Vermin, vandalism and the vertical slum: Toronto as city of high-rise poverty

Rebecca Pilgrim stands in the kitchen of her apartment on the 14th floor of a high rise building in Toronto's east end.
(Photo by Chris Young for The Globe and Mail)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011 – Globe and Mail

The apartment high-rise capital of Canada is increasingly becoming a city of vertical poverty. More than ever, Toronto’s low-income population is concentrated not only by neighbourhood but by building – in the 50-year-old concrete slab towers clustered around the inner suburbs, according to numbers provided to The Globe and Mail.

Many are decrepit and crumbling; their elevators are so unreliable that a United Way report coming out Wednesday calls for a task force specifically targeting their repair. Thousands of interviews with residents indicate these buildings have grown notorious for vermin and vandalism.

But the 1,000 privately owned rental towers scattered throughout the city are also home to a significant portion of Torontonians. And in a condo-heavy market where almost no one is investing in new purpose-built rental housing stock, the aging structures represent the bulk of affordable housing.

Advocates warn that if the city doesn’t act soon – both to encourage physical retrofits and inject a sense of community into otherwise isolated vertical enclaves – it risks more than the large-scale infrastructural crises like the fire that gutted 200 Wellesley Street last fall. Hyper-concentrated poverty in aging apartment towers can lead to the flight of businesses, neighbourhood decline and economic isolation in areas already struggling.

“I do think we’re at a tipping point,” said United Way president Susan McIsaac. “You cannot have these kinds of pockets of high-density poverty without it having an absolutely adverse effect on the neighbourhood. We see people taking flight, wanting to leave … it’s a very immediate next step that we watch business flight. And then you see decline. And with that decline you see a threat to the overall city and the prosperity of the city.”

In the past quarter-century, the percentage of poor families living in high-rise apartment buildings rose from 34 per cent to 43 per cent. In that same time, the percentage of families in high-rise apartment buildings that are poor rose from 25 per cent to 39 per cent, Wednesday’s report finds.

The city made these towers a priority through the renewal program championed by former Mayor David Miller. Having completed its pilot project, it’s now in limbo: Tower renewal received the same cuts as many other city departments, losing a vacant staff position equivalent to about 5 per cent of its budget. But project director Eleanor McAteer said she still expects to bring recommendations for citywide implementation to council in June.

Meanwhile, the city has cut $100,000 from a tenant defence fund meant to help prevent evictions. Mayor Rob Ford, who throughout the campaign emphasized the importance of private rental stock over public social housing, wasn’t available for comment Tuesday.

For the United Way, the findings mean the organization needs to take its neighbourhood-focused strategy one step further, trying to reach people in towers increasingly cloistered from the outside world, says Ms. McIsaac.

It means setting up shop in a high-rise lobby or common area, taking services right to tenants’ front doors when a community-centre office won’t work – if no one wants to meet outside because there’s nowhere to go and the building’s children are scared to use the faulty elevator anyway.

“It’s critical for us to work in partnership in these neighbourhoods,” she said. “We’re going to become much more directive around bringing some of that programming into the buildings. [Parents say] the programs are fantastic, but we don’t want our kids walking after dark.”

The report’s findings aren’t news to Brad Butt, president of the Greater Toronto Apartment Association. And he’d love to see its recommendations implemented, if it means the city starts taking better care of its rental housing stock.

But from a landlord’s perspective, he argues, it doesn’t make financial sense to undertake the huge capital investments involved in retrofits: Landlords can’t raise rents enough to cover the capital cost of ambitious repairs.

“These buildings are old. And they are going to have issues from time to time…. The cost of capital retrofit and maintenance and upgrade is through the roof.”

Tammy Clarke figures she’s lived in six high-rises during her adult life, but she loses track when counting all the places she and her mother lived when she was young. For years, she was priced out of one apartment building after another, uprooting her three sons from schools as she tried to find lower rents.

Six years after she moved into a mouse-ridden Scarborough apartment whose rickety balcony railing she was too terrified to touch, she says management is finally starting to make the building a better place to live – so much so that she may even stick around after her now-teenaged sons graduate. “I’m very happy, because that’s not how it’s been. … I never had intentions of staying here.”

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