dirty mansions

Sheppard Avenue by Don Mills Station

You may have noticed that all anybody can talk about in Toronto is the housing market, the housing crisis, and the high cost of living. Not a day goes by without another story or another outrage. On the same day that the president of MetCap, a large property management company, assaulted a tenants’ advocate at the site of a rent strike in Parkdale with his truck, Catherine Jheon wrote a sob story in Toronto Life about spending over a million dollars converting a Parkdale rental into a single family home after evicting the tenants.

Until its $1.1 million reno, Jheon’s Parkdale Victorian was one of those old, subdivided rental properties that Corin Raymond described as a “dirty mansion” in a Globe piece on the exodus of Toronto’s musicians. Dirty mansions are the former homes of the rich, cut up and rented out decades ago, after their millionaire families moved out and neighbourhoods like the Annex, Parkdale, and even parts of Rosedale saw money flee to the suburbs. But now those with access to multi-millions in credit are moving back in and, combined with an ever-growing population and a deficit of new rental units every year, there just aren’t enough places for Toronto tenants to live.

The Globe piece in which Raymond coined “dirty mansions” was all about the departure of many of Toronto’s musicians to places like Hamilton and Stratford, giving up on the high rents and horror stories. In some ways, it makes sense; musicians need space to practice and record, or at the very least, neighbours who won’t complain. They also need venues, and rental pressures on limited commercial properties have been closing plenty of those in the city, too. No one has written about writers fleeing to places that offer cheaper rents and more stability, but there’s no shortage of stories about getting evicted and scrambling to find new places to live in a hostile market.

Emma Healey, in a post on music blog Said the Gramophone, wrote about the experience of living in a dirty mansion being renovated for the market. The contractors believed in flat Earth theory, of all things, and for months Healey had to deal with the stressful uncertainty of a prolonged eviction into a housing market gone haywire with greed. The experience was debilitating to her work:

I stopped reading. My writing got less and worse, needed more drafts and was strung through with a taut, vibrating worry. People asked what I was working on and I would say a book of poems but really I was working on the quiet and complex process of not going completely insane.

Over social media, Toronto writer Julie Mannell told me about her recent experience looking for a new apartment after her eviction while living off an arts grant. It’s common practice for Toronto landlords to ask for a “letter of employment,” in addition to a credit check. Mannell reported a problem convincing landlords that her arts grant was in fact a source of income.

Whether you’re living on an arts council grant, piecing together your income by freelancing, or working any kind of underpaid job while trying to break into something, Toronto won’t be kind to you. The problem is, for arts workers or aspiring arts workers, there aren’t many better options.

… the city needs 30,000 new rental units annually. Despite the record-defying housing market, last year only 1,500 new apartments were made between Steeles and Lake Ontario.

The Martin Prosperity Institute keeps a metric called a “Bohemian Index” for cities in Canada and the US. It measures “the concentration of working artists, musicians, writers, designers, and entertainers across metropolitan areas.” It has little to do with traditional bohemianism, given the fact that it doesn’t count artists who aren’t paid to make their art, and consciously leans on theories of bohemianism as a lifestyle within the bourgeoisie, rather than opposed to it.

These issues aside, the Bohemian Index lists Toronto as the city with the fourth highest concentration of working artists in the US and Canada, after Los Angeles, New York, and Vancouver—and with 2.5 times more people living in the GTA than Metro Vancouver, Toronto is by far the biggest labour market in Canada for artists. The Bohemian Index is likewise a good indication that unaffordable rents in New York and Vancouver are no deterrent to creative industries. It’s just something you deal with, in the desperate hope that you can make ends meet until you either make it or leave.

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Why is rent so expensive in Toronto? Every year, the city of Toronto gains 100,000 new residents. Thanks to that growth, the city needs 30,000 new rental units annually. Despite the record-defying housing market, last year only 1,500 new apartments were made between Steeles and Lake Ontario. Annex homeowners patted themselves on the back for negotiating with the developers of the Honest Ed’s site to scale back the number of new rental units they were going to build. Only a week ago, homeowners at Yonge and Eglinton yet again opposed new construction, this time a development of 350 new rental units. NIMBYism is certainly a problem, but a lack of interest from developers is an even bigger issue—one that a meagre $125 million “affordable housing” fund will do little to change. New rent controls on condos built after 1991 will help curtail the upper end of the rental market, but do little to change an acute shortage at the low-to-mid range.

Writers, unlike musicians, artists, and sculptors, don’t need much in the way of actual space. Artists and sculptors need studios, spaces big enough and bright enough to paint or carve or shape, to store canvases and make a mess. Musicians need rehearsal space and venues to perform. That’s a tall order in a city where the sanctity of a good night’s sleep has not only stymied the rebirth of storied music venues like The Matador, but even threatened streetcar lines.

The government’s intervention in housing, transit, and roads has traditionally subsidized the market’s access to labour. A writer’s labour can take place anywhere—and it did, long before the internet, too. Streetcars were built to get workers to factories. Subways were built to get clerks into skyscrapers. Highways were built to get middle managers to their off-ramp office complexes. At one point, when they were first built, public housing complexes were built less to provide stability to the precariously housed, and more to provide a higher standard of housing in neighbourhoods that had been deemed slums, without moving the people who lived there away from their jobs. With the access of labour to the market in mind, it’s hard to say that a writer needs to live in the city. Why should anyone worry about their access to downtown Toronto when the same crisis faces the workers who make coffee at the Starbucks at Queen and John or who clean the TD Centre overnight?

The issue of affordable housing for artists can never be solved by lip service solutions like “artist’s lofts,” offered at rates affordable in comparison to the other condos being sold. These exclusive housing options exist for the established and they are allowed to exist in the market because proximity to art commands a premium from well-paid and less-inspired buyers.

Affordable housing for artists is the same issue as affordable housing for all. Rent control, investment in rental housing, ending protection of the Yellow Belt and opening residential neighbourhoods to multi-unit buildings, and the rapid construction of new housing of all forms are all needed to solve Toronto’s housing crisis.

When your professional and artistic success depends on building connections, you live in places where collisions are frequent and meetings inevitable.

If nothing is done about Toronto’s high cost of living, literary Toronto won’t change much. The problems that already plague it—nepotism, privilege, lack of diversity—will be harder to change as the barrier to entry becomes steeper and steeper. Fewer people will be free to volunteer their time to little magazines, to start up presses, or attend readings and launches. The artistic ecosystem will suffer as commute times get longer, freelancers have less time to spare, and professionals take on extra work to afford the rent.

These activities will still happen, but less of it will happen here, and Toronto will become less of a sustainable place to start anything new. The Toronto literary world, like the city itself, will become more and more the domain of rich kids who are free to fritter away the family fortune, to the exclusion of everyone else. There will be even fewer outsider voices than there are now.

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Big cities can’t help but draw artists. They have universities with MFA programs, colleges with publishing certificates, as well as teaching jobs and marketing jobs. The romance of the city and the facts of having a career will keep bringing young people with dreams of penning novels. But they don’t want to live in suburbs. The bungalow-lined streets of Etobicoke, far from bus lines, coffee shops where you can work, and bars where you can talk about books or host readings, are going to have a hard time becoming the next Brooklyn when cities like Hamilton are already chasing that title, ready with the old, walkable bones of industrial cities and new, shiny LRTs in their futures. When your professional and artistic success depends on building connections, you live in places where collisions are frequent and meetings inevitable. The more the province keeps investing in faster and more frequent transit links between Union Station and other urban centres, the more likely Hamilton, Guelph, Kitchener, and Mississauga are going to be the face and future of a “Toronto” arts industry. The city will still have its music venues, from the Horseshoe to Massey Hall, and Toronto will still have its book launches, its IFOA and its Giller Prize, its Wayzgoose and its Anansi Poetry Bash. It’s the next generation of projects like Little Brother and LooseLeaf, Inspiritus Press and words(on)pages that will happen on the new edges of the GTA, if they have room to happen at all.

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