On Whose Side is the Government? The St. James Town Fire and the Housing Crisis
St. James Town is a largely South Asian and working-class neighbourhood in Toronto. What does the recent fire in two of its high-rises tell us about the city’s housing crisis?
On August 21st, a six-alarm electrical fire broke out in two high-rise towers of Toronto’s most densely populated neighbourhood. All residents of the twenty-two storey conjoined towers at 650 Parliament Street were forced to scramble for shelter. Extensive damage to the building’s electrical system is reportedly still preventing residents from being able to return.
More than six weeks after the fire, the 1,500 residents continue to live day by day in limbo, being shuffled around the city from one short-term solution to another. In fact, management informed residents of the property’s south tower just recently that they won’t be cleared to return home until 2019. They did not specify a precise date for return.
“Imagine that you didn’t have a place [to live],” Anas Ameen, a St. James Town community worker tells me in his office after a long day of meeting with clients. “You're not comfortable sleeping. You’re not comfortable sitting. You’re not comfortable eating. You don’t have your own private life. Nothing. You're…homeless.”
The City’s response to the situation leaves many issues unaddressed. There was and is no long-term plan to house the displaced. The current state of housing in the city also means that there is a drastic shortage of affordable rentals. And though the City has no plan for the displaced, what they do have is a plan for large scale re-developments that continue to push more people out of the city.
St. James Town consists primarily of high-rise towers, such as the two on 650 Parliament Street, which were built in the 1960s. The neighbourhood, often referred to as Toronto’s “World Within a Block”, is the most densely populated in Canada, with a population density ten times greater than the city average. It is home to a largely immigrant population with South Asians comprising the largest ethnic group.
Multiple Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) high-rises run just east of Sherbourne Avenue, making the neighbourhood home to many of the city’s working class residents. Almost 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 50 percent have an annual household income of less than $40,000.
Not even two weeks after the fire, notices posted across the neighbourhood directed displaced tenants to relocate from their local community centre to one much further south. Later in the month, tenants were displaced once again as they were told the community centre costs would no longer be available: management would now be securing hotel rooms on their behalf. However, by this time, most residents were already scattered across the GTA.
“There is no plan actually,” Ameen stated flatly after browsing through an email with the days updates. “If you don’t have a place, you go to Regent Park Community Centre. If you don’t [go there], you come to Wellesley Community Centre and that’s it."
The repeated displacements are breaking apart the community, making it increasingly difficult for families to access neighbourhood services, for children to attend schools, and for residents to get updates about their homes from management and neighbours.
September would have marked Lakshmi’s second year living in the Parliament Street towers. When asked about her main struggle now, Lakshmi, who prefers not to use her real name, immediately responded: “Housing of course. We can afford groceries, among other things, as we were before the fire, but the largest expense is housing.” She and her family paid out of pocket for Airbnbs and hotels for the first two weeks, which quickly became unsustainable.
Long-term displacement and the City’s priorities
With so few options, St. James Town residents are forced to burden friends and family for shelter or settle for far flung options as the city itself fills up with condos.
In fact, the very site 650 Parliament sits on – the privately owned land known as Wellesley-Parliament Square – is the subject of a proposed development currently undergoing municipal review.
G&S Group, the company holding Wellesley-Parliament Square, plans to convert its dispersed four-tower property into a mixed use multi-tower complex. The site plan consists of a fifty-one storey tower in what is currently the local Food Basics parking lot, one ten-storey tower in place of the tennis court used for recreation by existing residents, and another five-storey tower in the centre of the property.
Ultimately, the plan will push out the existing local businesses in the area to build an “enlarged retail space” in their place. The four stories of retail space will require demolition of 18 existing rental units in the 238-240 Wellesley Street towers. It is unclear where the displaced residents from those units will be rehoused. In addition, all green spaces in front of the existing buildings will be paved over to make space for four separate luxury townhouse complexes.
History repeats itself
“This is not the first time this has happened!” exclaimed Lakshmi. She was referring to the 2010 blaze in the 200 Wellesley Street TCHC tower that left 1,700 residents homeless. The City’s response to the disaster was so chaotic that the Ombudsman initiated an investigation of it.
The City’s existing “Emergency Response Plan” outlines the responsibility of various City departments and staff in the event of an emergency. Despite undergoing revisions based on recommendations from the Ombudsman’s report, the Plan still explicitly states that “long-term housing is also outside the scope of this Emergency Support Function.”
It’s clear that City Hall has no plan to house or care for its residents in such times of catastrophe. Instead of long-term housing solutions, the City is busy making appeals to individual acts of charity and collecting gift card donations.
On September 1st, the Mayor made his second public call for Toronto residents to open their homes to displaced residents, promising an “incredibly rewarding” experience. At the same time, he is pointing to building management to pay for all the associated costs and provide for the displaced. But the building management continues to tell residents to “leave no stone unturned”, effectively saying that they are on their own.
The Red Cross, which is contracted by the City to manage all donations and logistics in case of emergencies, so far has raised over $100,000 in donations since the August fire. Yet none of those donations are being used towards providing long-term accommodation.
Rationing gift cards and appealing to people to open their doors may seem helpful, but it is also a strategy of displacing responsibility for this crisis away from the City and onto the landlord and Toronto residents. Ultimately, the City’s offerings will not provide families with any much-needed stability.
Toronto’s housing crisis
In the meantime, residents are the ones losing out. Ameen explains that despite the presence of a housing worker on site, residents often seek assistance from him in finding affordable housing as well. It’s not Ameen’s main responsibility to help residents secure accommodation, but he tries nonetheless. Unfortunately, he cannot do much. “What is the main problem in Toronto? It’s housing. People are suffering. They are coming here and they can’t find a place.”
Almost half of renters in Ontario spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, an amount that the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation calls “unaffordable” More drastically, Toronto households living below the poverty line annually spend 88 percent of their income on rent. And while rent in Toronto goes up, average incomes have not kept apace. Between 2012 and 2017, the average rent for purpose-built rentals in Toronto went up by 19 percent. Rent for condos went up by 50 percent. Yet Toronto’s median household income only increased by 7 percent during this same period.
If even day-to-day living is becoming increasingly difficult in Toronto, it cannot be denied that only families in a particular income bracket would get by on the City’s Emergency Plan: those who have the money for nightly or weekly rentals priced for tourists. Anyone without these means is unaccounted for.
Residents are left to suffer because of state priorities. Our governments push through development proposals, distribute grants to developers and involve school boards and public housing agencies in ‘revitalization’ projects, while tearing down the homes of our working class communities.
Back in St. James Town, displaced residents are unsure if and when they’ll be able to return to their homes. In the months it will take to recover the building from the fire, tenants will be forced to move on and find new accommodation, making vacated units available at market rent. In the meantime, G&S Group has an incentive to keep tenants out of their apartments for as long as possible.
Lakshmi still holds out hope that she’ll be able to return to her home. For her, the wait continues. But for Laskhmi’s 7-year old daughter, time is running out. “It just can’t take until January”, she chimed, “because that’s when my birthday is”.
Muriam Salman is a member of Jamhoor. She is based in Toronto where she works to better understand the contradictions faced by migrants. She enjoys all things embroidered, reading when she doesn't have to, and banana milkshakes.
The author would like to thank Basics Community News Service for their contributions to this piece.