Toronto the unaffordable

Breaking up with the city you love is hard to do — but as Toronto becomes increasingly unaffordable, many residents simply don't have a choice
By Nam Kiwanuka - Published on March 10, 2017
Toronto's diversity is what brought Nam Kiwanuka to the city, but its unaffordability might impel her to leave. (Toronto Tourism)

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This past week, Toronto turned 183, and to celebrate, Tourism Toronto released a short video called The Views Are Different Here, showcasing what makes the city great. The accolades on social media echoed the sentiments in the video: Toronto is a world-class metropolis that celebrates diversity and promotes inclusion.

While others boasted online that this is the best city in the world, I have sadly been realizing that Toronto has become a place where I can no longer live.

For the past year my husband and I have been trying to buy a home here. Our family of four once lived in a one-bedroom apartment in an attempt to save money for a down payment. We’ve looked at townhouses and condos, because the cost of a detached or semi-detached house is out of reach. But the city isn’t known for its family-size condos — there aren't many buildings with anything larger than two-bedroom units. If you’re lucky to find that unicorn, prepare to pay upwards of $1,000 for monthly maintenance fees. And as those buildings age, that number will only go up.

The handful of times we’ve been in the running for a property, we’ve been outbid by $100,000 or more. One we looked at was put on the market as-is, with no conditions attached to the sale (that means take it or leave it, no matter what state the property is in); we were outbid by nearly $200,000.

Did I mention it had asbestos?

Both my husband and I work full-time, and I can’t fathom how households with lower incomes are managing housing costs, because Toronto also has the highest daycare costs in the country. There are many kinds of diversity: economic diversity is one. And Toronto must increasingly wrestle with the fact that it isn't as economically diverse as it would like to think. Quite literally, not everyone can find a home here.

David Hulchanski, a professor at the University of Toronto, has been tracking the changes in incomes in Toronto since the 1970s; his research shows that Toronto has split into three cities: low-, middle-, and high-income ones. Hulchanski has mapped these different Torontos, showing that the middle-income areas have shrunk disproportionately in recent decades and will continue to do so if government doesn’t intervene.

While financial institutions such as the Bank of Montreal have warned of an impending burst of this housing bubble, and a new report from the Toronto Real Estate Board says the average cost of a home here had shot up $200,000 compared to a year ago, Mayor John Tory still says it’s not time for the government to intervene. He merely says we should “keep a careful eye on this” in response to the situation. 


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Ontario's finance minister, Charles Sousa, disagrees; he says the province is looking at ways to cool the market. “A year ago I was thinking, Let market forces prevail,” Sousa said. “But now I’m concerned about … the ability of people to enter the marketplace. [There are] bidding wars everywhere you go, it appears, and I’m sensitive to that.”

But even if the government does take action, it won't happen soon enough for many families, including mine.

As I watch the Tourism Toronto spot again, I realize the things the video highlights about what makes the city a desirable place to live are the same reasons I chose to move here. With the exception of seven years when I lived abroad, I’ve lived here since I was 17 — my sister and I moved here after we left home.

Toronto was a refuge to us. It was a place where we didn’t have to feel self-conscious. Our family landed in London as refugees, and our otherness there was something we became aware of immediately. We were poor, from Africa, with funny names and black and brown skin. We were not Londoners. But when we moved to Toronto, we blended in. My confidence grew. A high school teacher finally saw my potential and encouraged me to pursue journalism. (I didn’t even know what that was at the time.) While studying at Ryerson University, I made friends with students from Somalia, Jamaica, China, and Ukraine. We were all the same: a little panicked about our place in the world but propelled by our collective naïvaté. It was in Toronto that I got my foot in the door at my first job in media, as a volunteer with the Dini Petty show. It was in Toronto that I got the opportunity to become a MuchMusic VJ, and to create the career, precarious as it may be, that I now have.

The realization that I can no longer live in Toronto is not one that came easily. It hurts to the core. But it's also important: as much as we celebrate the gains Toronto has made in its 183rd year, we have real problems here, even with that much-celebrated diversity. Because much as Toronto did provide me a refuge, back then, it can no longer be my home — and that's not because I don't want it to be.

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