“The more time we spend debating this issue, the more people we’re burying.”

Those were the words of Lorraine Lam, who took the stage last Monday in front of 214-230 Sherbourne Street, a mostly vacant lot in Toronto’s Downtown East (DTE). The long-contested property is up for sale again, and activists like Lam are fighting to turn it into affordable housing. 

The mood was somber as supporters and media filled the sidewalk around the speakers, clustering together for an emergency press conference calling on the city to make a bid on the property and convert it into social housing.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. At least 26 people who were experiencing homelessness have died in Toronto so far this year. Advocates say at least four died from cold exposure. These extreme results follow on decades of policy failures—the federal government’s withdrawal from building social housing chief among them.

“Once the land is gone, it’s gone forever,” Toronto city councilor Kristyn Wong-Tam told the crowd. “And if it’s not purchased for [Rent Geared to Income] housing, chances are we’re gonna see another condominium site,” she said. The crowd booed.  

On March 8th, the day after the activist press conference in front of 214-230, the City of Toronto announced that it would indeed bid to buy the large corner lot at Sherbourne and Dundas. Whether the city’s bid will be competitive enough to elbow out competitors—of which there are likely to be many—remains to be seen. Activists are relieved a bid is in, but the possibility of a competitive bidding war sullies the mood.

This tentative victory—pressuring the city to bid on a single lot—is the result of nearly a decade of struggle. The obstacles overcome by a generation of activists to get to this point speak to the difficulties involved in confronting the housing crisis as a whole.

“I can’t speak for others, but I’m feeling pretty anxious,” Lam told The Breach. “I’m glad that the city is putting in a bid now, but a bit disappointed that things have been in such a time crunch. I’m also feeling worried that the offer the city puts in will not be high enough.”

For activists, many of whom are affiliated with local agencies like Street Health or the Shelter Housing Justice Network, the next step is pressuring the private owners to accept the city’s offer. “This is both our invitation to the vendor and our appeal at this pivotal time, when things will either get better or get worse for many,” reads their latest petition on Change.org. Details about the city’s bid—or when the sale of the lot is expected to be announced—are unknown.  

Landlords seek to cash in, residents fight for survival

214-230’s real estate listing describes the property as “an exciting residential development opportunity” in a “high growth” area. A short walk away, unhoused people are dying on Toronto’s streets.

Local shelters are at nearly 100 percent capacity, which means many residents take daytime refuge at the All Saints Church around the corner, and make homes out of tents, or sleep near ravines or in stairwells through the frigid winter. 

In some cases, unhoused residents don’t make it through the night. That was the case of the man, still unidentified, who died of suspected hypothermia near 214-230 in early February. “We still don’t know his name,” said Lam. “We live in a city where this piece of land sat vacant for over a decade, while more and more people became homeless. Shelters are crowded. People ride the streetcars overnight for refuge.” 

Screen capture from the listing of 214-230 Sherbourne Street. Photo: Colliers Canada.

Almost forty years ago Drina Joubert froze to death in an abandoned truck directly outside 214-230 Sherbourne. The tragic event sparked a successful community struggle for the construction of thousands of social housing units in the area in the 1980s. 

Decades later, Joubert’s death inspired the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) to center 214-230 in their fight for accessible housing for the poor. In the fall of 2013, as the Toronto housing crisis worsened, OCAP kicked off a battle to expropriate the lot and turn it into Rent-Geared-to-Income housing. OCAP called on all levels of government to step up and help solve the housing issue.

Supported by an array of local agencies and community organizations—like Street Health, the Shelter Housing Justice Network and the Regent Park Community Health Center—the campaign has now, after nearly ten years, scored its biggest win: the city made a bid to buy the property. It’s doing so under a directive, passed in March 2021, to investigate taking over the property to build “deeply affordable and supportive housing.”

The crisis on the streets of Toronto, compounded by an escalating housing crisis have lent the struggle for 214-230 great symbolic power: as long as it stands empty, and people continue to die while living outdoors, the city isn’t doing enough. For 50 years until 2008, the lot was once home to rooming houses, when all but the sole-standing Victorian house were demolished. 214-230’s current owners, Bhushan and Rekha Taneja, have a large real estate portfolio that includes other rooming homes. 

Operating low-income rental properties is hardly the most profitable way to leverage assets. It appears the Tenejas, who have owned 214-230 for at least a decade, were waiting for values to increase even more before selling.  

Fighting to win at 214-230

The fight for 214-230 grew steadily after the 2013 launch. With activists busy with more immediate fights, like winning more shelter beds, a potential window for success opened in the winter of 2018: 214-230’s owners announced the property was up for sale.

While activists initially demanded expropriation, in 2018 they shifted to pushing the city to purchase 214-230. OCAP led marches to city hall and demonstrations. Even before the campaign formally began, organizers attempted to organize a squat at the location, but to little effect: police promptly kicked out the activists who occupied the site. 

Local agencies focused efforts on lobbying City Council and deputations—winning an ally in Wong-Tam, who tabled a motion which passed in March of 2018—to explore 214-230’s transformation. 

It was the campaign’s first win. The motion authorized city council to direct the Affordable Housing Office to explore either expropriation or purchasing the property. 

The pressure continued throughout the spring and early summer of 2018, including an open letter—co-signed by 27 agencies, including major players like Fred Victor Housing and LOFT Community Services—to keep the pressure on. 

“I think that was helpful,” said Danielle Koyama, a longtime activist and frontline worker in the neighborhood, noting that support for social housing by these more mainstream figures gave the grassroots campaign further reach. 

A banner in support of building social housing at 214-230 Sherbourne Street.

The intensity of the housing crisis made it difficult to ignore the ideas offered by activists. “It was just an obvious potential solution,” Koyama told The Breach by phone. “Not to the entire housing crisis, but at least one small concrete action that could be taken to help the crisis at that corner.”

As soon as activists started to win, and mobilization shifted the terrain, the Tenejas took the property off the market. “OCAP mobilized for the city to come in and purchase it,” OCAP member Yogi Acharya told a demonstration in 2019. “Moments after that was done, owners pulled these properties off the market. We found out that they prefer to sell to a private developer.”

With purchasing the land at least temporarily off the table, the appetite for expropriation returned.

Since the fight began, that demand has shifted multiple times between expropriation or purchase, adapting to the circumstances. Purchasing involves paying market rate—potentially around $40 to $50 million—a cost drastically inflated by the housing crisis over the ten-year lifespan of the campaign. 

But city staff claim expropriation—which involves paying out the owner at market rate and incurring legal fees—can cost even more, and take as long as 18 months. Still, had expropriation occurred closer to 2013—before the last ten years of price inflation—the land would likely have been significantly cheaper to take over.

Among Toronto’s vibrant network of affordable housing activists and organizations, the purchase is not without its detractors. HousingNowTO, a group monitoring the development of Toronto’s affordable housing projects, criticized the campaign and the city’s move to buy the land. 

“Is spending $40 to $50 million of limited government funds to cash out a slumlord at high market-land values for an empty lot a smart way to deliver new affordable housing? No,” HousingNowTO tweeted, based on their estimate of the bid cost. They pointed to move-in-ready units elsewhere that the city could buy instead.

Regardless of the fact that 214-230 was no longer for sale, the campaign had still won a commitment from City Hall to investigate a plan of action. That momentum led activists to team up with the Open Architecture Collaborative Toronto (OACTo), a progressive architecture firm, to map out a potential proposal for the site. 

Informed by community members in the DTE, who took part in consultations in the summer of 2019, their vision for 214-230 includes an 18-storey tower, a courtyard with ample public space, and restoration of the sole Victorian home still on the property. In all, hundreds of units of high-quality, deeply affordable housing would be created. The proposal was submitted to city hall through deputations. It remains a practical way forward, should the city take over the lot. 

Toronto’s housing crisis, aggravated by the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic induced a crisis among homeless residents in Toronto’s DTE. Overloaded shelters became vectors of transmission. Encampments shot up in parks, and were later evicted by police. 

While also fighting to expand shelter capacity—winning spaces in vacant hotels, for example—activists used the moment to call for 214-230’s expropriation. Open letters were sent, while deputations and lobbying to keep the pressure on City Hall continued. 

By March 2021, a new motion was tabled and passed, again by Wong-Tam. It directed the city bureaucracy “to identify funding sources, including that from the Provincial and Federal governments, for the acquisition or expropriation” of 214-230 “for the purpose of building deeply affordable and supportive housing.” 

Wong-Tam’s motion directs the city to “immediately enter into a conditional Agreement of Purchase and Sale, subject to agreeable terms and the approval of City Council” if the owners listed the property. 

Under this directive, expropriation could have happened any time in the last year. But Wong-Tam says staff at the Affordable Housing Office have simply refused to do so, preferring purchase instead.

Last week, under that directive, the city finally made a move. A win in and of itself, the bid reflects nearly a decade of slow and steady work and a raft of strategies. Getting to this point took a diverse range of tactics and supporters, who used direct action on the street, lobbying in the local legislature, and seeking support of major groups like Fred Victor, which positioned the campaign as a pragmatic response to an intensifying crisis. 

Ultimately, Koyama said, it was really about “just not letting go of it. And continuing to let them know that we weren’t going to just forget about it.” 

Should the Tenejas sell to a condo developer, Koyama promised the fight for expropriation will push on. “That corner,” she says, “cannot be lost to condo development while people are abandoned to freeze to death outside its doors.”

Speculation kills

For many, 214-230 embodies the painful irony at the heart of Canada’s housing crisis. Investors chase speculative value by hanging onto vacant properties—even empty lots—in the hopes of selling to deep-pocketed condo developers. In the same city, tens of thousands go without adequate shelter, and millions overpay or have precarious housing. 

Koyama says 214-230 also embodies the federal government’s retreat from social housing. 

“That’s the answer,” she said. “We need the federal government to start building social housing and treat housing like a basic human need, like medicare, and not a commodity.”

Activists gather outside 214-230 Sherbourne for a rally in summer 2019.

In the 1990s, the Chrétien Liberals withdrew the federal government from funding social housing. With the provinces saddled with the job, the construction of rent-controlled units collapsed. Roughly 31,000 units of social housing were built with federal funding in 1972—the year social housing reached its peak—while the average hovered around 20,000 units per year in the 1960s and 1970s. 

By 1998, there were barely 1,000 units of social housing built in Canada—a precipitous drop that continued for a decade (aside from one year, 2006). In 2019, over 238,000 households across Canada were on local social housing waitlists. 

In Koyama’s eyes, the federal government’s failure to invest in social housing could have immediate impacts on the fate of 214-230. Even if the property is secured with the $89.2 million in reserve funds the City of Toronto has on hand, the city has a much smaller budget than senior levels of government, inevitably shaping—or constraining—how the project will be developed should the city’s bid go through. 

“If the federal and provincial governments don’t contribute, then we may not end up with what we want,” said Koyama. “They’re the ones that have the resources to actually provide funding to build affordable, [Rent Geared to Income] housing.” 

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