Janes Walk, Weston – May 6, 2017

Some of the 2017  Weston Janes Walk participants pose for posterity outside the new UP Express station. (Photo courtesy Cherri Hurst)

Close to 40 people braved chilly temperatures and cloudy skies to visit some key parts of our Weston neighbourhood. Organizers Cherie Hurst and Mary Louise Ashbourne led a well-attended Janes Walk today organized under the banner of the Weston Historical Society. The theme was one of renewal and there was a pervasive sense of a dynamic new Weston emerging after decades of decline and neglect. The tour started at the GO / UP Express station where local historian Mary Louise Ashbourne joked that Weston had suffered with lemons for years, but now, thanks to community activism, we were beginning to get some lemonade. Some of that lemonade takes the form of a fast, frequent connection to the airport or downtown for a cost comparable to the GO train.

Directly across the street is Frontlines where Executive Director Stachen Frederick welcomed us into the warmth of the clubhouse and described the large variety of programs for young people that are offered. These include a homework club, very popular cooking classes and a summer day camp. This year’s fundraising dinner at the Weston Golf and Country Club was sold out for the first time ever, raising over $20,000 that will help subsidize programming for the next year. Pizza from their cooking program was offered as an incentive to return following the walk.

Frontlines Executive Director Stachen Frederick talking about the extensive programming for youth. (Photo courtesy Cherri Hurst).
Cherie Hurst and Dave Bennett welcome walkers into the Weston Historical Society offices.

After visiting the offices of the Weston Historical Society (WHS) at 1901 Weston Road, Deacon John Frogley Rawlinson outlined the history of Weston Park Baptist Church. The church is involved in a new venture under discussion for several years that will combine church lands with the empty ScotiaBank building that will be preserved as part of the development.

Deacon John Frogley Rawlinson describes the Weston Park Baptist Church development. The mural behind him is of the old Eagle Hotel which once stood at the corner of Weston and Lawrence.

We crossed the road and walked north to 1976 Weston Road to Toronto’s longest running bookstore, Squibbs now celebrating 90 years of continuous operation and 84 years at number 1976. Co-owners, Mike Linsky and Suri Weinberg-Linsky greeted walkers and invited them inside.

At Weston Road and Little Avenue, Mary Louise stopped at the Carrying Place plaque (installed by the WHS) that marks the trail that ran along the Humber for hundreds of years linking Lakes Ontario and Simcoe, eventually hitting navigable water again at the Holland River. That would have been a tough portage as the navigable part of the Humber ended at the present day location of Bloor Street.

Mary Louise Ashbourne stops at  the Carrying Place plaque at Weston Road and Little Avenue. (Photo courtesy Cherri Hurst)

Weston’s old Federal / Post office building has been preserved and is now a medical building that has been equipped to serve the health needs of the community. Dr. James Crumney outlined the history of the building and some of its interesting occupants over the years including an RCMP detachment that kept an eye on postal workers via one-way mirrors.

At Fern avenue and Weston, Jessica Idahosa told the group about St John’s Anglican which is Weston’s oldest church having been in operation since 1856. It is now operated by the Victory Assembly under the leadership of Pastor Felix Ayomike whose congregation started out as a group of five people meeting in a private home. Incidentally, that’s exactly the way St. Johns began in 1856.

Moving along Fern Avenue, the Gardhouse home at 18 Fern and the LeMaire home at 57 George Street were occupied by prominent Westonians at the turn of the 20th Century. The Gardhouse home was saved from demolition as a result of WHS and community intervention.

Heading down George Street, Weston St. John’s School Community Social Planning Council co-chair, Dave Bennett outlined the huge amount of planning and work involved in rebuilding the school that will soon occupy the currently empty site. Because of expropriations needed for the UP Express, St John’s will be able to occupy a bigger site, hold more pupils and have a grass playground for the first time thanks to the Weston Tunnel cover.

Dave Bennett outlines the new St John the Evangelist school to be built on George Street. (Photo courtesy Cherri Hurst)

Heading down George to King Street, Artscape Research and Development Manager, Gil Meslin outlined the new homes and community facilities that will house artists and even the Farmers Market when the new Weston Common is scheduled to be completed in 2018.

Gil Meslin describes what the future holds for the Artscape Hub in Weston.

At the junction of King Street and Weston Road, our famous 103 year-old Carnegie Library still stands thanks to community involvement. It is a small but impressive building with is Arts and Crafts style and original detail.

The walk ended all too soon and was an exciting glimpse into the past, present and future of Weston, ending at the mural on the side of the Perfect Blend Cafe which like other such murals in Weston exemplifies the changes in our community over the past few decades.

The walk certainly illustrated that positive changes in Weston have been as a result of direct community involvement in the political process. Much of our history has sadly been lost but much has been preserved thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers.

We can only guess what future murals will look like but then, that’s up to all of us isn’t it?

Perhaps we will get heritage property protection faster

Frances Nunziata seconded a motion at City Hall this week that would use volunteers to pick up the pace of protecting heritage properties in Toronto.

The city has a register of heritage properties, but “there has been increasing frustration with the City’s ability to protect heritage buildings”. under ‘development’ pressures.

The motion asks the city to consider using volunteers¹ to get vulnerable properties to the first ‘listing’ stage of heritage protection, which entitles the property to a review by city staff before being demolished. It’s no guarantee that the property will be saved.


¹ I despair when the hard work of civil service must be done by volunteers.

Free trees–if you’ll organize

Next week, the Parks and Environment committee will consider a $1 million proposal to give free trees to residents through the TreeForMe program. We could get in on that, but someone needs to organize a community event to make it happen.

Currently, Toronto has between 20% and 28% canopy cover, and Weston–Mount Dennis is roughly average, with about 25% coverage. However, the trees face serious pressure from Asian longhorn beetles, ash borers, and climate change; and canopy cover has barely grown over the past decade. The ash borer alone could kill 8.4% of the trees in the city. The forestry department is also facing an after-inflation budget cut.

To fight the dangers, the TreeForMe program will give one or two of a large variety of native trees (I got matched with a serviceberry!) to interested participants who participate in a community event. The good people of Rockcliffe–Smythe, to our south, have organized one, and are expecting to distribute about 150 trees on May 13—an effort upon which residents might piggyback.

But wouldn’t it be better to host one ourselves, perhaps to distribute at the grand opening of the Farmers’ Market in June? Think of the benefits: more clean air, habitat, shade… and community spirit.

Mount Dennis one of the best-value neighbourhoods

MoneySense magazine released a survey of Canada’s neighbourhoods called “Where to buy now”, and Mount Dennis ranks near the very top, coming in 13th of 142 of Toronto’s communities.

The rankings were determined by value relative to nearby areas, price momentum, and real-estate agent juju. Mount Dennis did very well on almost all measures, and it remains a steal, despite the huge improvements in transit coming to the neighbourhood: homes are only 60% the price of the average in Toronto.

Weston also did well: 59 out of 142. Home prices are similarly good, only 65% of the average across Toronto. Weston, like Mount Dennis, got only three stars out of five, however, from the real-estate agents.

A word about methods:

Your correspondent has little good to say about the idea of momentum—it could signal that a neighbourhood is on the way up, or it could indicate that the smart money won and the deals are gone.

Because the agents’ methods were not explained, it’s hard to criticize or endorse them. They seem to be based on, ahem, patrician values: walkability, commutes, and transit not among them; Richmond Hill and Markham received the realtors’ top grades.

The idea, though, of value compared to neighbouring communities is very intriguing! All other things being equal, a cheap house a stone’s throw from a swish hood seems likely to do well.

 

Who wants to be a millionaire?

When I bought my home 8 years ago, I felt sick. The woman I bought it from was delighted when we signed the paperwork—so delighted I knew that I had been had.

I hope she’s still smiling now—she’s a wonderful woman, by all accounts—but I certainly no longer worry that I overpaid. According to the MLS, I could sell my house today for more than double what I paid for it; and small, conventional, solid-but-unexciting houses like mine now sell for nearly a million dollars in Weston.

So now I worry for other reasons.

 

House values over time

Let’s be clear: This is bonkers. No normal people can afford an $875,000 home (the average selling price). The mortgage alone would eat about 60% of a typical family’s after-tax income. That does not include repairs, taxes, utilities, or, heaven forbid, daycare or a car.

Of course, some people can afford it: the well off. Weston, with the excellent UPX and connection to highways, will see more upper-middle-class people moving to town as they are driven from the city proper. Doctors, dentists and lawyers need places to live, too, after all, and they’re not the worst thing that could happen to Weston; but middle-class working people, working regular jobs as nurses, daycare providers and project managers, will be priced out. You can expect the neighbourhood to change. I, for one, don’t like the direction.

And make no mistake: we will be in danger. RBC is worried about “unexpected shocks” and “destabilizing developments”. A housing downturn would crush the economy. This should worry everyone.

But I worry about something more local and subtler. The divide between the haves and the have-nots (and have-lesses) is going to widen, and it’s already bad enough.

Most people in Weston aren’t millionaires—not even close—but some of us are, and don’t kid yourself: the wealthy don’t deserve it. The rich (me, weirdly, among them) merely had the good fortune to buy a house at the right time. The implications of this might be hard to take. Inequality probably reduces trust, social participation, empathy, and happiness, capacities I’d say we are already short enough of.

Will it be hard for the daughter of millionaires to go to school with the kids of those frozen out of owning? Will the son of lessors feel lesser? Will they both join student council, run for valedictorian, join the Scouts, and worry about the state of the city? Or might one of them feel just a little more invested, like she has a greater claim on the city around her—while the other feels like the room, the city, is always just a little bit colder, a little greyer?

So yes, I worry.

Of course, there are no easy answers (except the foreign-buyer’s and vacant property taxes). But here’s one nobody wants to hear: an increase in property taxes. Because frankly, if you write a check for property tax, you should fall to your knees in gratitude. You own your house.

And now, our property tax system is simply perverse. The rate on older apartments is 2.5 times the rate on freehold homes. People living in older, high-rise apartments (who are disproportionately poor) actually pay a higher tax rate than millionaire lawnowners.

This is unconscionable.

I propose something simple and fair: the tax rate on all properties, old or new, rented out or owned, should be exactly the same. Lawnowners will pay more, as will those building new developments. Renters in old buildings will pay less.

Will this solve our problems? No. Only interest-rate changes will, and that will be ugly. But taxing equally and fairly will make renting more attractive and buying less so. And it would go some very small way to saying that we are all in this together.

 

 

 

Building licensing on the books

ACORN, a local anti-poverty group, may score a big win in City Council this week as a 17 year-long struggle to license landlords comes to fruition.

On the 28th, Council will decide whether to make landlords more accountable by:

  • Making them register with the city
  • Track issues in the building
  • Have a notification board
  • Manage pests and garbage

The new laws will apply to all buildings with 10 or more units and 3 or more floors. It will improve on the current system by not being complaint driven.

ACORN  got its start in Weston in 2004, and has been pushing for landlord licensing since.

 

Foreign money pushing up house prices.

The logic-defying and alarming increases in Toronto’s housing prices have affected us in Weston to some extent. The boom is largely taking place outside our borders. While we still live in an affordable area, interestingly the net effect of the current market is lower property taxes for us. This is because higher assessments in other parts of the city mean that those residents are taking a larger share of the total assessment. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that housing prices (and rents) are rising at an unsustainable rate. What are we being told about the rise in housing prices? The big lie is that it’s simply a lack of supply and that more housing is needed. Based on this lie, there are proposals to eat into Toronto’s Green Belt and put more housing there.

A new report issued this week from the Ryerson’s City Building Institute tackles the housing shortage theory and disproves it. While there is enough housing for residents, the seeming shortage is likely caused by money looking for a safe haven in Canada. According to the report, it’s hard to trace foreign money that’s causing the boom but unless we do something about money flooding our city (such as a foreign buyers’ tax or a progressive property surtax), a lot of (especially) young people will be putting themselves at risk, saddled with an impossible debt. This could trigger a financial crisis, once the bubble inevitably bursts causing even more turmoil.

Over to you Province of Ontario.