Death of a dream

Maggie Siggins October 4 1982

Death of a dream

Maggie Siggins October 4 1982

Death of a dream


Maggie Siggins

When the City of Toronto Planning Board set aside 15 minutes one night last spring to hear deputations about the final plan for the Trefann Court area, it was expected that the usual crowd of vociferous and well-informed activists from the famous east-end neighborhood would turn up. Not one did. And so far not a word of protest has been heard leading up to the plan’s scheduled appearance before city council this fall. In this case the residents’ silence signalled a rather pathetic end to a 17-year community battle that fundamentally changed the political process in Toronto—and in many cities across the country—by setting a pattern of citizen participation at city hall.

The silence meant that the dream of Trefann as a downtown community, where working-class people could rent or buy affordable housing, has died. Far from being a victim of urban blight, Trefann has become a fashionable area for childless couples and singles, some of whom live in $200,000 homes that not long ago housed two families, each with a half-dozen kids.

For the remaining oldtimers the change has brought some good with the bad: their property values have soared. But the veterans now feel like outsiders in their own neighborhood. “We used to sit on the veranda and talk to the people we knew as they walked by,” says Edna Dixon, who has lived in Trefann since 1953. “Now the streets are deserted.” Says David Reville, an alderman for the area: “I think the story of Trefann Court is a minor tragedy.”

The debate over crowded housing conditions in Toronto’s inner neighborhoods is not a new one. Critics first mobilized in the early 1900s, and by the 1940s urban planners, most of whom despised the older part of the city, assumed that the affluent would move to the suburbs and leave the core for commercial, office and industrial use, and that the working class would inhabit the only housing left—which, at least, would be upgraded. During the years that followed, politicians arbitrarily decided that the old neighborhoods would be bulldozed and that modern, clean communities would be built in their place. By the mid-’60s, the public-

housing developments of Regent Park North and South, also in the east end, had been completed. But Trefann had been granted a temporary reprieve because of a dispute concerning the future of the federally owned CBC building at Queen and Sumach streets. In 1965, however, Trefann Court residents were told that their time had come, that their houses would be expropriated and razed as had those of former Regent Park residents. A combination of public housing and light industry would be built.

Unlike Regent Park residents, though, Trefann Court dwellers rebelled. They had heard horror stories of homeowners in other “blighted” neighborhoods who had had their homes expropriated for ridiculously low prices. In Regent Park North, for example, the city paid an average of only $2,700 per house. Edna Dixon remembers how terrified her neighbors were: “We knew that there would be no way we could buy another home with the money the city was going to give us.” Nor did the ten-

ants in the area want to live in public housing, in which there were few vacancies, at any rate.

The new shape of Toronto’s civic politics in the ’60s brought the Trefann residents their first ray of hope. In 1966 the city hired sociologist Marjaleena RepoDavis as a relocation officer, the first of a number of young, highly educated activists (another was John Sewell, who later became mayor of Toronto) who organized and politicized the community. Yet it was the residents who did the work. “We couldn’t begin to figure out how many hours we put in,” says Barb Dawson, a homeowner on Sumach Street. “We attended way more than 100 meetings.”

The efforts were rewarded: residents talked city council into temporarily shelving the expropriation plans. They were then ignored by municipal politicians for the next four years, the state of anxiety heightened by uncertainty about whether or not their homes would be torn down. Decisions to spend money to improve properties were postponed once more.

In 1969 a reform council was elected to city hall (including David Crombie, John Sewell, Karl Jaffary), with a young planner, Howard Cohen, joining

In Regent Park North the city had paid an average of only $2f 700per house it was expropriating

the group in 1970. Cohen worked with a committee of politicians and citizens, thrashing out a plan acceptable to both. Basically, the community would remain intact, the salvageable homes restored, and the totally dilapidated ones torn down and replaced with buildings compatible with the neighborhood. Most important, with the aid of government subsidies, these would be available to lowand moderate-income families to rent or buy. It was a remarkable feat. In fact, primarily because of the opposition of Trefann Court and other downtown residents, the province of Ontario changed the Expropriation Act to reflect a “home-for-a-home” principle.

The Achilles heel of the plan was that the refurbishment of Trefann depended for funds on the federal government’s Central Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC), an agency that was not caught up in the spirit pervading Trefann Court. Although the city supervised the construction of 17 subsidized new homes, those stood empty for more than two years while CMHC officials and Trefann activists feuded over the details of ownershipemdash;CMHC was refusing to grant outright ownership. Finally, in 1976, the residents caved in.

Some of the houses were sold (the rest were rented) for between $21,000 and $29,500, with CMHC providing 35-year mortgages at eight per cent. But there was a catch. The government retained ownership of the land, so the new owners could not buy itemdash;they could only rent itemdash;and they could not sell their houses at a profit. Says Paul Ringer, the city’s community renewal program manager: “That broke the back of the Trefann Court neighborhood.” Noreen Gaudette, a mother of six, had spent two miserable years in a small, brokendown house waiting for her new Trefann house. When she received her first municipal tax bill, after she was finally installed in her dream home, it classified her as a tenant, not an owner. “I was heartbroken,” she recalls bitterly. “I had wanted something to pass down to my children. After all that fighting, all I am is a glorified tenant.”

During the ’70s there was something even more insidious at work that undermined the Trefann dream. Whitepainters moved in, and property values soared. Many tenants could no longer afford the rents and moved out. Many homeowners found they did not have the cash to bring their houses up to city standards and they sold them to developers. As well, federal government money was not only spread thinly but it was drying up. Eventually, various levels of government did spend $3 million, and about 125 units of nonprofit or cooperative housing were constructed. But, says Ringer, “that represents at

best only 25 per cent of the housing in Trefann, including a 40-unit home for senior citizens which has not been built yet.”

Today Trefann is a vastly changed neighborhood, but much different from the one imagined in the dreams of the oldtimers. Recently, private developers completed a 29-townhouse complex. The three-bedroom homes, almost all of which are occupied, rent for between $865 and $900 a month. Margaret LeMay glances at the complex from her house, one of the original 17 financed by

CMHC, and says, “I hope they didn’t build that long brick wall to separate them, the rich, from us, the poor.”

At one Christmas party in the ’60s, 72 children from one dead-end street turned up; not one child lives there now. Barb Dawson says that the new people “just nod, although they sometimes smile and are polite.” There is little community involvement, which may be why no one showed up at the planning board meeting. The longtime residents have given up, and the new ones are entirely satisfied. lt;£gt;