(Toronto) Push on to uncover city's potential squats

Push on to uncover city's potential squats
eye - 08.29.02

Dilapidated buildings have been sitting empty for years throughout Toronto, dumped by owners unwilling to finance their maintenance and repair.

Now, spurred by the success of the Pope Squat -- in which the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) has been occupying an abandoned building at 1510 King W. in an attempt to turn it into affordable housing -- the city has begun compiling a list of all the vacant properties in its south district, the area bounded by Eglinton, Victoria Park, Keele and the lake.

"This has always been an issue but it came to a head with 1510 King W.," says Mike Leonard, the city's district manager for municipal licensing and standards, south district. Leonard has asked his supervisors to cull a master list of abandoned properties from various computer databases that existed before amalgamation. He hopes to have a complete inventory in a couple of weeks.

"We want to know where all vacant buildings are and make sure they're properly secured," says Leonard. He says municipal licensing and standards officers will locate properties abandoned by their owners, list them and board up the windows with plywood and paint.

But, he says, the list is not intended to find buildings that could be turned into affordable housing. "That's a planning issue. At my end of things we are just responsible for public safety. The use of the building is still up to the owner," he says.

When researching the Pope Squat, OCAP uncovered a unique legal situation. The building at 1510 King W. has belonged to the province since 1994, when the corporation that held the title dissolved. Before breaking for the summer, city council indicated that it was interested in taking steps to turn the building into affordable housing.

Housing activists in New York City won a major coup recently when the Bloomberg administration turned over 11 abandoned Manhattan buildings to the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB), a nonprofit organization that helps tenants take over and manage their buildings. It was a drastic shift in policy that ended two decades of routinely evicting squatters.

Negotiations began with the Giuliani administration in the summer of 1999 and were delayed by the events of Sept. 11. On Aug. 19 of this year, the city announced it would sell the Lower East Side buildings to UHAB for $1 each.

UHAB will renovate the buildings and turn them into limited-equity co-ops, which means the apartments will have a low maintenance of roughly US$500 per month and can't be sold for profit. It's a move that won't cost the city anything and will provide 167 apartments that can house 263 people.

In Toronto, there are differing opinions about how many potential squats exist in the city. Officials in the city's planning and real-estate departments contacted by eye say there aren't a lot of abandoned buildings here. But OCAP says it has managed to find 35 unused properties in Parkdale alone, just by walking through the area street by street. "They're not very hard to find," says OCAP organizer John Clarke.

The group has also found it can get a good deal of background research done on its own. "Anybody can do a search at City Hall, this is publicly-available information," explains OCAP organizer Sarah Vance. "You just have to do quite a lot of digging to find out what's behind the company."

David Hulchanski, director of the Centre for Urban and Community Studies at the University of Toronto, was surprised to learn that 1510 King W., a building with tremendous potential value, had been sitting empty for so long.

"Any piece of land, especially residential land, in the city is worth a lot," he says. "Nobody knows how many [abandoned buildings] there are. OCAP did a lot of research and found something that put them in a good position."

When searching for a building to squat, OCAP looks for property that will serve politically as well as functionally.

For the Pope Squat, the group says it required a classic example of poor-quality housing in an area hit hard by rent-control issues and housing standards. It also helped that 1510 King W. is in an area where many World Youth Day pilgrims stayed when they were here in July but wasn't too close to disturb papal proceedings.

The Mission Press building at 53 Dundas E., which was squatted in March, was chosen for its location -- the neighbouring parking lot for the Senator Steakhouse used to be a Salvation Army hostel -- and its relation to the ongoing Yonge and Dundas redevelopment.

"[We] want a site where either ownership is murky or the owner politically is not in a good position to order an eviction," says Clarke.

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eye - 08.29.02

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