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This city needs apartment living, not front doors

The Globe and Mail - January 30, 2002
by John Barber

If I were to include the phrase "affordable housing" in the first sentence of a column, a large majority of readers would do one of two things. Most would realize that the subject has no bearing on their comfortable ratepaying existences, then turn the page. Others would agree Toronto urgently needs more affordable housing, then turn the page.

So to heck with affordable housing; it's a lost cause. What this city needs is not another unaffordable social program. It needs apartment buildings.

You could spend months trying to understand why Toronto has not seen the construction of a single modern apartment building in decades. Dozens of consultants have studied the issue and know all about differential assessments and targeted abatements. But a big part of any explanation has to be cultural.

Toronto the Good once called itself "A City of Homes," thus primly distinguishing its sobersided citizenry from the swarthy masses who clogged the "teeming tenements" of major U.S. cities at the time, especially New York. Unimpressed by the fact that those masses included some of the most dynamic figures in modern history, Toronto the Good Enough remains true to its roots, fixated by the undying allure of a front door.

Stacked townhouses seemed like a great idea 10 years ago, when nobody was building anything. Since then they've multiplied like the plague, infesting every corner, locking main-street sites in the heart of the city into a two-storey future forever. The worst of them are plain mean.

There's no question that most of the high-rise condominiums going up on prime sites are more urban. But they're not apartment buildings; they represent a multiplication of the front-door syndrome, not an alternative to it.

The impending demolition of some of Toronto's finest modern apartments, housing some of the city's most determined tenants, helps to demonstrate the differences. The buildings most under threat are those in the most exclusive neighbourhoods of the city, as in the brilliant stretch of Avenue Road between St. Clair Avenue and Upper Canada College.

Naturally enough, the tenants in those and similar buildings are loyal. Many of them are elderly, having lived for decades in the same apartments. They're not rich, but they've managed to enjoy stable lives in the finest urban surroundings without betting hundreds of thousands of dollars, as so many of us now do unquestioningly, on real-estate speculation.

Nobody can live that way in a condominium building. Your only choice is to buy in fully, hoping you won't have to move before your investment appreciates enough to cover the substantial cost of selling out. It's great for the banks, it's great for the developers and the real-estate agents, but it's a funny kind of affordable. No matter how expensive a real apartment might be, living in one requires no capital investment.

You can always rent an apartment in a condominium building, of course, but you can't build a life that way. In such arrangements -- as with many of the informal flats in converted houses -- individual landlords can easily evict tenants on short notice, and they often do. More often, tenants in condominiums or houses are made homeless when the property changes hands.

Given that opportunities for apartment living in Toronto are already so constrained, it seems dismally shortsighted to stamp out the last of the true apartment dwellers, the people who appreciate that way of life, who have demonstrated the long-term advantages of truly affordable housing. The city is pushing hard against apartment demolition but the market, backed by the Ontario Municipal Board, is all for it.

Saving the existing stock is barely half the battle, however. Toronto needs lots of new apartment buildings to thrive. There may be towns, but there is really no such thing as a city of homes. Building boom notwithstanding, the increasingly narrow range of housing options available in Toronto stultifies the city.

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