By Don Mosley
Toronto’s industrial and commercial landlords are exploiting the city’s poor by illegally renting them properties for use as residential space.
The tenants raise land values by renovating the buildings and knitting the surrounding areas into communities. When property values climb, developers kick the tenants out hoping to re-zone the areas for residential use in search of higher profits.
By living in these industrial parks, residents violate provincial and municipal housing regulations. But the spaces, with their high ceilings and big windows are ideal for artists, who use them as studio apartments.
Frank Perna is a professional painter who has experienced both the agony and the ecstasy of artist live-work accommodation.
After graduating from Ontario College of Art in 1982, his key source of income came from flipping burgers or working construction jobs. For five years he shared a large studio with four other struggling artists.
Perna then moved into a converted warehouse in west-end Toronto. The space was available because the landlord had evicted the previous tenants instead of complying with expensive city upgrade orders. When the city’s building inspectors left, the landlord re-rented the building.
The city officials, still smarting from the fatal Rupert St. rooming house fire, were sensitive about landlords failing to comply with fire and safety standards. Inspectors descended on Perna’ building once they learned it was being rented again, touching off a drawn-out dispute between the tenants, their landlord, and the city.
The landlord responded by selling the building to a developer who planned to build what Perna calls “yuppie condos.” The residents were again served eviction notices, this time in the middle of February.
The tenants fought with the city for alternate housing, but it wasn’t until the news media took an interest in them that the city came through with suitable arrangements a day before they were to be evicted.
Perna found a home in the Bartlett house co-op, a turn-of-the-century schoolhouse converted into 13 live-work apartments.
The city rescued the co-op from the previous landlord and is now a model of how well artists’ co-ops can work.
Bartlett works so well that the province’s JobsOntario program committed to $1.5 million to build an additional 13 units.
Before they could receive the funding, co-op members had to attend a neighbourhood planning meeting which turned into a raucous affair. Residents on the co-op’s street had no objections to the proposed extension. But some who came from outside the area accused the co-op of being a centre of criminal activity and a drain on social service funds.
Perna denies this.
“I’m just trying to get across that we’re valid members of society,” he said. “We earn our money, we buy things, we pay taxes. We’re not welfare bums or drug addicts.”
Toronto mayor Barbara Hall and the city’s statistics support Perna’s argument.
“In many ways the arts community is the soul of the city,” Hall says. “But it is also important economically. It employs thousands of people and brings hundreds of millions of dollars into the city.”
The city’s arts funding agency, the Toronto Arts Council, estimates that the 145 individuals and 313 groups it funds provide 150,000 jobs and $660 million to the local economy. The artistic community also draws an estimated $1 billion in tourism annually.
But now the future of Bartlett house is in question. Ontario’s new premier, Mike Harris, has promised to kill the JobsOntario program.
While nothing specific has been said about the funding slated for Bartlett’s development plan, the artists fear the project and others like it will be canned.