Have you ever seen a good project in another city and wondered: could we do it here? We should? We too, and as part of an ongoing series, will take ideas from around the world and show them through the lens of Toronto.
In videos posted on social media this fall, jubilant Berliners chanted and threw confetti cannons into the street.
This was not a festival but a victory for housing advocates, as more than half of voters backed a radical proposal to seize around 240,000 housing units from Berlin’s corporate owners in a city-wide referendum.
While not binding (the decision to act on the results is still in the hands of Berlin officials), the campaign has drawn the attention of advocates and officials in cities like Toronto.
For some, it has bolstered an ongoing debate about whether Toronto could use eminent domain to further its housing goals. The idea has been floated before, particularly with regard to a handful of neighboring properties near the corner of Sherbourne and Dundas streets, currently home to a large parcel of idle grass and an expansive empty brick house with slim black doors.
“That place has been empty for over a decade, and there are people sleeping on the sidewalk in front of it night after night, year after year,” said Tommy Taylor, manager of the Toronto Drop-in Network, which serves homeless people. .
While the city has looked at the properties For years, staff said this spring that the owners weren’t interested in selling to them.
The last directive of the Council was to continue negotiating, but also to seek funds to buy or expropriate the sites. While some staff and officials have urged caution regarding expropriation, Taylor is among those calling on the city to follow the guidelines of the Berlin vote.
“Here comes Berlin, and they say enough is enough,” he said, noting that advocates planned to gather at Sherbourne properties for a national day dedicated to housing action later this month. “It has been a place of suffering for a long time and it could be something else.”
The referendum in Berlin was forced by local housing advocates, taking advantage of a system there that allows questions to be put to a public vote if activists accumulate enough signatures. Supporters have pointed to rising rents in the German capital, as critics warned that seizing hundreds of thousands of apartments could cost the government billions of dollars from its budget.
Danielle Koyama, a frontline worker at Toronto’s Regent Park Community Health Center, noted that the Berlin proposal would not create new units, but would protect the affordability of existing ones. If Toronto decided to use its own eminent domain for the Sherbourne sites, it believes it can go one step further by creating an entirely new housing supply.
“For me, the stakes are higher,” Koyama said. “We are in such a terrible situation in that neighborhood, and there is this possible solution for at least some people, if the city accepts it.”
Local Councilor Kristyn Wong-Tam supports the expropriation. She described the site as a “visual blight” and noted that it could be used to boost Toronto’s shrinking stock of social housing.
But the executive director of Toronto’s housing department, Abi Bond, said in March that staff believed they could acquire Sherbourne properties faster and at a better price by negotiating.
Generally speaking about expropriation, Coun. Ana Bailão, Mayor John Tory’s affordable housing advocate, also warns that the city could end up with a higher bill than expected. Still, he finds the tool useful in cases such as securing land adjacent to city-owned properties.
Under the Expropriations Act, the city can unintentionally take private property on its own property, if that property is used for a specific municipal purpose, and the city offers examples such as widening a highway, creating a park or a police station.
The city still has to pay for the properties, and the concern of Bailão and some others is that after lengthy processes such as appraisals, arbitration and mediation, the city may face a higher price than it could negotiate.
“There are situations where it makes a lot of sense, because you can get a much better public good,” he said.
As for Berlin, he said the city should ask the same questions about how housing becomes a commodity, even if the solutions seem different due to different laws.
Last winter, a push from Coun. Gord Perks for the federal or provincial government to assist in the expropriation of vacant hotel rooms and apartments to house the homeless failed to gain the council’s support. Tory, at the time, expressed her lack of faith that those governments would unite.
“We will just get caught up in a long, unsatisfying and unproductive debate about this,” Tory said, arguing that the city’s efforts were better spent negotiating funding.
Perks is among those who believe eminent domain could be used more, noting that the city expropriated a vacant building years ago to create a supportive housing development called Edmond Place.
On Tuesday, the city unveiled a staff proposal to expropriate another property in its neighborhood, for a development they hope will include 109 new homes, half of which would be designated as affordable. The request to initiate a first-stage expropriation proceeding for the 1337 Queen St. W. site will be considered by the executive committee on December 7.
“We have opened up a new world of possibilities,” Perks said Tuesday. “I think we are setting a precedent that other councilors and other neighborhoods could follow.”
Housing advocates like AJ Withers, meanwhile, hope to see Berlin’s ideas migrate.
“If that can happen there, hopefully it will be the first of what could become dominoes.”
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