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Idle lots, vacant house at 214-230 Sherbourne embody the problem of building affordable housing

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On one side of the street, like scarecrows, a clutch of raggedy homeless men and women while away the hours outside All Saints Anglican Church.

On the other side of the street, an empty lot: an expanse of grass with a couple of trees, cordoned off by a chain-link fence.

At the edge of the lot sits an enormous vacant house, once upon a time stately, and, later, not so stately, now fallen into ramshackle disrepair. But for decades, until a few years ago, it had offered 30 rooms for board. For people who live in rooms. If they could scrape together the money, with social assistance.

All of it owned by the same couple, Bhushan and Rekha Taneja, whose large real estate portfolio includes many other rooming houses across Toronto.

And for a decade that lot, at the corner of Dundas and Sherbourne Streets, has sat unused while property values in the city have skyrocketed.

Perhaps not yet enriching enough for the owners in a metropolis bursting its seams. Maybe not yet lucrative enough to sell in one of the few remaining urban corridors where the critically impoverished carve out a slapdash existence.

The idle lots and vacant house at 214-230 Sherbourne were put on the market early this year. Long enough for the Toronto Affordable Housing Office to at least briefly consider buying. And then it was abruptly taken off the market.

“There was no real engagement,” says Sean Gadon, director of the Affordable Housing Office. “It may have also been the result of (the property) being in the media at the time. My understanding is that the owners were only interested in selling to private buyers.”

Think condos, along a downtown swath, astride an arterial road that has undergone extensive gentrification, in parts, but is still a prime locus for rooming houses, mission houses, soup kitchens and decrepit social housing.

Together, the empty lot and the vacant house are worth at least $4 million, according to city tax records, which seems awfully low in developer-eat-developer Toronto.

A shoehorned condo tower seems inappropriate for this location; not many youngish upwardly mobile buyers would likely be interested, living cheek to jowl with the destitute.But the same could be said for other urban niches which have been scooped up and transformed, for better or worse.

These properties have long been eyed by poverty activists, pleading with the city to expropriate the land and vacant residence as Toronto tries to address a low income housing crisis. On Thursday, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty held a rally outside the fence — a fence which had been mended, at its southern edge just yesterday morning, maybe to bolster security against the demonstration.

“We’re fixing up the house, too,” a man who described himself as a superintendent for the empty building told the Star. “We made repairs last year, but the eaves weren’t fixed, the water came through and there was a lot of damage.”

OCAP placards were removed from the fencing and “No Trespassing” signs are dotted around the house.

The owners did not return the Star’s calls yesterday.

At one point, they planned to demolish the house, as the homes which formerly stood on the lots were razed, but were prevented from doing so by a last-minute heritage order, and forced, instead, to make repairs.

“They want to start a bidding war for it,” said rally organizer Yogi Acharya. “And they keep raising the rents for all their other rooming houses. How can you afford to pay $950 for a basement room when you’re getting $733 in social assistance a month?”

The owners, of course, can do what they want.

That’s perfectly legal.

And that, essentially, is a big part of the problem in a city where Toronto City Council staff last year estimated 15,000 to 28,000 homes are unoccupied, a figure arrived at by studying Toronto Hydro data for addresses where no electricity or water had been consumed.

Statistics Canada puts the figure for unoccupied homes in the GTA at 99,000.

But you can’t arm-twist owners into selling.

Well, actually you can, under the provincial Expropriation Act, but only for narrow purposes, public service projects. Like building a subway.

Or social housing revitalization endeavours, such as the George St. Revitalization Project. That undertaking — it incorporates a long-term care home with 378 beds, a 100-bed emergency shelter for men and a 130-bed “transitional living” service for men and women — was green-lit in principal in 2013, but only received funding approval this past February. At the earliest, construction won’t begin until 2020.

Bureaucracy moves slowly, sluggishly.

While people die.

While they live in miserable conditions.

While the cascading consequences of homelessness and marginal shelter contribute to a slew of community ills, including increased crime.

“The best way to address social problems is through social policies,” said Acharya.

“Expropriation is justifiable.”

Gadon counters that the city has done so, with “strategic acquisitions” deemed urgent, such as the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre and Edmond Place non-profit housing community, erected on land that had sat unused for seven years after buildings had been destroyed by a fire. Among the most ambitious revitalization projects was the massive West Don Lands, expropriated by the province at the urging of then-Mayor Art Eggleton.

“The broader public interest allows for that,” says Gadon. “The challenge is that they come at a cost.”

The city can only purchase property “candidates” for expropriation at market value, which is ever more expensive. “And that’s more of a political decision,” notes Gadon.

In June, city council instructed staff to develop a strategy “framework” for expropriating and acquiring properties for housing. “We’re looking for a sensible way to approach this,” says Gadon. “How do you determine funding? Where will that money come from? How do you deal with willing or unwilling sellers?”

That report will be submitted next year.

There is also the option of initiating a vacant-house tax, with the funds reinvested in affordable housing initiatives. Vancouver went in that direction, recently implementing an “Empty Homes Tax” for vacant and under-used residential properties, homes that have been unoccupied for at least six months, albeit with generous exemptions. The one-per-cent tax is expected to generate $30 million in revenue this year alone.

Toronto council is looking at this, too. Gadon says a better, more immediate alternative could rest in making creative use of properties the city already owns: public land, TTC land and neglected Toronto Housing assets.

“We’ve concentrated a fair amount of time on what sites does the city have that are city-owned.”

Eighteen such properties have been identified.

Obviously, privately owned 214-230 Sherbourne Street isn’t among those.

No, the weeds will continue to grow there. Six empty lots. One vacant house.

Until, it seems, the owners decide the time is ripe to make a killing.



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Political dynasties at stake as B.C. voters cast ballots in municipal elections

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Some political dynasties are at stake in Metro Vancouver as municipal elections take place across British Columbia today — the country’s first municipal elections of the year.

CBC News will have full coverage throughout the day, including local radio specials in the evening starting when polls close at 8 p.m. PT, as well as live coverage on Facebook and extensive resources on our website. 

This is the first province-wide municipal vote since new campaign finance rules that limit corporate and union donations were implemented last fall. 

It’s also an election that will see big change in some Metro Vancouver cities, where more than a dozen long-term mayors are not seeking re-election.

But even in cities where incumbents remain, there is potential for major change as residents struggle with rapid growth, a housing crisis, ongoing gang conflict and transportation woes. 

(Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Change coming for Vancouver

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson was one of the first to announce he would no longer be in the seat he has held for a decade.

Robertson says he has no regrets as he leaves behind a prosperous city with an extensive cycling network. He also passes along a housing crisis, which affects municipalities across the province, that has been a big issue in the election.  

Robertson’s municipal party, Vision Vancouver, chose not to run a mayoral candidate after the one they had chosen, Ian Campbell, stepped down four days before nominations closed.

Unlike most large cities in Canada, Vancouver doesn’t have a ward system. Instead, politicians form parties that run candidates on council, the school board and park board. Montreal also has municipal political parties.

From left to right: Wai Young, Shauna Sylvester, Kennedy Stewart, Ken Sim and Hector Bremner are some of the mayoral candidates running in Vancouver.

The vacuum left behind after Robertson’s decision not to run ushered in a flood of candidates aligned with nine civic political parties, some of them splinter groups from more established parties, and several candidates running as independents. 

There are 158 candidates on the city’s long ballot — 21 of them vying for top spot. 

Long-term incumbents at risk in Surrey, Burnaby

In Surrey, the region’s second most populated city, Mayor Linda Hepner is also stepping down.

Her party, Surrey First, has been in power for a decade with a stronghold that currently includes all seats on council.

There are eight people running to replace her. Tom Gill is running as Surrey First’s mayoral candidate. Bruce Hayne was with the party but has formed his own, Integrity Now.

And former mayor Doug McCallum has stepped back into the limelight 13 years after he was last in office. 

Candidates for mayor of Surrey are, from top left to bottom right: Pauline Greaves, John Wolanski, Rajesh Jayaprakash, Imtiaz Popat, Doug McCallum, Franç​ois Nantel, Bruce Hayne and Tom Gill. (City of Surrey)

Some of the main issues in Surrey include concerns about an ongoing gang war and whether the city should form its own police force (it’s currently serviced by the RCMP). 

Candidates and voters are also divided over a planned $1.65 billion light rail transit system, with some keen to replace it with the faster SkyTrain system already implemented in parts of Metro Vancouver.

In Burnaby, the epicentre of the country’s battle for and against the Trans Mountain Pipeline, former firefighter Mike Hurley is challenging incumbent mayor Derek Corrigan and his party the Burnaby Citizens Association.

Corrigan has served council for 31 years. He is a staunch opponent to the pipeline. But many have criticized him for « demovictions » that have razed affordable rental homes in favour of new, higher-priced condominiums. 

Hurley, a political novice, is campaigning on a promise of revisiting how the city manages growth.

Victoria and Vancouver Island

In the provincial capital, it’s shaping up to be a three-way contest for the mayor’s chair between incumbent Lisa Helps and two challengers without previous electoral experience: business consultant Stephen Hammond and political consultant Mike Geoghegan.

In 2014, Helps unseated the last mayor, Dean Fortin, by only 89 votes

Victoria has shed its sleepy reputation as home to « newlyweds and nearly deads » and ushered in a more urban, modern vibe.

But the rising popularity of the city has seen skyrocketing rents, pushing housing and affordability to the top of the agenda. How people get around a busier city is also shaping up to be a ballot box issue.

Affordability is a major issue across Vancouver Island, with tent cities popping up throughout the region. 

Okanagan and the Southern Interior

The Okanagan is B.C. ‘s traditional and reliable conservative heartland.

It is changing, however. This election, the municipal campaign in Kelowna is a battle over the city’s identity. And the two men leading the race personify the possibilities.

Colin Basran’s tenure as mayor has been marked by growth and development, but urban problems like homelessness and crime have followed that success.

Kelowna mayoral candidates, from left, Bobby Kennedy, Colin Basran, Bob Schewe and Tom Dyas debated leadership, inclusiveness and the issue of homelessness in an election forum hosted by CBC Kelowna and UBC Okanagan. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

Enter Tom Dyas, promising a return to the Okanagan’s more conservative roots — he’s a no-nonsense, tax-cutting, small businessman reminiscent of the valley’s Socred past.

Meanwhile in Penticton and Vernon, the growing homeless population and each city’s response has dominated the discussion.

In smaller communities, where there are few condos and little foreign investment, the election has been fought on the traditional questions of transparency, taxes and accountability.  



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One dead in Kennedy subway station stabbing

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A man is dead after being stabbed in Kennedy subway station Saturday night, Toronto police say.

Toronto paramedics responded to reports of a stabbing inside Kennedy subway station in Scarborough at around 5:15 p.m. When paramedics arrived, they found one man had been seriously injured.

Toronto police say a fight broke out between two men inside the station, with one man receiving stab wounds.

The victim, a 25-year-old man, was taken to hospital where he was pronounced dead, according to Toronto paramedics.

Police have arrested one male suspect in the parking lot of Kennedy station. The subway is closed at Kennedy station so the homicide unit can continue their investigation.

Shuttle buses are operating both ways between Warden subway station and Scarborough Centre and picking up and dropping off passengers at Kennedy station.

Marjan Asadullah is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @marjanasadullah



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Manitoba burn survivors share struggles, hope at annual conference – Winnipeg

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It was the first time 18-year-old Dawson Blahey from Arborg, Man., shared his life-changing story with a large group.

Blahey suffered third-degree burns to his face, legs, chest and feet after a campfire explosion when he was just four years old.

“My dad was pouring fuel, and it was humid out and it blew up,” Blahey said.

But the large group to whom Blahey spoke on Saturday is one that can understand what he has been through.

Dawson Blahey suffered third-degree burns on his body when he was just four years old.

They are members of the Mamingwey Burn Survivor Society, which gathers for an annual conference every year. The society hears from doctors and other health professionals about ways to cope with their injuries, and they also get a chance to share their stories with others in the same boat.

RELATED: Volunteers rally to help family of worker burned in grain elevator fire

“There’s a bond when you can talk to someone else who went through a similar experience,” Mamingwey chair Barbara-Anne Hodge said.

“When you’re burned, there’s physical pain, permanent scars, and to meet with others who have walked that path is very powerful.”

Mamingwey is an Ojibway term meaning “butterfly.”

“A butterfly starts as a caterpillar and emerges out of the cocoon. We apply that to our burn survivors, and the white bandages are the cocoon,” Hodge said.

Blair Lundie came out of those bandages three years ago after he was burned in a high-voltage explosion.

“A panel fell over on a high-voltage system, and the panel arced like a lightning bolt, and I turned away just in time to block the impact,” Lundie said.

Blair Lundie was burned in a high-voltage explosion.

RELATED: Crash in North Dakota covers Manitoba man in hot tar

While he still struggles to deal with his new reality, groups like Mamingwey are a huge help for him.

“They are my support because I can talk amongst them, and they understand what I’m feeling on an everyday basis,” Lundie said.

For Blahey, breaking out of his cocoon for the first time is an experience he doesn’t regret.

“Don’t be scared to talk about it,” said Blahey. “Talking about it is the best thing you can do,”

WATCH: Edmonton-area teen returns from unique camp for burn victims






© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.



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