The extraordinary richness of the renting world

By David Hayes, Toronto Star, January 5, 2013

Another 12 months of telling renters’ stories has passed and I’d like to start off the New Year by looking back. Sadly, some things haven’t changed: it’s increasingly expensive to live in downtown Toronto and little affordable housing is being built because there is no will to do so. The city has been handicapped with the least progressive mayor in its history — one whose antics made municipal politics a dysfunctional circus — so little hope there. At the same time, neither the provincial nor federal governments have shown interest in creating strategies for affordable housing.

Still, against all odds, there is hope and I wrote about two of them in the first half of 2012. The YWCA Elm Centre (, which opened last May near Bay and Dundas Sts., consists of three modern towers with 250 one-, two- and three-bedroom affordable units for single women and women with children (100 are reserved for women living with mental health or addiction issues), plus 50 units for women of Aboriginal ancestry.

At a time when women make up more than half of the 70,000 people on Toronto’s social housing waiting list, and despite the impediments to building affordable housing, YWCA CEO Heather McGregor and her team pulled it off. How badly does Toronto need developments like this? Listen to tenant Annalee Hopkins, who I visited in her unit. “I still sit here and give thanks because this has brought me peace and stability. For once in my life, and in the lives of many women here, I come home, shut the door and feel safe.”

Last January I also wrote a two-part column on HesperusVillage (, an affordable housing complex for seniors in Vaughn. The founders of Hesperus were inspired by the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who created the Waldorf Schools, so there’s a spiritual dimension to the community. The original building dates back to 1987; a new expansion, completed last winter, doubled the number of units to nearly 150.

One thing I noticed were the unusual angles of some walls in most units. As Sybille Hahn, a resident and HesperusVillage’s volunteer co-ordinator said, “Square rooms lead to inside-the-box thinking.”

The only problem with the YWCA Elm Centre and Hesperus is that there aren’t more like them in the city.

My three-part series on the “rent generation” in September was a reminder of how the world has changed. According to “Drivers of Apartment Living for the Twenty-First Century,” a 2010 report from GWL Realty Advisors Inc., “expect more 25 to 45 year olds to be renters in the coming decades.” Why? Because young people, who lived through the global financial meltdown beginning in 2007, know that investments can be destroyed by opportunistic investors and lax regulators and jobs disappear overnight because of technology and out-sourcing. No wonder for many young people renting represents a cautious, flexible alternative to being house-poor.

I talked to several tenants who expressed ambivalence about home ownership; “maybe, someday, if things change” summarized how most of them felt. It might be practical to pursue a high-income career you don’t care about and move to a distant ex-urb or small city where property prices are lower, but many don’t want to.

One tenant, 27-year-old art gallery curator Caroline Macfarlane, pays rent to her parents to live in a nicely-designed basement apartment in her family home. “If I thought about it when growing up, I assumed I’d own a home one day,” she told me. “But buying a place is a huge investment and there would be no money for anything else.”

For Macfarlane and many others, pursuing a satisfying life downtown takes priority over acquisitions. As 31-year-old communications officer and librarian Michelle Kay put it: “I’d rather collect experiences than collect things.”

I probably most love visiting the homes of artists; their approach to living as tenants in an expensive city is often as creative as their work. Designer Rae Drake has been called “queen of the inspiration boards” for her inspired visuals on her Pinterest ( and Tumblr ( sites. When I met her, she and her boyfriend, Ryan Wilks, had taken possession of a 750-square-foot hard loft in Little Portugal that she had transformed into a living inspiration board: antique glass objets, vintage cameras, an old clock, a ukulele, a silkscreen print depicting meat parts (Wilks is a chef), a zebra mask. Her sensibility brought to life in her surroundings.

She’s not the only artist I met last year who treated a home like a canvas. Noted illustrator and artist John Webster, who lives in a second-floor flat of the Parkdale house of his friend, fellow artist Stephanie Power, is like a museum of vintage gems and unalloyed kitsch. (If he ever struggles to find work as an artist, the 6-foot-5 Webster could sell tickets and conduct tours.) He and Power are close friends so there are no locked doors and their cats roam freely upstairs and downstairs.

Speaking of museums, last July I wrote about Morgan Mavis and Christopher Bennell, who run their Contemporary Zoological Conservatory, a 1,000-square-foot take on a Victorian cabinet of curiousities, out of their Parkdale apartment. As I chatted to them in their living room, I was surrounded by a bald eagle, albino caribou, peacock, moose head (with a magnificent rack), Cape Buffalo head, a pre-1940 cinnamon bear and a Victorian-era, museum-quality cabinet containing 18 song birds.

Perhaps no other column reminded me more dramatically of the unexpected, and extraordinary, richness of the renting world.