New urban mining companies, ready to invest millions of dollars, are targeting Toronto’s poor neighbourhoods. Large condo developments now dominate the Dundas Street East corridor in the Downtown East threatening an infrastructure that has taken more than a century to establish.
For more than a hundred fifty years, the poor and unemployed have made their way down the Dundas Street East corridor seeking refuge and employment.
Anchored at the corner of Dundas and Sherbourne is All Saints Church. In the late 1880s, this church had strong links with Toronto’s poor house, the House of Industry. Today, this Anglican church functions as a community centre and is home to two daytime shelters.
Across the street sits William Dineen House, an old historic Victorian mansion, that had functioned as a rooming house as far back as 1911. Boarded up in 2008, along with two other rooming houses, Dineen House was saved from the fate of its two sister buildings, which were demolished shortly afterwards, because of its designation as a heritage home.
For more than a decade, local activists and social agencies have been calling on the city to expropriate 214-230 Sherbourne for the purpose of building social housing on the land.
Last March, after a long battle and huge community pressure, the city agreed to bid on the properties after they came up for sale. The city lost its bid to KingSett Capital.
KingSett Capital is one of Canada’s largest private equity real estate investment firms. They are part of a new set of urban mining companies staking out their claims along the Dundas St. E corridor hoping to strike gold.
The gold they are looking for, however, is not in the ground but up in the sky, way up above – 47 stories of condominiums to be exact. Newly built condo towers stand like mining shafts rising high above overcrowded shelters, symbols of wealth and prosperity.
KingSett’s arrival in the Downtown East will only further contribute to a growing housing crisis, lead to the displacement of poor people, and threaten a fragile infrastructure that has sustained the working poor, unemployed and homeless who have been coming here since the mid 19th century.
A brief history of Toronto’s Downtown East
The Downtown East was seen as a depressed area for decades.
The industries that had established themselves in the south of Downtown East in the 1850s had all but disappeared by the 1960’s as a result of de-industrialization. When wealthy residents started to leave the area after the First World War and throughout the great depression, many of the old Victorian houses began operating as rooming and flop houses.
By the 1970s there were 2000 hostel beds located in the area and a social infrastructure which included drop-ins, community health centres and legal agencies offering services to the poor and homeless population. Seaton House, which relocated on George St. in the late 1950s, sheltered up to 600 men nightly at its peak. Regent Park, the country’s largest social housing project, built after the end of the Second World War, was home to 5000 people when construction was completed in the late 1950s.
The gentrification of the Downtown East started in the mid 1960’s as young affluent professionals began to buy up the old rooming houses and flophouses for their growing families. In the 1990s, however, gentrification took on a new form. Large investment companies were now investing millions of dollars and speculating that a vein running along the depressed Dundas St. E. corridor was full of gold and worth a fortune.
Federal and provincial governments abandon social housing programs
In 1993, the Liberal federal government cancelled its National Housing Program, a program that had been around since the 1940s, and which was responsible for the construction of hundreds of thousands of housing units across Canada.
Two years later, after being elected premier of Ontario, 1995 Mike Harris’ Conservative government stopped the construction of 17,000 social housing units and downloaded the responsibility of building social housing to the cities.
With federal and provincial governments out of the way, and no longer interested in building social housing, developers now had an open road to speculate and buy up properties along the Dundas St. E. corridor.
The Federal Liberals sold three important properties in the Downtown East during this period; the CBC Radio land just north of Dundas St. E. on Jarvis, was sold to a condo developer; the old employment building on the north-east corner of Dundas St. E. and Jarvis, originally sold to a hotel chain, was subsequently demolished to make way for a large condominium tower; the old RCMP building south of Dundas St. E on Jarvis, was sold and operated as a high end hotel for several decades but has recently been demolished to make way for another condo tower.
These three properties were sold by the federal government in the middle of a housing crisis. Rather than offering the properties to the city to build much needed social housing in the Downtown East, the Federal government, by handing over this land to large developers, opened up the Dundas St. E. corridor for further speculation.
Revitalization of Regent Park
In 2005 that the fate of the Dundas St. E corridor was sealed. That year the city announced its plans to revitalize Regent Park. Dundas St E. ran right through the middle of North Regent Park and South Regent Park, stretching several blocks east of Parliament Street to River Street. The plan was to level Regent Park, increase the density in the area by adding 3000 private market condos, and not replace all of the existing social housing units.
Five hundred of the units would be removed from Regent Park and relocated further west in the Downtown East. This changed the character of Regent Park. Now the private market housing will dominate the area, with two thirds of the units being condominiums and one third social housing. The three- story-low rise apartments buildings that dominated Regent Park will all be replaced with high rise towers to accommodate the developer’s need to make a profit.
The redevelopment of Regent Park, which is now in its last phase, has caused chaos in the Downtown East and along the Dundas St. E. corridor. The price of properties in and around Regent Park, and along the corridor, has skyrocketed as developers and speculators circle the area in search of another gold mine. A growing number of massive condo developments in the southern part of the Downtown East, below Queen Street, are also contributing to the displacement of the poor and homeless from the area.
Social infrastructure is threatened
Dundas and Sherbourne remains one of the last corners along the Dundas St. E. corridor to be redeveloped. A small rundown plaza sits across the street from All Saints Church destined to be mined. On the north west corner is located another empty building, once the home of George’s Spaghetti House, which for more than three decades featured Canadian jazz greats such as Mo Koffmann.
Last October, KingSett Capital announced that they were planning to erect a 47 stories condo tower at 214-230 Sherbourne. They are in the process of asking for an amendment from the city to allow them to construct this monstrous tower. Each additional floor is worth millions of dollars to this Bay Street company.
Conventional mining companies in Canada have a long history of leaving communities devastated after taking the natural resources from the ground and leaving behind polluted land.
Urban mining companies like KingSett are contributing to the devastation and displacement of the working poor and unemployed in the Downtown East. They offer no solution to the housing crisis now being experienced in this working-class neighbourhood.
A community fights back
As of today, we do not have any indication of how much KingSett paid for the land or how much money the city offered to the landlord for the properties.
We do know that in April of 2021, the city paid KingSett close to $100 million for the property at 877 Yonge. We also know that six months later, KingSett and Greenwin were awarded a contract to develop a property owned by the city at 705 Warden Street to build ‘affordable housing’ and private market units. This relationship between the city and KingSett raises serious questions.
Why would KingSett bid against the city knowing full well that the city wanted 214-230 Sherbourne to build social housing?
A public community meeting organized by 230 Fightback is planned for January 16 at All Saints Church. KingSett must turn over these properties to the city. If KingSett refuses to sell, then the city must begin the expropriation process. Urban mining companies like KingSett Capital have no business speculating in this working-class neighbourhood.
The contested land at 214-230 Sherbourne had housed the poor and unemployed for more than a century before being boarded up 14 years ago. It is time that it housed them again.
If you’d like to learn more about 230 Fightback, please visit: http://www.230fightback.com/