the timeline of when Canada’s biggest city started running out of rentals.

"They're probably more in line with the community that exists. And they are definitely shopping in the local stores and the local restaurants and kind of bringing life to the streets," she said.

That said, Tremain is mindful that when Options for Homes builds in an underserved area, it can attract other for-profit developers — creating a risk of gentrification. She said navigating that risk involves robust planning, as well as careful relationship management between new developments and existing neighbourhoods.

"Cities are dynamic and they do change," she said.

"[But] we need people who contribute to the city, who work in the city, to also be able to live in the city."

LISTEN | Canadians share their thoughts on housing crisis 

Audio produced by Julie Crysler and Kate Cornick.

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