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On a rainy day in April a crowd gathered outside a rent-controlled apartment building in Toronto. They were rallying to save the 15-storey tower from demolition and prevent hundreds of tenants from being displaced.
“Is this your home?!” cried mayoral candidate Olivia Chow to the residents of 55 Brownlow Avenue, near Mount Pleasant and Eglinton streets.
A cacophonous cry of “yes!” from the crowd.
The crowd included tenants, campaigners, and a gaggle of mayoral candidates. In addition to Chow, the speakers included Chloe Brown and councillor Josh Matlow, whose ward is where the apartment tower resides.
“The rules are set up against us.” said Matlow, addressing the crowd. “No matter what city council does, it can go to the Ontario Land Tribunal, an unelected, unaccountable, provincially appointed body that even has members of the lobby for the developers sitting on that tribunal.”
Matlow is right about the rules. This building shouldn’t need to be torn down to fix Toronto’s housing crisis, but under current zoning regulations more than two-thirds of Toronto is protected from this type of development. That means that to build enough housing the city needs to increase the number of units in the few areas where increasing density is actually allowed.
Until very recently much of the city was zoned for single family homes only — council recently voted to increase that by allowing up to four units on every lot.
That modest increase to density relies on lots of homeowners deciding to split their detached house into apartments. The city has a target of 285,000 new homes by 2031. To meet that target with fourplexes alone, every single single family home in Toronto would need to be converted to a fourplex.
To increase the housing supply the city allows perfectly good, rent controlled apartment buildings to be torn down and replaced with even taller condo developments. These new buildings, by virtue of being built after Premier Doug Ford’s government changed regulations in 2018, will not be rent controlled.
When zoning regulations only allow for apartment buildings in certain areas, the potential for more supply is limited because there’s only so much land to work with. The already densely populated areas get increasingly denser through demolition and construction.
Meanwhile, leafy residential neighbourhoods like Rosedale might get an extra doorbell or two on one of the two storey houses.
Those protected neighbourhoods, by virtue of being made up of detached houses, tend to be where Toronto’s wealthier, home-owning residents live.
The residents of 55 Brownlow Avenue are a mix of tenants: many on fixed incomes, all are renters.
The tenants of these 121 units will all be displaced by the proposed demolition, or “demoviction,” as campaigners are calling it.
“It's essential that this government listen to renters and bring in proper tenant protections,” said MPP and Ontario NDP housing critic Jessica Bell.
“Renters are the victims of our housing affordability crisis. They shouldn't be our sacrificial lambs.”
This is not the only serviceable building being demolished to build taller condo towers.
In the Annex, 145 St George Street, a 12-storey building of 130 units built in 1959 is also up for redevelopment. City council also approved the demolition of 25 St Mary Street containing 259 units, a 60s-era building in the Church and Wellesley Village neighbourhood.
In fact, according to current applications around 3400 units are up for demolition across the city of Toronto, displacing thousands.
Megan Kee lives at 55 Brownlow and is part of the No Demovictions campaign group. Speaking to Ricochet at the rally, she said, “there are 73 buildings in the city of Toronto being evicted right now, and that represents over 10,000 people.”
It is unclear how many are rent-controlled buildings.
Matlow, who voted for the demolition of 25 St Mary Street, said the demolition of 55 Brownlow is being reviewed by city staff. “Our best chance is if city staff recommend against the demolition and the application, because if they recommend for it... city staff would be used as a witness for the applicant if it goes to the tribunal.”
Removing affordable housing stock in a housing crisis that gets increasingly worse by the day seems unwise and irresponsible by any measure.
Matlow did not commit to voting against the demolition. “The most honest commitment that I can make to you is just one thing: we're gonna make that decision based on the facts.”
Real estate investors QuadReal and Toronto-based developer Menkes purchased the property at 55 Brownlow Avenue in May 2022 for $56.18 million.
“We're just sick and tired of the financialization of housing,” said Kee. “But what Doug Ford is doing right now prioritises a small group of wealthy people and disenfranchises everybody else.”
These renters are not NIMBYs, said Kee. If anything, these demovictions are caused by NIMBYism. It’s like the misuse of the word woke, an appropriation and perversion of its original meaning, she said.
“NIMBYism is not in my backyard, which is a term that’s used when affluent, wealthy people didn't want shelters or other social services in their neighbourhoods,” Kee said.
This is an issue caused by the “missing middle,” the result of zoning regulations that have lead to “tall and small” cities, where most of the city only allows short, detached houses. That means that the city has to add new housing in just a few neighbourhoods, which is why the condos in those neighbourhoods end up being so tall. In Toronto you can see this divide on either side of Bloor Street, with low-rise, wealthy Rosedale on one side and the towering slabs of St James Town on the other.
There are very few medium sized developments in cities that have a missing middle, such as Toronto. These types of housing are things like multiplexes, laneway housing, low and mid-rise apartment buildings – anything between a large tower and a single family home.
The alternative picture would be a city like Montreal or Chicago, where gentle density leads to a more even picture. If five to 10-storey apartment buildings are permitted to be spread out more across the city, then there would be less need to build huge condo towers, and no need to tear down perfectly good affordable rental slabs. The population would be more evenly spread out so amenities and infrastructure aren’t overwhelmed in some areas.
In Toronto, while Yonge and Eglinton’s population swells, low-rise neighbourhoods are actually losing people, even leaving some schools without enough pupils.
This kind of “tall and small” zoning is often called exclusionary zoning, a term which alludes to the segregationist origins of “the missing middle,” which refers to missing mid-rise and low-rise apartment buildings.
In 1912, Toronto introduced its first ban on apartments in most of the city’s residential neighbourhoods. At the time apartments were seen as being both unsanitary, but also too tempting for Toronto’s white, British elite, particularly women. Apartments in the early 20th century were marketed to those elites, with amenities like a staffed kitchen serving meals to the residents. “Toronto the Good” thought that nice young women, without enough household duties to keep them occupied and less space to have children, would end up being seduced by the wanton hedonistic pleasures of the city. Meanwhile, the thinking went, newer immigrants would occupy the leafy detached neighbourhoods and continue to procreate.
Ending this kind of zoning has become a hot political topic in Ontario.
“We are in support of ending exclusionary zoning and building missing middle housing,” MPP Bell said. “We have a housing affordability crisis and a housing supply crisis… it is economically wise and environmentally responsible to build in areas that already have the services that we need.”
Tenants of 55 Brownlow and 145 St. George said they feel like they’re subsidising developers. They’ve been offered “rent gap” payments by the developers which would cover the difference between their current rents, and the market rent of a place to stay while the new building is being built, but those rent gap payments are based on the move out date. Construction is estimated to take three to four years.
If a tenant moves into a non rent-controlled building, which is any unit constructed after 2018 (including basement units first occupied after then) then those rent gap payments are unlikely to cover rent increases. They also don’t cover the full costs of moving, with only $1,500 for a one bedroom.
Anyone who has moved apartments in Toronto in recent years knows that you usually have an overlap month where you pay rent in two places at once. There’s also the costs of storage units for tenants who have to occupy smaller apartments during construction.
On top of that, tenants say the new units have a worse layout, with less light than their current apartments.
Jamie Okorfsky, a senior communications manager at Menkes says “At this stage, design parameters for the building, phasing, and appropriate compensation packages for tenants are still in flux, so it would be premature to comment on specifics. “However, at the end of the day, existing tenants will be living in new, upgraded, energy efficient, similarly sized units in a building we are sure they will be proud of.“
Bell said the provincial government should push developers to go further to properly compensate renters.
"We have called for, in amendments, that if a renter moves they need a full top up for the entire construction period so they can continue to live in the neighborhood they love.”
Meanwhile if this demolition is approved the tenants of 55 Brownlow, like thousands of others, will be displaced from their homes for a minimum of three years. At best they’ll return to something very different.