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This Parkdale group’s ownership model keeps rents affordable, one building at a time. Other Toronto neighbourhoods are paying attention

·4 min read

Seven years ago, Anne Marie LaLiberté was living in a Toronto women’s shelter when she came across a rare opportunity: a bachelor apartment in Parkdale with rent of just $650 a month.

It was the break she’d been waiting for, after spending months scouring the rental market for something she could afford with a fixed income of disability payments. The unit was just 268 square feet in all. But it was clean, with terracotta floors and a backyard to share. The sound of chimes floated in from time to time, from a Buddhist temple just down the street.

The 36-unit apartment has been home ever since. Her rent has stayed low, with only modest annual increases. With rent costs that still fall below $800, hers is the kind of building that housing affordability advocates normally fear being sold — lest it be scooped up and renovated to turn higher profits, chipping away at Toronto’s limited affordable housing supply.

Instead, when the building sold this spring, LaLiberté was elated. The new owners are the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust — part of a growing movement of community-based groups who are taking affordable housing acquisition and preservation into their own hands.

“Our rental housing stock is under attack, by predatory landlords who are purchasing the rental buildings in our community, upscaling them, and often displacing residents into homelessness,” said Joshua Barndt, executive director of the Parkdale group. “In the absence of government programs that support this type of work, it’s common sense … we’ve secured the building.”

Community ownership of affordable real estate is a model that other Toronto areas, anxious about gentrification, have started to eye. A trust in Kensington Market made its first purchase this spring, and Barndt says interest has been piqued in Little Jamaica and Jane and Finch.

“We bring property from private ownership into community ownership, and we can make decisions about how it’s used and who can access it,” Barndt said. Their trust has more than 800 members, he added, who elect a board of directors to act on their behalf.

The trust bought its first residential building in 2019 with funds from a city pilot project. It had no government backing this time, raising $2.6 million from investors to get a 36-month loan from Vancity Community Investment Bank. The building cost $7.55 million, Barndt says.

Their plan is to spend the next three years trying to nail down long-term grants and financing, to be able to offer any empty units at 90 per cent of the average market costs, while maintaining the rents of existing tenants. Existing rents range from $600 to $1,600 a month.

With Toronto’s steep real estate prices, the trust’s work is slow. They take one building off the market at a time, when they can afford it — as governments flirt with the idea of creating new programs to acquire and protect affordable homes on an ongoing basis.

Toronto councillors, last fall, asked the city’s housing secretariat to explore the potential of creating a small rental housing acquisition program, with dedicated funding and financing for land trusts or other non-profits. The city has earmarked $2 million to establish such a program this year, though staff recommendations aren’t expected to be revealed until June.

Ottawa is also facing pressure right now to alter its recently renewed, multibillion-dollar rapid housing initiative — which supports new modular builds and conversions of properties like hotels into affordable units, but not the acquisition and protection of existing stock.

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan says Ottawa is considering changing the rules, but he doesn’t expect to roll out the details until late May or early June. When the initiative was first crafted, he said officials had been thinking about immediate needs during the pandemic — meaning new units became the priority, to move people from crowded shelters or outdoor camps.

That meant funding was directed away from protecting tenants in existing affordable units.

“I think 2.0 is where you’re doing to find a response to this,” Vaughan said. “It’s clear that we cannot lose affordability, and we cannot keep pushing people into precarious spaces … prevention is as big a part of solving chronic homelessness as the creation of new housing.”

LaLiberté sees land trusts as protecting the kind of homes that can be a last stop before homelessness: the most deeply affordable units Toronto has without subsidies. That effort meant keeping long-time tenants from being priced out of their own communities, she said.

“It’s saving, really, people having to move.”

Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star