'My Parkdale is gone': how gentrification reached the one place that seemed immune

Murray Whyte in Toronto

By now, Michael Nguyen expects them: every month or so, someone representing one international real estate investment firm or another crosses the threshold of the Parkdale Intercultural Centre, a non-profit immigrant settlement agency he runs on a busy stretch of Toronto’s Queen Street West.

“It’s the same every time: Who owns the building? How do I get in touch with them? Do they want to sell?” shrugged Nguyen, whose centre has been helping new immigrants adjust to Canadian life for decades. “We’re fortunate — the owner believes in what we do, so we feel safe. But you know the same questions are being asked of everyone all around here. And not everyone is going to say no.”

Toronto’s much-vaunted international brand – the poster-child for extreme diversity, a global social experiment done right – has become a faded myth in many of its inner-city neighbourhoods. Property values have soared beyond the most fevered speculators’ imagination, mostly relegating those representing Toronto’s vast swaths of difference to the suburbs.

Parkdale, however, an inner-city neighbourhood just six kilometres west of downtown along Lake Ontario’s shore, has long been an outlier. As Nguyen spoke, runny-nosed toddlers fiddled with coloured blocks, while their parents, all recent immigrants, tried to focus on an English as a second language class. Outside, Queen Street bustled with an almost fairy-tale version of multicultural Toronto: Tibetan monks in flowing orange robes slipping into a flow of South Asian, Caribbean and African immigrants; a mom-and-pop grocer sells roasted barley, a favourite Tibetan snack; other restaurants offer roti, a Jamaican/Indian wrap that fuses the spicy flavours of both cultures.

But the lively streetscape here masks a threat to what could very well be the last island of diversity in a city swamped by the flood waters of global capital. Huge international real estate investment firms have embedded themselves in Parkdale’s urban fabric, buying dozens of apartment towers and thousands of rental units. Residents claim that threats, intimidation, rampant eviction notices and strategic neglect have become common. So too have tenant protests and rent strikes, where slick corporate offices find themselves occupied by hundreds of angry tenants demanding redress.

Those protesting, however, are the lucky ones. In a city famous as a landing pad for immigrants, many recently-arrived residents, often without either English or an understanding of Canadian legal protections around tenancy, simply pack up and leave.

“Gone are the days of the mom-and-pop slumlord, which was the dominant make-up of the rental housing market in Parkdale for years,” says Cole Webber, a legal aid worker with the Parkdale Community Legal Services (PCLS), a provincially-funded agency for free legal services (which was itself evicted from its long-time Parkdale offices last year). “The fact of it is that the primary impediment for these corporations increasing their profits is the ongoing tenancy of working-class people who live in Parkdale. The only reason these companies bought these properties is so they can turn over the units. Period.”

Parkdale has become one of those neighbourhoods, following a familiar script. Inner-city working-class suburb, the last bastion of affordable rent, becomes popular with artists and students, who lend it a certain zeitgeisty sheen; property speculators follow; rent and property value increase; condos sprout like weeds; neighbourhood becomes a whitewashed nowhere, like so many before it: Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, London’s Hackney, Berlin’s Kreuzberg, San Francisco’s Mission. Indeed, Akelius, the Swedish investment firm that now owns many thousands of apartment units throughout Europe, made that exact comparison about Parkdale in its most recent annual report.

“There goes another community center,” quipped the Instagram account @parkdalelife about an infamous all-night McDonald’s being demolished to make way for a 700-plus unit luxury condo building, leeringly named “XO.” It was just the kind of hipster fatalism that infects neighbourhoods in the grips of late-stage gentrification. The McDonald’s, at Parkdale’s nexus of Dufferin and King Streets, had served as an informal refuge for Parkdale’s legions of homeless and mentally ill for decade. And by the time blasé youth in search of urban grit arrive just in time to become cheekily indignant about displacement, it’s already far too late.

From wealthy getaway to ‘Crackdale’

I lived in Parkdale’s orbit for almost 20 years, first in the late 1990s on its eastern boundary, and then its west a decade later.

The neighbourhood’s infamous liquor store at Queen and Brock Streets was the only one I knew with a full-time police detail. Depending on the night, you could see a scuffle in the whiskey aisle, an arrest, or a fistfight or overdose in its parking lot; often, there would be a solicitation for a low-priced trick from one of the prostitutes who routinely patrolled its perimeter. Once, I was witness to a tooth being knocked out, one homeless man to another, over an allegedly stolen beer. (In one of the few good news stories to come out of Parkdale recently, the city is trying to acquire the site of the store, now closed, to build affordable housing.)

In a country like Canada, where we speak smugly of social safety nets and institutionalized humanity, here was a place that made it feel like that was all talk. In the late 1990s, Parkdale could be chilling: group homes housed hundreds battling mental health and addiction issues; the less fortunate were left to the precarious realm of government rent subsidies and dilapidated, poorly-maintained rooming houses – or, just as often, the street. Along a deadened streetscape of mostly empty storefronts, drug deals happened in broad daylight, addicts raged and twitched, and Parkdale earned another name, Crackdale, day by day.

It’s not hard to see Parkdale as doomed from the start. It was built in the late 19th century as a summer refuge for the city’s wealthy, with opulent brick mansions on a small bluff overlooking the water. Six kilometres from the smoky and bustling downtown, it was close enough for those with means to easily reach – and to keep those without away.

In less than two decades, rapid industrialization clustering along the water’s edge changed all that. Apartment houses were built to accommodate workers, many of them immigrants, for the nearby factories and abattoirs; hastily-sold grand Victorian homes were repurposed into multiple single-room dwellings.

The decline of industry across North America in the 70s and 80s dealt Parkdale another blow, leaving the spartan workers’ housing to rot. The nearby lake – now toxic – and the six-lane expressway, built in the 1950s along the shore, ensured its squalor. Around the same time, the province of Ontario deregulated mental health care and shut down psychiatric hospitals, releasing psychiatric patients to seek refuge in privately-run care homes; they found Parkdale’s chopped-up manses ready to receive them.

It’s not going to be Little Tibet much longer. We’re losing the community we built over years

Tenzin Tekan, Parkdale Community Legal Services

Over the years, poverty and marginalization became deeply embedded. Social service agencies clustered in Parkdale to serve a disempowered population, and, by their sheer density, drew more into the neighbourhood’s orbit. Addiction made Parkdale a hotbed of a predatory illegal drug trade; prostitution became rampant. Concrete slab apartment towers, built as slum-remediation in the “urban renewal” zeitgeist in the 50s and 60s, became vertical manifestations of the social ills they had been intended to erase. Drugs and crime settled into their concrete walls.

Gentrification, on the surface, seemed less of a threat than an impossibility. As the rest of Toronto surged upward in the early 2000s, Parkdale was forever “up and coming” – real estate code for a litany of social ills – and a target for only the heartiest of speculators. Some did come, sprucing up half a block here, a cluster of houses there, but Toronto’s real estate boom left Parkdale’s intractable poverty largely intact.

Saved by immigrants

The people who did come were new immigrants and refugees, heading to the last inner-city refuge of low rent. The tower units were squalid but cheap. And slowly, the tide of crime and drugs began to recede. Thanks to a long-standing federal policy, Tibetan refugees fleeing persecution in China took particularly strong root through the 2000s and 2010s, opening restaurants and grocery stores along Queen Street.

Immigrant groups had always filtered through Parkdale, finding their feet in a new country before moving on. But the Tibetans stayed, slowly transforming the broken and neglected district into a bright, vibrant family neighbourhood. Look at Google maps and you’ll see “Little Tibet” in the crook where Queen Street and Jameson meet. “Tibetans really broke the mould here,” Webber said. “They turned the neighbourhood into their social and cultural hub. They’re a stabilizing force, for sure.”

Approximately 8,000 Tibetans call Canada home, and more than 6,000 live in Toronto, the bulk of them in Parkdale. That makes the neighbourhood the largest Tibetan community outside the country’s borders, though for how much longer is anyone’s guess. “All my family and friends who are in Parkdale, they tell me about people coming to Canada and not able to find a place in their budget in Parkdale anymore,” said Tenzin Tekan, one of Webber’s colleagues at PCLS, who came to Canada in 2006 with her family. “It’s not going to be Little Tibet much longer. We’re losing the community we built over years.”

A global issue

Parkdale’s burgeoning crisis isn’t unique. Working class neighbourhoods in cosmopolitan cities all over the world have been transformed into urbane playgrounds for the moneyed set. And global investors muscling into the rental housing market is no Toronto phenomenon. After the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US cratered the property market there, note Canadian professors Martine August and Allan Walks, huge swaths of rental housing were acquired by investment firms willing and able to wait out the market dip to recapitalize on the rent gap as the economy recovered.

Last year, one of them, Blackstone, an international private equity firm that the UN recently accused of “wreaking havoc” on the global affordable housing market with “aggressive evictions” of low and middle income tenants, recently entered an acquisition deal with the Toronto-based firm Starlight Investments. In the fall, Starlight bought a $1.72bn (£1bn) portfolio of apartment towers; one of the largest is in Parkdale.

Kreuzberg Berlin, another district in a ‘desirable’ city that has faced gentrification. Photograph: Alamy

It’s a narrative of numbing sameness from which no city – no desirable city, at least – is immune. But things were supposed to be different here. As Manhattan became a mall for the global elite, and as San Francisco’s homeless population climbed into the thousands, Torontonians like me were smug civic boosters of our anomaly status. Here we were, a big city that worked, where different kinds of people could choose – and afford – to live shoulder to shoulder and be better for it.

And for a moment, it was true. But capital moves quickly, and policy much less so. In less than two decades, housing prices in Toronto doubled, then trebled, then quadrupled: the average price of a single-family home went from $251,267 in January 2000 to $1,044,527 in late 2018. Toronto, a fabled city of immigrants, was fast becoming something else entirely. Whole immigrant communities who had gained a toehold in the city’s core were selling high and decamping for the suburbs, which is where the city’s vaunted diversity now lives.

Homogenous, predictable, corporate and maybe even securitized – that certainly seems like the fate of Toronto

Prof. Deborah Cowen, University of Toronto

Real estate became a bloodsport, and Parkdale became convenient hyperbole for last-resort gentrification narratives. “We Bought a Crackhouse” read the headline of an infamous 2017 story in Toronto Life magazine, about a young family’s Parkdale renovation journey that included moving on the addicts splayed unconscious in the basement. The story tore open a gash in an urban skin already rubbed raw with rising inequity. The backlash was intense, vicious and unrelenting. It became an emblematic tale of the city’s escalating class war, pushed past the point of no return.

Rising property values have brought about a full-blown housing crisis on all fronts. 8,700 people in Toronto are homeless; 100 now die on the streets each year. The waiting list for social housing sits at 98,000. Residential rents, even in a rent-controlled environment, have more than doubled in three years, according to the research firm UrbaNation. Vacancy hovers at 1%. And Parkdale is the last chapter of an urban narrative fast fading into myth.

“I used to say, in a kind of flip way, that I gave up on the inner city years ago,” says Deborah Cowen, a professor of geography who studies cities and social justice at the University of Toronto. Cowen lived in Parkdale in the 90s, when it was bottoming out. Even then, she says, you could see subtle pressures of gentrification building. “In terms of being homogenous, predictable, corporate and maybe even securitized — that certainly seems like the fate of Toronto, and without some kind of dramatic change, it will be.”

How dramatic? Just last month, Cowen says, the city announced a $24bn affordable housing strategy with provincial and federal support. “I’m not convinced even that is enough to effect the change we need,” she says. Bureaucracies walk, while capital sprints: by the time anything gets built – eight to 10 years from now, or more – “what kind of city will be left to save?”

‘Vegandale’: a step too far?

Nerupa Somasale doesn’t need academic studies or government statistics to understand what she’s lost. Somasale, 23, bright and articulate with an engaging laugh in many ways epitomises Toronto’s global brand of harmonious multiculturalism. In the 1990s, her mother, from the Philippines, landed in Parkdale where she met Somasale’s father, a refugee from India.

“Oh my God, I hate that. I hate it so much,” Somasale says, when I ask her about the city’s rosy reputation. “This whole idea of multiculturalism, diversity – it’s still used as something we should be proud of. But it suggests equity, like we all have a stake. It’s just not true. It’s the opposite. It’s branding for politicians and for tourists, nothing more.”

Somasale, an undergraduate student in her final year of curatorial studies at Ryerson University, was born on the 19th floor of the building at 105 West Lodge Avenue in Parkdale – where recently the elevators stopped working, prompting raucous protest at the landlord’s offices over its alleged mass-eviction campaign. For better or worse, Parkdale has always been her home: through the 90s, when the crack trade was brisk and relentless; through the 2000s, when adventurous urbanites were drawn further westward to a growing array of nightclubs and late-night restaurants; and finally the last decade, where change was inflicted most visibly by a particularly aggressive corporate newcomer that saw the opportunity to craft a new identity for Parkdale entirely.

It had that feeling: ‘There’s nothing here, so let’s just make it into whatever we want'

Nerupa Somasale, former resident

It started in 2016, when an outpost of the Los Angeles vegan restaurant Doomie’s opened on Queen Street, swiftly followed by a non-dairy ice cream shop and a lifestyle boutique. Last year, 5700, which owned all these ventures, announced it was “rebranding” the neighbourhood “Vegandale,” with a slate of international food events under that banner.

“Vegandale,” to many, was the same brutal invasion at street-level that was happening in the towers just a few blocks away. “It was a really tumultuous moment, like everything that had been happening here the past few years just burst out on to the street,” Somasale said. It shifted things for her. She became more engaged in activist efforts, more involved in the protest movement. “It was an erasure of history, and an intentional one,” she said. “They wanted to change a chunk of the neighbourhood in a way that didn’t benefit anybody that had lived here for years. It had that feeling: ‘There’s nothing here, so let’s just make it into whatever we want.’”

There is, of course, a great deal here, which makes Parkdale’s quick transformation so alarming. But for Somasale, there’s little reason for hope. “Half the people I grew up with, whether they were my age or they were family members that were much older who had lived there for decades, have been displaced,” she says. “Because they can’t afford it – me included.”

On a bright, early autumn day, Somasale asked that we meet in Kensington Market, a vibrant, ramshackle cluster of Victorian houses converted into cafes, fruit stands and vintage shops on the western fringe of Toronto’s downtown. Earlier this year, Somasale left her lifelong home, finally broken by non-functional elevators, floods and the enveloping chaos of the landlord-tenant war. In Kensington, she shares a one bedroom apartment with two friends – there is no escaping Toronto’s merciless rental rates.

“I wanted so, so badly to stay in the neighbourhood. I looked for a year-and-a-half. It was like a horror story. For $600, I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was disgusting, terrifying. But they’d get away with it because someone would be desperate.”

She sighs. “I have a weird relationship to this feeling of home, because I can’t even live there,” she says. “I visit every other week. But it changes so fast. It feels like neighbourhood amnesia.”

A haven for the vulnerable?

By 2016, the last time the Canadian government collected census data, on paper, Parkdale had changed little: Almost 90% of its residents were renters, versus less than half for the city as a whole, making its 35,000 people more vulnerable to rental market swings than anywhere else. More than a third lived below the poverty line, 50% more than the broader city. While the immigrant population had grown to almost 50%, the data still showed that Parkdale was very much what it had always been: A haven for the vulnerable, reliant on the density of social services that had long clustered there. Nearly half of Parkdale’s residents were seniors, living alone, often in the rooming houses now under threat of reinvestment and renovation.

What the data didn’t pick up was how the neighbourhood had changed on street level, and the three-year gap between then and now might as well be a lifetime. When Akelius, the Swedish real estate juggernaut with some $8bn in global assets settled its gaze on Toronto in 2011, Parkdale was a low-income immigrant neighbourhood. But it was no longer a bleak urban sinkhole. Thanks to the Tibetan community, and the hipster incursion that the Tibetans’ stabilising presence had drawn, it was an opportunity.

In 2012, the firm started acquiring mid and high rise concrete slab apartment buildings in Toronto; by 2016, it had amassed 37, and more than 3,000 apartment units. Many of them were along Jameson Avenue, which links Parkdale to the Gardiner Expressway, shuttling commuters to and from the city’s core.

Akelius had already developed a successful business model in Sweden, Germany and the UK: identify neighbourhoods adjacent to fully gentrified districts – like Kreuzberg, a longstanding haven for Berlin’s Turkish population – and exploit the undercapitalization of its rental housing.

The company had identified a weakness in the city’s rent control regulations, which typically tie annual rent increases to inflation, usually less than 2%. In its most recent annual report to investors, Akelius demonstrated its loophole: “When properties are modernized, the rent for existing tenants can be increased by up to 9% above the guideline over a period of three years.” By 2014, Akelius was improving things like lobbies and balconies, and serving large rent increases or eviction notices en masse. In 2015, when tenants, many of them Tibetan refugees, complained of back-to-back annual rent increases as much as five times higher than the provincial guideline, Akelius spokesman Ben Scott, in a statement to the Toronto Star, explained that the increases were intended to subsidize costs to the company from taxes, utilities and extensive renovations.

It’s not ‘how do we stop it'. It’s ‘how do we capture some of the benefits of the changes for people who live here now?'

Joshua Barndt, Parkdale land trust

Other landlords took Akelius as a model. MetCap Living, Parkdale’s biggest landlord with more than 20 apartment buildings, was accused of starving out tenants in 2017 on unheeded maintenance requests and issuing heavy rent increases in an effort to drive out low income tenants and attract new ones. Current rents on new units are said to often be double those paid by longtime tenants. MetCap president Brent Merrill, also speaking to the Star, said he had made every effort to manage maintenance requests, including a tenant hotline. After a rent strike by hundreds of tenants stretched out over two months, the company agreed to reduce its above-guideline rent increases to the provincially-mandated levels.

Tenants pushed back with a rent strike at 12 buildings. The conflict peaked when a video emerged of Merrill narrowly missing a protester with his pickup truck. Merrill told the Toronto Star he was rescuing a terrified property manager from an angry mob.

As the rental market tightened, the presence of private equity firms grew. Timbercreek, with $10bn in assets across North America, Europe and Asia, bought several Parkdale buildings in the fall of 2018, including the two hulking towers on West Lodge Avenue where Somasale grew up . Tenants there had endured semi-functional heat and hot water for years, as well as leaks, floods and pest infestations. Elevators in the two 19-storey towers were often out of service for weeks.

Tsering Dorjee a community volunteer in the Milky Way vegetable garden, created by a local land trust. Photograph: Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images

By the winter of 2019, tenants reported a rash of eviction notices. In March, dozens of hired a bus to take them to Timbercreek’s corporate head office in Toronto to serve their new landlord with hundreds of maintenance requests and a notice of their own. In a video of the event, one of the protestors made clear their chief concern: that the company was taking people to the landlord-tenant tribunal to evict them, and that, internally, Timbercreek had likened tenant removal to “putting a building through a car wash”. “This is the dirt you’re trying to wash away,” the protestor continued, gesturing to her protest sign-holding neighbours. “We are here to put you on notice: You have no idea the neighbourhood you are messing with.”

Colleen Krempulec, Timbercreek’s executive director of marketing told the Guardian that the company had evicted some tenants, usually for non-payment of rent, but the number was small: 17, in a property with more than 700 units. “And we’re not talking about a few weeks of arrears —we’re talking about months and months,” she said.

In the months that followed Timbercreek’s acquistion, Krempulec said, the enormity of the maintenance challenge emerged. “These buildings were neglected for decades,” she said. “I would say West Lodge was in the worst state of repair we’ve ever seen.” Since taking ownership, Krempulec said the company had worked through more than 2,500 tenant maintenance requests, and had replaced all eight of the buildings’ elevators, as well as the heat and hot water systems.

“The accusation that we’re deferring maintenance to encourage people to leave – nothing could be further from the truth,” she said. “It’s been a challenging project, there is no doubt – more challenging than we had originally bargained for. But we’re a long-term investor. We’re not coming in to flip the property. We have a long-term horizon.”

In November 2019, Starlight – Blackstone’s Canadian partner firm – found itself on now-familiar ground: tenants, angry at rent hikes they claimed were well above the guideline rate, occupied its head office with a stack of unheeded maintenance demands. For Katrina Potts, who led the protest, the gap between tenant and landlord was stark. “The office was all waterfalls and glass and luxury,” she said. “We’re arguing with them over $100, $200, $300 a month, and they’ve just spent $1.72bn. You have to wonder if that’s a war we can win.”

Parkdale, though, is not the kind of place where people give up. Tenant groups are organized and armed with legal aid, and new ideas incubate here among academics and activists. The pace of change, however, is something none seem able to solve. In 2010, Kuni Kamizaki, then a graduate student at the University of Toronto’s urban planning department doing a placement at a community agency and social hub for Parkdale’s low-income residents, developed an idea. He wanted to build a non-profit community land trust, in order to bank land and housing and rent it back to low-income residents at fixed rates below market value. Government had long-since abandoned building affordable housing itself, choosing instead to subsidize rent for qualified tenants in privately owned buildings. That meant public money was being used to pay off private mortgages, with nothing to show for it at the end. Wouldn’t that money be better spent paying for a permanent community asset? Kamizaki thought so, and the trust was born.

Related: Blind spots: a story about displacement in Berlin – a cartoon

In 2010, its goals seemed reasonable. Land values were rising, but Parkdale’s built-in buffers – the towers, a welter of social service agencies, dilapidated housing stock – made the pace seem manageable. There was time. When the trust finally secured seed funding and undertook a community-based planning initiative, it was 2015, and the landscape in Parkdale had shifted intensely. Akelius was ensconced; others had followed and were applying its techniques with ruthless efficiency. And no fewer than a dozen new luxury condo developments were on the horizon.

“Everything was just happening so, so fast,” Kamizaki said. “Big corporate investors were suddenly everywhere – how could we even start to grapple with that?”

The land trust is still up and running, and can claim some small victories: a community garden; 15 refreshed apartments it rents to vulnerable tenants at rates well below the market rate.

Joshua Barndt, the trust’s development coordinator, is clear-eyed about what the trust can achieve in this climate, and what it cannot. In the face of multi-billion dollar acquisitions, “it’s not ‘how do we stop it’”, he said. “It’s ‘how do we capture some of the benefits of the changes for people who live here now?’ How are we intentionally a part of it? Instead of being pushed down the river, how do we ride along with it?’”

Many others are struggling to simply leave the river behind. On a bright day far from Parkdale, Somasale is haunted by a past to which she can no longer connect. “For my family, Parkdale wasn’t a choice,” she says. “It was all we had. So it’s hard to move on.. I don’t feel like I can make it here in Toronto any more,” she says, musing about new horizons – Montreal, maybe, where rent is lower. “It’s sad,” she says. “Parkdale will always feel like home, but it doesn’t look like any home I ever knew anymore. My Parkdale is gone.”

For Somasale and thousands of others, the loss is absolute – a place knit into your psyche, torn out and walled off, forever. For the rest of us, the loss is more abstract: of a city we were foolish enough to believe was different, or better, that was more than land values and profit margins – that, against all reason and odds, worked. A city we dared to love, and believe in, never more to be.

Murray Whyte, the long-time art critic at the Toronto Star, is now the art critic at the Boston Globe

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