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Combatting the ruinous greed of the developers

Housing must be treated as a vital social need and a human right

Economic CrisisHousingHuman Rights

Condo towers in Toronto. Photo courtesy PARTISANS Projects/Flickr.

Last November, Gaétan Héroux and I wrote an article for Canadian Dimension on an emerging struggle to prevent the construction of a 47-storey condominium tower in Toronto’s Downtown East. We argued that this project would serve to drive up land prices and rents, while fuelling the gentrification of this poor working class community. We also pointed out that this upscale project would give the green light to “developers seeking to speculate and buy up properties in the Downtown East, thereby endangering a whole infrastructure of services in the area that took decades to establish.” Gentrification of this area has been going on for some time, but a luxury condo tower in the very heart of the community would take the process to an unprecedented level.

Redevelopment juggernaut

When we wrote that article, we were not fully aware of the dimensions of the redevelopment juggernaut descending on the Downtown East or of the momentum the project has already gathered. Drawing on information that is available through the City of Toronto, we have now been able to take stock of the developer-led plans for one of the poorest urban neighbourhoods in Canada.

Dundas Street East cuts a swath through the community, often referred to as the “Dundas Corridor.” Along this strip, four major condo developments have been completed and seven more are yet to be built. The developers responsible for the four that have been finished are Menkes Development (205 condo units), the Gupta Group (1,012 units), CentreCourt (Grid Condos, 565 units), and Great Gulf (Pace Condominiums, 387 units).

The seven developments that are still at the planning stage are being inflicted on the community by Kingsett Capital (responsible for the 619 unit condo development at Dundas and Sherbourne), Menkes Development (500 units), Metropia (670 units), Centricity Condos (594 units), CentreCourt Developments Inc. (665 units), Amexon Development (58 units), and the Pemberton Group (598 units).

We estimate the total sales revenue of the 2,169 condo units that have been completed at $1.734 billion. Experts generally expect profits from condo construction to range from 10 to 20 percent. If we set the rate at the lower end, say, 12 percent, the developers in these ventures would amass $208.29 million. As for the as-yet uncompleted projects, these will comprise an additional 4,227 units, a sales revenue of $3.48 billion and profits in the range of $410 million. If the higher rate applied, the yet to be completed buildings would bring in $700 million. With the four projects already in place, this would total $1.047 billion in profits from the development drive, a remarkable figure for a single Toronto neighbourhood.

The reckless push to create an oversupply of upscale housing along the Dundas Corridor is unfolding without regard for long-term implications or the devastating impact on a poor working class community with roots there dating back to the 1800s. Laughably, the luxury housing development under construction in the area will include a mere 24 ‘affordable’ rental units. Across Ontario and the rest of Canada, the destructive role of developers in the extreme commodification of housing is producing comparably dreadful results.

Of course, the path taken by developers and others who profit from the present approach to housing provision is being cleared by political decision-makers at every level. The idea of challenging the developers is completely out of the question for the members of Toronto City Council. Even the left wing at City Hall is reduced to appealing for a few more ‘affordable’ units to be included in upscale projects.

For its part, Doug Ford’s administration is operating overtly as a political agent of the developers. Ford’s readiness to hand over a portion of the Greenbelt around Toronto has sparked outrage across the country. The Ontario Tories express, in the crudest terms, the consensus among governments in this country that the supply of housing must be met, to the extent that it is, by subordinating everything to the dictates of profit-making.

As Ford rides out the scandalous revelation that developers came to a party at his house with cash gifts for his soon-to-be married daughter, it becomes clear that while the rural sprawl he has happily encouraged may be profitable, it runs counter to responsible urban planning. A new report informs us that “[the city of] Hamilton already has enough space to build 87,600 homes within its urban boundary—close to double its provincial target—without needing to open up the Greenbelt or expand into prime farmland.”

Clearly, the prevailing view that housing should be treated as a commodity and a source of speculative wealth is at odds with the needs of communities and the equitable and sustainable use of urban space. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Balakrishhan Rajagopal, has affirmed, “The right to adequate housing is more than having a roof over one’s head, it is the right to live in safety and dignity in a decent home.”

The developers’ profit bonanza along the Dundas Corridor makes a mockery of this view. The condo towers they are erecting will provide luxury homes for a select segment of middle class professionals, although we may be sure that many will sit empty, as speculators hold onto them in the hope of turning a profit. This distorted system of housing provision will, of course, render the housing market even more unstable and exclusionary.

The acceleration of upscale redevelopment will force up rents, drive out low income tenants and facilitate the removal of the numerous homeless shelters and other vital services that have long been based in this area. This clearing process will be conducted ruthlessly, as property values and developers’ aspirations take priority over human need. Increased inequality, poverty, destitution and the proliferation of urban sprawl will be the price the rest of us pay for the enrichment of developers and parasitic speculators.

Fighting back

The Downtown East community has a long and proud history of fighting back and another round of struggle is shaping up, as profits are put ahead of the housing needs of those who live in the area. A challenge to the redevelopment juggernaut is emerging that is focused on the proposed condo development at Dundas and Sherbourne. An organization called 230 Fightback is leading a campaign to stop the condo and ensure that desperately needed social housing is built in its place.

Last month, 230 Fightback brought a mass delegation to the banking tower in the financial district where the developer, KingSett Capital, has an office. Efforts by police and private security to shut out the delegation failed, and a senior representative of the company was forced to accept a letter of protest. It was made abundantly clear that the developer and its enablers in City Hall can expect to be challenged. If Bay Street is coming to Dundas and Sherbourne then Dundas and Sherbourne will come to Bay Street.

The fight will escalate over the spring and summer. There are plans for community meetings and a major mobilization on the streets in June. In challenging this condo development and the other projects in the area, 230 Fightback is taking up a struggle that is in the interest of communities all across Canada. Housing must be treated as a vital social need and a human right and the destructive profit bonanza of the developers must be brought to an end.

John Clarke is a writer and retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). Follow his tweets at @JohnOCAP and blog at johnclarkeblog.com.

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