An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people escaped slavery in the United States prior to the end of the Civil War by fleeing to Canada with only Polaris, the North Star, to guide them. What they met on their arrival, however, was perhaps freedom, but often far from equality.
At last month’s Urban Land Institute conference in Toronto on Thursday, researchers Abigail Moriah and Kevin Stolarick sought to dispell the “North Star myth,” and shed light on the historical mistreatment of Black Canadians, something they say is reflected in the ongoing displacement of residents in Toronto’s predominantly Black neighborhood.
The researchers pointed specifically to high levels of displacement of Black families in the Mount Dennis neighborhood, located along Eglinton Avenue West between the Humber River and Weston Road, an area particularly hard hit by almost incessant transit construction.
Mx. Moriah, a registered professional planner and the founder of the Black Planning Project, an organization that uses public and private partnerships to solve housing affordability in Black communities, says the current issue of displacement is acute in the neighborhoods that had their genesis in multiculturalism policies enacted by the federal government in the 1970s. A large influx of immigrants from the Caribbean mostly settled in Toronto and Montreal. But today, the Black population in Toronto is actually shrinking, a consequence of rising rents and unaffordable housing in predominantly Black communities.
“Some of these properties are vastly neglected, especially in highly racialized areas,” says Dr. Nemoy Lewis, an assistant professor of urban planning at Toronto Metropolitan University. “As a result, these landlords are filing a lot of evictions.” Dr. Lewis is currently conducting research on evictions in Black neighborhoods in Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
Black settlements in Canada have historically been highly vulnerable to displacement. By depriving these areas of basic services and targeting them for undesirable infrastructure, they gradually become unlivable, conditions that would later justify their destruction.
Africaville is often cited as a prime example of this type of intentional displacement. The vibrant waterfront community in Halifax established in the mid-19th century was destroyed in the 1960s. The city denied tax-paying residents of such services as paved roads, sewers and clean water, while directing slaughterhouses, a fertilizer plant, an infectious disease hospital and a dump to the middle of the settlement.
Ironically, the squeezing of Toronto’s Black residents is due to an influx of desirable services. The Eglinton Light Rail Transit project, a potential boon to businesses in the Eglinton West community, is driving rents up and pushing residents out.
“What we’re seeing now are major infrastructure investments in historically disinvested areas,” says Dr. Lewis, pointing also to the Little Jamaica and Jane and Finch communities. Both are neighborhoods with large Black populations where new transit infrastructure is being built.
“This has caused the proliferation of financialized landlords and developers who are now gobbling up a lot of the properties and raising rents for people who have lived there for years.”
The commodification of rental housing in Ontario is increasing at a rapid pace. In 1997, the number of units owned by financial firms and institutional investors in Toronto was 6,465. Now, one company alone, Starlight Investments, owns 22,102 units in Toronto and more than 60,000 nation-wide. Canada’s largest landlord, Canadian Apartment Properties REIT, owns about 67,000 residential apartments and homes in Canada, the Netherlands and Ireland.
Dr. Lewis says that asset management firms are banking on the fact that a vast number of Canadians are priced out of the housing market and need to rent.
Cheryll Case, the founder and executive director of CP Planning, a non-profit urban planning organization in Toronto, says there is a pattern of exclusion of Black community groups in setting the agenda around the planning of the neighborhood.
“In Little Jamaica, the Black population declined three times faster than any other racial group,” Ms. Case says. “Black people have been systematically excluded from higher paying jobs that would allow them to be able to compete when rents are increasing due to the light rail transit.”
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Black Canadians already have some of the lowest home ownership rates in the country.
Dr. Lewis says one solution the federal government is now exploring is an anti-displacement ordinance in some communities. But a more impactful option, he says, might be increasing the mandates for affordable housing in the area.
“Part of the issue is the fact that the province is now trying to restrict terms of what municipalities like the city of Toronto can ask for from developers in regards to capping the amount of affordable housing units,” Dr. Lewis says. The reasoning, he says, is the assumption that requiring too much in the way of affordable units is an economic disincentive for developers.
Dr. Lewis said we should not lose sight of the cultural component of housing displacement. In his doctoral research he looked at how the US subprime mortgage crisis played out in Chicago and Jacksonville, Fla., and the “human sacrifices” that ensued.
“By focusing so much on the displacement problem, we miss the fact that these communities are not just losing people, but history and culture.”