Five outside-the-box housing ideas that Toronto should try, according to report

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Toronto needs to think outside the box — or the condo tower — when it comes to solving its housing challenges. Put another way: “It’s time to hack the condo model,” says the executive director of the Ryerson City Building Institute.

Its latest report surveys ideas that are creating more middle- and lower-income housing in other cities and at home — notions, Cherise Burda says, that bear further exploration.

Options for Homes, a social enterprise that helps home buyers with down payments, and a new modular design being considered in Hamilton, are among the ideas Toronto needs, according to a report from the Ryerson City Building Institute.
Options for Homes, a social enterprise that helps home buyers with down payments, and a new modular design being considered in Hamilton, are among the ideas Toronto needs, according to a report from the Ryerson City Building Institute.  (Gillian Foster photo)

“I’m tired of the same old conversations about supply, supply, supply,” she said. “It’s time to start thinking creatively. If you just keep doing things the same way, you’re just going to end up with the same housing.”

Architect and developer Heather Tremain agrees the housing industry needs to step up its game. She is CEO of Options for Homes, a social enterprise that builds what it calls “below-market ownership housing.”

“For us, one of the challenges is we work in a market context. Everything is more expensive — exponential increases of land values. Last year construction prices rose 12 per cent. All of those things make it really hard to deliver something affordable in this market,” she said.

It’s the reality in the gentrifying city.

“To some extent we are becoming more of a luxury market,” said Tremain.

Changes in the way people are living and creating families provides an opportunity for the real estate market, she said.

Here are five ideas that could help Toronto confront its housing affordability challenge, according to the City Building Institute’s “Rethinking the Tower” report.

Naked House affordable housing offers the finished shell of a house or apartment and furnish it at your own pace and price.
Naked House affordable housing offers the finished shell of a house or apartment and furnish it at your own pace and price.  (nakedhouse.org)

The Naked House

Most Toronto-area pre-construction homes are sold with a base package of fittings, fixtures and finishes with the opportunity to pay extra to upgrade features from flooring to countertops. But what if you could just buy the finished shell of a house or apartment and furnish it at your own pace and price?

A British-based not-for-profit, Naked House is supported by grants, investments and access to public land. It keeps building costs down by providing buyers with a nearly bare box at about 20 to 40 per cent less than standard market price. Purchasers get a livable home built to code with basic plumbing and energy-efficient electrics.

There are income qualifications, and purchasers have to live in the part of London where the housing is being developed. They must also demonstrate they have the know-how or money to finish their unit.

The Naked House website promises that the lowest-priced homes are affordable to those earning the London median income of about $59,000 (Canadian) and should never cost more than a third of the buyer’s gross household income.

It calls its target market “generation rent” — those with too much income to qualify for publicly assisted housing but not enough to buy a home at the going market price.

Mod cons’ calls for 250-square-foot lots to be sold, allowing buyers to purchase one or more to create units of up to about 1,000 square feet.
Mod cons’ calls for 250-square-foot lots to be sold, allowing buyers to purchase one or more to create units of up to about 1,000 square feet.  (superlofts.co)

The new ‘mod con’

Although it resists being labelled as “modular” construction, developer JvN/d’s design for a Hamilton apartment building calls for it to be sold in 250-square-foot lots, allowing buyers to purchase one or more to create units of up to about 1,000 square feet.

“The main word is flexibility,” said director John van Nostrand.

The concept — still in the planning approval stage — means the lots can be purchased individually or in multiples to create units. The lots can be individually titled under a mortgage so they can be purchased and sold separately, giving the owners the option of using the space differently at different stages of their life, including subletting parts of their units.

Van Nostrand calls it a vertical subdivision and says it’s similar to the way office space is sold and leased — with a recognition that uses and needs change.

It gives young adults the option of staying in the city when they might otherwise have children and look for a house somewhere else. It also provides an ownership opportunity for people with incomes in the $60,000-to-$80,000 range, less than you need to buy a typical condo in Hamilton.

All the units would be fitted up to building code standards but buyers would have the option of purchasing a unit finished or unfinished.

There are variations in other parts of the world. Pocket Living in London is using factory-made housing modules that are assembled on the building site for homes that sell for 20 to 40 per cent below market price.

Amsterdam’s Superlofts by Marc Koehler Architects is fitting a building shell with modular units that can be designed to the taste and budget of the occupants.

The line on assembly

Factory construction where some elements are built off-site can reduce construction cost by 25 per cent and reduce timelines by as much as 50 per cent, said Burda. That was the case with a Scarborough seniors home where 413 exterior wall panels were built by PCL Construction in Etobicoke.

“With windows pre-installed, the prefabricated wall panels reduced the number of building trades required on the construction site and increased worker safety overall,” said the City Building Institute report.

Prefab components also make it easier to work on smaller, harder-to-access building sites, Burda said.

“It’s like Lego. Some of these companies can build a floor a day because they build them off-site in a controlled environment. They’re energy-efficient modules. Then they transport them and they assemble them on site,” she said.

Family condos can also be brought down in size if the amenities in the building are the ones families need.
Family condos can also be brought down in size if the amenities in the building are the ones families need.  (Facebook)

Scaling down

The micro-condo has arrived in Toronto. But in many cases those small units come with a cost per square foot that veers toward luxury living because of the amenities. Burda suggests that family condos can also be brought down in size if the amenities in the building are the ones families need.

She likens it to the way families want to live in a single-family house.

“It’s a yard, a garage for your stuff and a play area for kids. That’s really becoming the thing for good co-living to build a big playroom for the kids that everybody can share and keep their toys in; outdoor spaces, and a lot of places provide a workshop, the alternative to a garage where adults can build stuff and fix your bike,” Burda said.

The report profiles a purpose-built rental in Vancouver that includes a DIY workshop, individual garden plots and a dog-wash, but with relatively small individual units.

At the Ollie at Carmel Place in New York, affordable units for low- and middle-income residents are integrated with micro-units at market rents. There was no city money in the project but the builder saved through modular construction, some relaxed unit size standards and sped-up timelines.

Options and shared equity

Options for Homes has already built 2,750 homes in 11 buildings throughout Toronto, including the first residential units in the Distillery District. It’s been around for 25 years and it’s the kind of program Toronto needs to expand, Burda says.

The social enterprise works with its not-for-profit Home Ownership Alternatives financial agency to provide loans that banks recognize as equity. Buyers don’t have to pay interest or repay the second mortgage until they sell their unit. The homes offer base finishes — carpets and ceramic tile — and appliances aren’t included, although they can be purchased as part of a group buy. Some buildings have basic amenities such as workshops and children’s playrooms.

Options’ latest project includes a building that is 60 per cent two- and three-bedroom units suitable for families, Tremain said.

“You would never have seen that even a couple of years ago,” she said.

Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski

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Feds to fund 3 Vancouver temporary modular housing projects for the homeless

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The federal government announced plans Monday to develop three projects in Vancouver that will create new affordable housing, helping those who are homeless and expanding the number of shelter spaces available in the city.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government is providing funding to the Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency for a temporary modular housing initiative that is aimed at helping those without a home to transition into longer-term housing.

WATCH: Nov. 9, 2018 — Housing crisis leaves many homeless living in vehicles in Metro Vancouver






Once completed, the project is expected to provide more than 600 pre-built units that can be relocated where they are needed across the city.

The funding will also help with the redevelopment of the Union Gospel Mission’s Women and Families Centre in the Downtown Eastside. The centre is expanding to more than 60 units, which will provide shelter for women who are recovering from addiction.

Trudeau made the announcement at the site of the $40-million project that will provide 115 rental-housing units in the city later this year.

“By investing in affordable rental housing, temporary shelters for people who are living on the streets, and support centres for women battling addiction, we’re not just investing in our communities – we’re investing in people,” he said.

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The funding is part of the government’s National Housing Strategy, a 10-year, $40-billion program announced in 2017 that Ottawa has billed as a plan to provide more social housing and affordable rental units.

The New Democrats said in a news release that Trudeau’s government has neglected the housing crisis. One in five Canadians is paying more than 50 per cent of their income on housing and a growing number of people are one paycheque away from being homeless, the party said.

Later Monday, Trudeau joined Liberal candidate Richard T. Lee for a second straight day of campaigning in Burnaby South, the federal riding where NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is seeking a seat in a byelection.

WATCH: Trudeau says justice minister to provide recommendations on possibly waiving solicitor-client privilege






The prime minister and Lee mingled with patrons at a restaurant before chatting with commuters and posing for selfies outside the Metrotown SkyTrain station. Trudeau said Lee’s experience as a provincial legislator representing Burnaby made him a strong candidate.

“We know that having someone grounded in the community, who’s served Burnaby for more than 16 years as an elected politician already, is the kind of strong voice we need to represent Burnaby South in Ottawa,” Trudeau said.

Asked how he felt the prime minister visiting the riding could sway the byelection, Singh said he hears on doorsteps that people are disappointed with the Trudeau government’s approach to the housing crisis, pharmacare and the environment.

“On all these issues, this government and Mr. Trudeau have let people down,” Singh said. “I’m confident that what we’re talking about, what we’re proposing, are solutions that will make their lives better.”

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CMHC says housing market still highly vulnerable despite slight price drop

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The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) says the housing market is still showing a high degree of vulnerability for the 10th straight quarter, despite some indications of price correction.

In its quarterly housing market assessment, CMHC found that there are is still some market overvaluation — one of four factors the agency tracks to evaluate market vulnerability — in Canada’s sky-high housing markets. 

But in two of those cities prices may be coming somewhat closer to earth. 

« We are seeing overvaluation pressures unwinding in Toronto and Victoria, despite the fact that Canada’s overall vulnerability remains high, » said Bob Dugan, chief economist of CMHC.

Overvaluation occurs house prices are elevated compared to personal disposable income, population, interest rates and other factors.

Some overbuilding in the prairies

In Vancouver, overvaluation remained high between the last quarter of 2018 and the first of quarter of 2019, while in Victoria and Toronto it moved from high to moderate. Hamilton’s overvaluation stayed the same at moderate levels.

Additionally, the report found that there is moderate overall vulnerability in Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg, where there is moderate to high overbuilding. That’s when the number of rental vacancies and unsold newly built housing units are higher than normal.

« Nationally, overheating and overbuilding remain low, » said Dugan.

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Tenants occupy damaged Junction-area house rather than risk losing affordable housing

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Deborah Savage is standing in her apartment more than three weeks after a fire at the house, looking up at a hole cut in the wall of her living room and waiting for police to walk through the door.

The sun will set in a few hours and already frigid temperatures will plunge to extreme lows. There is no central heat in her one-bedroom unit — or in any of the five units spread throughout the red-brick, three-storey house — any electrical power comes from cords plugged into outlets in the second-floor hallway. Disconnected pipes in her bathroom mean flooding if her water is turned back on.

Deborah Savage was a resident of a property on Keele St. where a small fire forced her and fellow tenants out of their homes.
Deborah Savage was a resident of a property on Keele St. where a small fire forced her and fellow tenants out of their homes.  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

Her landlord says he does not want her in there, but, she told the Star, she fears losing her home.

Savage, 47, along with a number of tenants of the Junction house, returned to stay in the building after being displaced by a small fire the first week in January. They’d been staying at a hotel, paid for by an emergency city fund, but a fear of being permanently evicted in a city with a severe shortage of affordable housing has led them to return, effectively occupying their former units without the landlord’s consent.

“We are taking back our place,” said Savage, who was allowed into her apartment by the landlord the day after the fire to pick up necessities. “Homelessness is a big problem in Toronto … we can’t be put out on the street because the landlord decides to renovate,” said Savage. “It’s the middle of winter.”

Landlord David Chun alleges the tenants broke in after refusing to accept that fire damage and issues identified through subsequent inspections mean the house is unsafe.

“There are rules and laws and we are doing everything exactly by the law,” said Chun last week. If there was a way to get them back in he would, he said.

“The police department, the fire department, the fire inspector, the insurance company, the contractor, me the owner, the city and anybody who has been there,” said Chun, when asked who deemed the house unsafe.

But Savage who, like most of her neighbours, lives on a low and fixed income, said some of them would rather live in the home that is now full of holes and partially void of heat and water, than be thrown into Toronto’s rental market, which they say they’ve been priced out of.

Savage pays $650 a month and hydro is included. The average market rent for a one-bedroom unit in a purpose-built rental building in the GTA is about $1,260, according to data published by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Those figures are based largely on occupied apartments and landlords can charge what they want for empty units.

The rest of the tenants are also paying well-below average market rent.

The hole in Savage’s unit was where a strip of drywall had been cut out to expose electrical wiring and wooden studs.

“They took this off after the fire, I guess, to check for damage in my bedroom and that’s it,” said Savage, on Tuesday. One of the tenants told the landlord they were back in, she said, noting she expected he had called the police.

Chun, who signs emails John David Chun, is known to tenants as David Chun.

A fire on Jan. 7 initially displaced residents who have since returned to the house.
A fire on Jan. 7 initially displaced residents who have since returned to the house.  (Toronto Star/Steve Russell)

Savage said they weren’t able to get written proof from the city or landlord that the attic fire meant nobody could come home.

Whether the tenants can stay or will be told to go could be determined at the Landlord and Tenant Board on Tuesday.

The tenants were able to arrange an emergency hearing Friday where their lawyer argued they were entitled to possession and the landlord should restore full power. The landlord’s lawyer argued that the fire and problems found during inspections meant the house was unsafe and he has no choice but to keep them out until the house is fixed.

The board adjudicator said he felt it was best to hold off on a decision until a forthcoming city report could be submitted for everybody’s review.

The fire in the attic of the Keele St. house broke out on Jan. 7. and 10 people were evacuated from five units, including the resident of the attic who has not returned.

Heather Mackay-Lams, 36, who lives in the basement, says she didn’t know anything was wrong until people knocked on her door that morning “I was in my pyjamas, grabbed the cat … we all figured we would be back in five minutes.”

They were sheltered in a TTC bus then sent to a Howard Johnson Inn. The landlord changed the front door and two back locks the next day, they said, and told them renovations and electrical work were needed and they must collect their things.

The city office covering the cost of the hotel said their stay can be extended and no firm date had been set for them to leave.

The tenants got back in, in stages. First-floor resident John Demetriades, whose door is at the back of the house, got a locksmith to let him in more than a week ago. His insulin was inside, he said. Mackay-Lams got in through a window, something she had done a couple times since the fire. Demetriades, 60, was checking the mail on Tuesday and found the front door unlocked. So were the doors of the two upstairs apartments, the tenants told the Star.

So the decision was made to stay in rotating shifts — returning to the inn to shower and eat — to make sure they were not locked out of the Keele St. house again.

The house has not had central heating since Savage initially moved in. Four tenants told the Star they always used space heaters and blankets. Savage said using heaters is one tradeoff for affordable housing.

Savage said Chun has helped them in the past by not raising rent, and during a major ice storm that knocked out the power he provided generators so they could stay in their home.

On Tuesday, the residents say they found space heaters on the second floor and attic and one in the basement that provided a decent amount of heat. When Clinton Reynolds, 37, returned, he also found a stack of cardboard boxes and furniture pulled from the attic piled in his living room. And in his ceiling, there was a gaping hole exposing the upstairs floorboards.

Reynolds, who has a licence to grow marijuana for personal medical use, said his plants have been in storage since the fire and “suffered greatly” because of the cold.

Demetriades said the priority for residents was getting power throughout the house. “We’ll obviously buy water. For me it is going to be a cold night,” he said.

Deborah Savage was a resident of the property on Keele St. when a small fire forced her and fellow tenants out of their homes.
Deborah Savage was a resident of the property on Keele St. when a small fire forced her and fellow tenants out of their homes.  (Toronto Star/Steve Russell)

The police did come by briefly the next day, after being called by the landlord, but left after speaking with Chun’s son and the tenants.

Chun has been ordered to arrange and pay for an inspection by the Electrical Safety Authority, after the provincial body found Chun or an employee “have done electrical wiring” without first arranging for an inspection. He was also ordered to fix any defects by Jan. 23, based on a notice dated Jan. 9. A second notice, mailed on Jan. 31, warned that failure to comply is a provincial offence and a conviction could mean a fine of up to $50,000. Copies were provided by the ESA to the Star, for a fee.

On Friday, an inspector with Toronto Building visited the house and taped an “order to remedy unsafe building” to the front door. Chun must “prohibit the use or occupancy” of the attic apartment, hire an engineer to inspect the building, submit a damage report to the city, make sure urgent repair issues are addressed and obtain permits for all future work, according to that notice.

Prior to that, nobody from the city, including Toronto Fire and Toronto Building, had issued an order to shut the building down, according to Mark Sraga, director, investigation services, municipal licensing and standards.

The power was shut down and doors locked, he said, after tradespeople brought in by the landlord found problems in the house. “It is not that the city has issued any orders directing this, but the building owner knowing the requirements has acted proactively,” he said.

Deputy Fire Chief Jim Jessop told the Star that the property was returned to Chun the day of the fire and “minor deficiencies” were later found in other apartments but no order was issued to evacuate the building.

Chun told the Star he has been a landlord for two decades and provides many people with affordable housing. He owns at least seven properties, some under his name and others, including the Keele St. house are owned by a registered company — where he is listed as sole director.

He said he has terminal brain cancer, that conversations are difficult and stress could devastate his already fragile health. Some of the tenants, he said, have been harassing him. Everything he has done has been above board and legal, he told the Star.

When first contacted, Chun suggested his son could provide a tour of the Keele St. property — to show the extent of the damage — but rescinded in a text message saying the city was in possession of an engineer’s report that proved the property was uninhabitable.

He did not respond to a request to review that report or questions about prior inspections, heating issues and what tenants were told about the work.

“Stop harassing me because you don’t want to get the Star in hot water,” Chun said.

Savage said no tenant should have to go through the stress of losing their home and not being told why and said a central office or hotline could fix the problem.

By Sunday, Savage had run a power cord through a hole in her floor to Demetriades’s apartment so he could run a heater. The water was still off.

Reynolds was so stressed he said that if Chun gave him back first and last months’ rent, covered damages and moving costs he’d leave.

Mackay-Lams, who lives in the basement, found out Sunday morning that her unit had flooded.

“I don’t know if I am coming or going anymore,” she said. “I feel like the lunatics are running the asylum. I have no idea what is going on.”

Emily Mathieu is a Toronto-based reporter covering affordable and precarious housing. Follow her on Twitter: @emathieustar

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Big city mayors call for emergency federal funding to deal with housing crunch

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The mayors of Canada’s largest cities are ramping up pressure on the Trudeau government to deliver a major cash infusion to cope with a housing shortage they say has been driven in part by refugees.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities ‘Big City Mayors’ caucus was to gather in Ottawa today before meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and delivering its election year wish list for the 2019 federal budget — the last of the Liberal government’s current mandate.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said his city had to absorb roughly $5.7 million in additional housing costs in 2017 related to a spike in asylum seekers crossing the border from the United States. He said he expects the city took a similar hit in 2018.

« What often happens is a government will make a decision at a senior level and the consequences trickle down to us, » Watson said.

« Toronto received $11 million in July to deal with refugee claimants. Our city has received nothing. »

Share the burden, mayors say

The mayors don’t appear to have a specific sum in mind for emergency federal housing money. In late 2017, the Trudeau government rolled out a 10-year, $40-billion national housing strategy meant in part to address a severe shortage of affordable housing units in major cities, but the mayors appear to be looking for more near-term funding.

The RCMP intercepted 19,411 asylum seekers outside official border points in 2018, down from 20,593 in 2017.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said he agrees with Watson that the federal government ought to do more to share the burden of settling refugees outside of Toronto.

« [The federal government] makes the decisions about what happens at the border and Toronto is very supportive, for example, of admitting refugees, » he said. « We’ve had a historically compassionate approach in this country which we support. But the federal government, who admits refugees to the country, also has to take a hand in helping to house and settle them. »

Watson also said the federal government’s decision to legalize recreational marijuana use is ramping up the cost of police drug enforcement in his city.

« In our case we’re going to receive about $2 million for all enforcement inspections … and our staff estimate it’s more of a cost of $8 million so we’re going to have to absorb $6 million in costs, » he said.

« It’s almost like, you know, when the federal and provincial governments sneeze, we end up getting a cold. »

But the major ask from Canada’s largest cities is likely to be for federal transit funding. The mayors are looking for $34 billion over 10 years starting in 2028 for public transit services. Under their proposal, $30 billion of that would be distributed to cities based on ridership — $29 billion going to transit systems with a ridership over a certain threshold and the remaining $1 billion to smaller transit systems.

The other $4 billion would go to boosting ridership and to rural transit systems. The mayors also want the funding made permanent.

Political clout

« That allows Toronto to think about its next major subway expansion, it allows Halifax to start thinking about bus rapid transit and allows Edmonton to think about where light rail will go next, » said Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson​, chairman of the big city mayors’ caucus.

Iveson said he and his other large city mayors swing considerable political clout in a federal election year.

« These 22 mayors represent more than half the country’s population and two-thirds of its economy. So you know we have an opportunity to influence the course of the country. »

Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne said his government has already invested billions in transit.

« There have been repairs and upgrades of more than 2,000 kilometres of roads and highways, more than 170 kilometres of new highway, and more than 70 new bridges, » he said in an email. « Public transit across the country has seen improvements, including more than 3,000 new buses purchased, 3,700 buses repaired and refurbished, nearly 15,000 bus stops and shelters been upgraded, and more than 200 transit stations built or upgraded. »

Along with Trudeau, the mayors are expected to meet today with Champagne, Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc and Bill Blair, the minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction.

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Development of Vernon’s Kin Race Track could include pool, housing

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The end of legal wrangling over the site of the old Kin Race Track has opened the door for the City of Vernon to develop the property.

Vernon’s mayor is now publicly musing about putting a pool and recreation centre on the land, as well as other recreational facilities and possibly even housing.

The city’s ability to use the property for a new purpose comes at the same time as Vernon is starting the process of looking for possible locations for a potential new pool.

The site of the old track, which is right next to two arenas, is considered an ideal spot.

“The most obvious spot for [a pool] is to take advantage of some of the heat produced and other things from the two arenas,” Vernon Mayor Victor Cumming said.

“I can imagine that will be one of the top spots looked at for a new swimming pool and rec centre.”


READ MORE:
Court judgment opens door for new development at Kin Race Track

The mayor also expects baseball to continue on the property, which already houses a number of ball diamonds, as well as the addition of space for other recreational activities.

“It is a large site, and I can imagine some housing that matches the use,” added Cumming.

The development wouldn’t happen right away. Cumming said it would take years to develop a new pool for the city.


READ MORE:
After 10 years, lengthy lawsuit abandoned over Okanagan race track  

The city is now able to consider other uses for the property after the Okanagan Equestrian Society abandoned its appeal of a B.C. Supreme Court decision on the track.

The equestrian society, the city and the regional district had been locked in a legal dispute, originally launched by the society in 2004, over the future of the property.

The society had been trying to retain the space for horse racing, but the B.C. Supreme Court ruled against the society last year.

The equestrian group said it simply couldn’t afford to continue fighting local governments to keep horse racing at the track and abandoned its appeal of the Supreme Court decision.

“We are obviously extremely disappointed,” said the society’s lawyer, Ed Woolley.

“Any lawsuit is expensive. One that drags on for several years is extremely expensive, and all resources were tapped for the original trial.”

After 120 years of hosting horse races at Kin Race Track, the facility hasn’t been used for that purpose since 2014.


READ MORE:
Horse races cancelled in Vernon

That year, races were cancelled when the grandstand wiring was deemed unsafe.

The structure was then destroyed in a deliberately set fire, part of a string of arsons that gripped the region that summer.

The equestrian society said it would like to continue its activities somewhere else but its future is uncertain, as no new space has been identified.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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‘You have to be on the ground to believe it’: MPP calls for action over Cat Lake housing crisis

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A Northern Ontario MPP is calling on the provincial and federal governments to take immediate action to end Cat Lake’s housing crisis.

The community, which is located about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, declared a state of emergency last week over problems with 87 homes there.

The problems include mould, structural and foundational issues, problems with electircal wiring, and leaking roofs.

« The state of emergency is necessary, » said MPP Sol Mamakwa (NDP — Kiiwetinoong). « The dangerous living conditions, to be allowed in Ontario, Canada, is completely unacceptable. »

Mamakwa said he visited the community on Wednesday. Now, he’s urging his counterparts in the provincial and federal governments to do the same.

‘People are dying’

« You have to be on the ground to see it, you have to be on the ground to believe it, » he said. « They need to visit the community, that’s number one. »

The responses so far, Mamakwa said, amount to « jurisdictional ping-pong. »

« While Ottawa blames Queen’s Park, while Queen’s Park blames Ottawa, our people in my riding, such as Cat Lake, they are hurting, » he said. « Even to the point where people are dying from that lack of action. »

A statement from Cat Lake leadership issued last week said some residents are undergoing medevacs due to lung and respiratory problems brought on by the housing crisis. Building assessments have also called for the demolition of 87 homes in the community.

Talk of evacuation

Mamakwa said he’ll be keeping in contact with Cat Lake leadership, as well as Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN).

« When I did the community visit, there was some talk about evacuation if there’s no action, » he said. « We need to respond. »

« Our people have treated this way for far too long, » Mamakwa said. « We are treated very differently, treated as second-class citizens, as if we do not matter. And we’ve gotta get away from that. We need humanity back in these processes. »

NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler also issued a call for a « coordinated response by the federal and provincial governments » to address the Cat Lake state of emergency. »

« It is unacceptable that the people of Cat Lake suffer in living conditions that would be intolerable in mainstream society, » the statement reads. « We will support Chief and Council to ensure that the necessary housing improvements are made available as quickly as possible, especially for high-risk community members such as infants and youth, the infirmed and the aged. »

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‘We are trying to explain … we don’t make this kind of money,’ says couple who won, then lost, a housing lottery

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Sarah Bankuti was eight months pregnant and had been hospitalized for a health scare when she got news that should have changed her growing family’s life for the better: they had been randomly selected out of thousands of people to apply to move into a new affordable rental building in Regent Park.

Toronto Community Housing, they were told by email, had pulled their names in a housing lottery of sorts and if they cleared the next round of paperwork they would move out of their cramped one bedroom in the east end and into a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in March and pay just $1,358 a month.

It was welcome news during a frightening time. They were in Michael Garron Hospital and she had been hooked to multiple monitors because their baby girl hadn’t moved for two days. Then they read the Oct. 26 email.

“The baby started kicking right away,” says Bankuti, 33. “We were so happy, because we couldn’t believe we got picked.”

This wasn’t their only reason to celebrate. Her husband, John Bankuti, 36, started a new job with Canada Post in August. His last job was as a dog-walker. He is now a full-time relief letter carrier. Training started in mid-August and in the fall he received a minor bump in overtime pay as well as hundreds in bonus pay for delivering flyers and Christmas catalogues.

They’d entered the lottery on a whim in September, filling out a simple one page form that outlined the maximum gross income to be considered. After winning, they filled out detailed paperwork, attached pay stubs from September and October and planned for the future.

But that elation didn’t last. Bankuti got another email from TCH early in December informing them the pay stubs they submitted showed their combined gross income was roughly $15,000 above the $65,184 threshold for a 3-bedroom unit and they were being pulled from the list. There is no option to appeal.

The couple insists that even with his new job their combined annual gross income, particularly because she was going on maternity leave, is not guaranteed to exceed the threshold. They believe their gross income will actually be less, they told the Star.

“We would be fine with it if they denied us for a valid reason. We are not unreasonable people,” says Bankuti, who works as a nanny and spoke with the Star on Wednesday, two days before a scheduled C-section. “I find it impossible that there is no appeal process,” for people whose income is not guaranteed, or who could have a sudden surge in income at different times of the year, she says.

“If I knew that I would have told my husband to not get this job.”

A full-time relief carrier, Canada Post confirmed, at that early salary level makes at least roughly $42,500 gross each year. The slips Bankuti submitted also included an inflated gross of several hundred dollars from the extra hours and flyer delivery. Her pay slips showed she made a gross income of about $27,060 by the end of November. Together, even without his extra pay, that still puts them over the threshold, but her salary is never guaranteed, she says, and on maternity leave she’ll take in about 55 per cent of whatever her weekly income is.

They reached out to Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam’s office and a representative from that office contacted TCH to find out if appeals were an option. They were told it was not but that housing staff considered everything they were sent.

Toronto Community Housing, who had reviewed their pay stubs multiple times including additional ones they were sent in November, says people are judged on what they are making at the time of the application and those slips clearly show they do not qualify.

The couple have offered to provide TCH with past and future tax returns, additional payslips and letters of employment to defend their case — but those offers have been rejected.

A spokesperson for the housing corporation told the Star that there is no formal appeal process and overtime and bonuses are factored into the equation.

“All applicants are assessed for eligibility and must meet the income criteria for the program at the time of application; past and future earning potential is not considered,” says Daniele Gauvin, a senior communications adviser with the housing corporation in an email. “The documents submitted by the Bankuti household showed that their household income exceeded the eligibility limit for a three-bedroom unit at 110 River Street.”

Bankuti met with the Star in her narrow one-bedroom apartment near Gerrard St. E. and Greewood Ave. She and her husband pay $1,350 a month and share the space with his 4-year-old daughter Gwendolyn, who lives with them part time, and a mini-dachshund cross named Tiberius.

When the little girl stays with them she sleeps on a pullout couch in the living room. Tiberius and his bed are small but the narrow layout means he, the bed and the stuffed shark he sleeps with are underfoot. The baby will sleep in the bedroom, currently packed with a bassinet, a double bed and a chest of drawers from Ikea that serves as a changing table.

Bankuti bought it after Googling “how to have a baby in a small area.”

What would have been their new home was 110 River St., a brand new 29-storey building in the heart of the largely redeveloped neighbourhood of Regent Park.

With close to 2,780 people eligible to apply for 75 units they never thought they had a chance at winning and, they say, honestly believed that even with his new job they were not guaranteed to exceed $65,184.

In a city facing a severe lack of affordable housing the lottery the couple entered was framed as one way that people trying to survive on lower incomes could get ahead, which in Toronto means skipping the centralized wait list.

The current wait list for subsidized housing in Toronto — which includes Toronto Community Housing, co-operatives and private non-profit housing — is close to 99,000 households and about one-third of those waiting are seniors.

The River St. building is close to a new recreation centre and the TTC, and the rent is fixed. Three-bedroom units are $1,358, two-bedrooms are $1,141 and one-bedroom units cost $962. Utilities are included.

Average market rents for a three-bedroom purpose-built rentals in the Census Metropolitan Area is $1,633, according to data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Those figures use occupied units — landlords can charge what they want for newly empty units — and don’t factor in pricier options like condominiums. Research firm Urbanation recently published a report showing that the average cost of renting a studio condominium averaged $1,800 and a two-bedroom condominium went for about $2,700.

The Bankuti family has been on a wait list for a two-bedroom in co-operative housing for about a year but has been told they could be waiting anywhere from two to five years.

He says they haven’t given up entirely on pleading their case to get into an affordable home. “We are trying to explain in an open way that we don’t make this kind of money.”

For now he is looking forward to meeting their new daughter and working for a company he respects. She is deeply concerned about whether she will be able to take on work after the baby is born. Two children she regularly cared for are moving, upsetting her plans to bring her new baby along when she’s caring for them, she says.

Both know they can’t afford to move.

“Two bedrooms are so expensive now and especially because I am going to be on maternity leave we literally can’t afford anything else,” she says.

With files from Donovan Vincent

Emily Mathieu is a Toronto-based reporter covering affordable and precarious housing. Follow her on Twitter: @emathieustar

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Head of Toronto Community Housing placed on paid leave

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The head of Toronto’s embattled public housing provider has been placed on administrative leave and an outside firm has been called in to review a consulting contract that the housing corporation’s board found was awarded through a “flawed” process.

Kathy Milsom had been appointed to the role of chief executive officer for the Toronto Community Housing Corporation last August. The news that the decision had been made to place her on paid leave was made through a press release sent out on Monday afternoon, with a statement from the housing provider’s board.

Kathy Milsom was named chief executive officer for the Toronto Community Housing Corporation last August. She has been placed on administrative leave.
Kathy Milsom was named chief executive officer for the Toronto Community Housing Corporation last August. She has been placed on administrative leave.  (Carlos Osorio / Toronto Star)

The board also announced the immediate termination of a close to $1.3 million contract with Orchango, a management consultant agency brought on to help with the reorganization of the housing corporation. An employee who oversaw the request for proposal (RFP) or application process for the contract has also been placed on paid leave, the board said.

Law firm Bennett Jones will conduct the review, a spokesperson for the housing provider confirmed. The firm will examine how a process the board learned “was flawed and did not follow existing TCHC regulations” was used to award the contract, according to the release.

The existence of the contract and its value was first reported by the Toronto Sun.

“We hold ourselves to higher standards and, as a result, the board has directed TCHC to terminate the contract with Orchango effective immediately,” the board said. “We remain committed to transparency regarding this process and will keep our employees, tenants and the public updated on a resolution to this matter.”

Read more:

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Of the decision to put Milsom and the employee on leave the board said, “This is not disciplinary action, but part of a prudent effort to ensure the independence and integrity of the ongoing review.”

Orchango’s president and co-founder declined to comment on the board’s decision and said the company would not immediately be releasing a formal statement. “We are looking into the matter,” said Edmond Mellina, speaking with the Star on Monday.

Mayor John Tory, in a statement released shortly after Milsom’s leave was announced, said he had spoken with board chair Kevin Marshman about ensuring that the change does not impact tenants. About 110,000 Torontonians rely on the housing agency for a place to call home, many of them struggling to make ends meet in Canada’s largest city.

“The good governance of all city agencies is essential and requires that everyone involved with these organizations is held to the highest standards. The Toronto Community Housing board has taken decisive action. I believe the board has made the right decision,” said Tory.

Vice-President Sheila Penny will, effective immediately, serve as acting CEO to maintain “to maintain stability and continuity for our employees and tenants, said the release.

Early this year the Star’s Jennifer Paglario reported that a private law firm had been called in to investigate human resources practices at the corporation after several complaints were filed with the city’s ombudsman. One current manager and five former employees described a “culture of fear” where people felt bullied and harassed.

With files from Jennifer Pagliaro.

Emily Mathieu is a Toronto-based reporter covering affordable and precarious housing. Follow her on Twitter: @emathieustar

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Prospective tenants using social media photos to help with ‘nightmarish’ Toronto housing search

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Just a couple of days after posting in a Facebook group that she was in search of a cheap place to rent in Toronto, Tyne Robinson had a handful of apartment options to visit.

It’s a rare occurrence in Toronto these days for prospective renters to find various options to choose from, especially if they’re operating with a modest budget. A one-bedroom condo in Toronto on average has surpassed $2,000 a month, according to market research firm Urbanation.

But Robinson, 22, whose post in the Bunz Home Zone group said she was searching for a room with a maximum monthly rent of $850, was able to quickly attract the attention of potential landlords. One of her tricks was to use a picture of herself and link to her Instagram page, where she has nearly 2,500 followers.

“I do think it helped get more responses,” she said, adding a number of her friends found rental apartments after using pictures in their “in-search-of” posts. Since many homeowners/landlords may be looking for roommates, Robinson said it’s important to find someone they think they can get along with.

“Social media is a form of personal expression and if people could see the things I post and they’re into similar things, then they would message me,” she said.

Most people searching for places to live on the Bunz group included images. Some while on vacation, eating dinner, socializing with friends or their pets, or simply in professional outfits. And it’s not just on Facebook and other social media. Even Craigslist and Kijiji websites are awash with images of individuals, but young and old, and couples looking for places to rent.

“As the rental crisis gets worse, people are now going into the rental market and when they realize how nightmarish it is, they quickly start to try to get a leg up on other competitors,” said Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Association.

“There’s no actual guarantee it’s really going to help, but if you got a face on your application versus 10 that don’t, maybe it humanizes you a little bit more and makes you stand out,” he said.

Lilliana Molek, 19, another prospective renter who recently posted pictures in the same Bunz group — including one showing her relaxing on the water, another at a workplace — in the hopes of finding a roommate for under $700 in the city’s west end, said it adds a level of trust to the potential interactions she hopes to have with the landlords.

Pictures were her way of saying “I’m a real person,” she said.

When she’s reading through posts, she often stops and reads those with pictures while scrolling past those without pictures, she said.

“I also think there’s a lot of superficiality today. People judge a lot based on simply your appearance,” she said. “If you’re a good-looking person, you look more trustworthy, more approachable, and a person would be more inclined to live with you.”

The risk for a prospect tenant of sharing pictures is that it can fuel sentiments of discrimination from some landlords if tenants happen to be from a historically disenfranchised group — such as a disabled individual or a person of colour, Dent added.

“The first thing that a landlord notices is the colour of your skin,” said University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski, whose research focuses on housing and rental markets.

He said he’s encountered many people from minority groups who say landlords tell them a place is taken, and if they phone back and don’t have an accent, they’re invited to view the same apartment.

The use of pictures while looking for rent, much like adding a picture to a resume while applying for a job, shows how hopeless the situation has become and how tough it is to find a good place at a fair price, Hulchanski said.

“People will do their best to attract the attention of the landlord for an available place,” he said. “Some are saying ‘I have nothing to lose, here’s who I am if you are interested, or if that helps.’”

Gilbert Ngabo is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @dugilbo

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