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Where is the next Parkdale?

July 5, 2018

If you have been watching Toronto’s housing news as I have, you will have seen Parkdale’s name everywhere. Rent strikes that lead to major victories. City Council approval to purchase rooming houses to protect tenants from displacement. The Parkdale People’s Economy, Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre, Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, Parkdale Community Legal Centre, and a host of other local groups pulling together towards a common cause.

And I think, “Why can’t we do this in other neighbourhoods?” and perhaps more to the point, “Why can’t we do this in MY neighbourhood?”

I live in the neighbourhood the real estate agents call Leslieville and the City calls Greenwood-Coxwell and South Riverdale. Like Parkdale, this was a working class district, with the lowest property values of any neighbourhood in the old City of Toronto.  Like Parkdale, it has a long history of grassroots activism, including a robust housing movement that snapped up houses, small apartment buildings and scrap pieces of land in the 1970s through 1990s, and secured them as perpetually affordable co-op and non-profit housing. Today, Leslieville continues to elect progressive candidates, and has many of the anchor institutions that make for an active neighbourhood: great schools, public libraries, a community health centre, legal clinic, rec centres, strong non-profit agencies, a lively parent-child drop-in, the Ralph Thornton Community Centre, and many more.

So why haven’t we seen the same activism to protect residents in my own now-gentrified neighbourhood?

Is it about the numbers?

To begin to answer the question, I started with neighbourhood demographics, and immediately saw some contrasts between Parkdale and my neighbourhood. Parkdale has twice as many tenants as Leslieville: 18,450 in Ward 14 compared to 9,840 in Ward 30. It’s tenants, of course, who bear the costs of gentrification in rent hikes, reno-victions, and redevelopment.

Parkdale also has more highrises. According to Wellbeing Toronto, 63% of South Parkdale dwellings are in buildings five storeys or higher. In South Riverdale, it’s 18%, in Greenwood-Coxwell, it’s 9%. In Parkdale, a rent hike in a single building can affect hundreds of people, but there are also hundreds of people to fight back.

Parkdale has more low-income people than Leslieville: Wellbeing Toronto reports 27% of Parkdale households live below the Low-Income Cut-Off, compared with 17.6% in both South Riverdale and Greenwood-Coxwell. It is also less divided by income. In South Parkdale, 7% live on less than $10,000/year. In Leslieville, it’s closer to 5%. But the big difference is the number of high-income households. In South Parkdale, 5% have incomes above $150,000/year. In South Riverdale it’s 22%, in Greenwood-Coxwell it’s 17%.

A deep and deliberate collaboration

I think it would be fascinating to do a deep dive into neighbourhood demographics to identify the other elements that can create fertile ground for local organizing.But I also suspect that demographics are only part of the story.

I spoke recently with Victor Willis, Executive Director of Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre (PARC) and a local leader for the past 19 years. He talked about deep and deliberate collaboration among local organizations. In 2007, for example, PARC developed its strategic plan not merely by contacting local players – the usual SWOT exercise – but by bringing them to the table.

Rather than compete with one another, agencies began to prepare joint funding proposals that would ensure small-but-essential agencies could continue to serve the neighbourhood. They promoted local procurement. They shared space. They obtained funding to hire a planner that worked — not for the City or for a single client – but for the community. The result was a shared Parkdale Neighbourhood Plan for decent work, shared wealth building and equitable development, led by a 40-member Steering Committee, 25 organizations and a full complement of students, interns, reviewers, and advisors.

This deep collaboration among agencies and activists does not come easily, but I’m struck by how powerful it can be. I also recall one of my first blogs was about an even more radical UK collaboration to see results not possible by individual organizations.

Where’s the next Parkdale?

As organized as Parkdale activists are, they have one major handicap: timing. Privately-owned land in Parkdale is already too expensive for most affordable housing development. Policies and regulations have lagged behind. (How many residential hotel rooms might have been saved had Council approved the protections proposed by Councillor Layton three years ago!) And energies must inevitably be focused on rear-guard action to simply defend the affordable housing that remains.

So faithful readers, here are my questions:

First, who can help predict the next hot neighbourhoods — the neighbourhoods that are in the path of gentrification but have not yet become unaffordable?  I have some guesses — Weston? Priority areas along the new Eglinton Crosstown? —  but like most affordable housing activists, this is not my area of expertise. Who do we know who can help us move from reactive to pro-active mode?

Second, which of these neighbourhoods has a large number of tenants in privately-owned housing — the ones most at risk from gentrification.

Third, what is the most effective way for these neighbourhoods to sustain a collaborative effort to protect affordable housing and, dare I say, expand it? What can be learned from Parkdale’s experience, and the experience of those already active in the community?

As always, the comment box awaits. And as they say, “feel free to talk among yourselves.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2018 3:41 pm

    Hi Joy,
    Passed this one on to a Stewards’ Table I sit on in my Little Italy/Chinatown neighbourhood. Trying to get on top of rapid gentrification, but it’s hard, as you know. Stay well. cb

  2. Richard Drysdale permalink
    July 5, 2018 4:55 pm

    I’m sorry but you make it sound like once the infrastructure and activist support for the rent strikes were set up, everything fell into place.
    I know it took a lot of dedication especially from the tenants themselves, many of whom are marginalized and could not be blamed if they had caved in to threats or bribes from landlords/ buinding management but should applaud those that didn’t buckle even more.

    Well done! 🏅🏅

  3. July 6, 2018 2:27 pm

    To Catherine B, what is a Stewards’ Table. Interested. Tim at Kensington-Bellwoods Community Legal Services,

  4. Tim Vining permalink
    July 7, 2018 7:32 am

    What about the role of tenants themselves taking action and being the agents of change? THAT explains what happened in Parkdale and it can happen elsewhere. Give credit where it is due – the tenants of Parkdale have the courage to take matters in their own hands and force landlords to the table!

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