As Premier Doug Ford’s decision to invoke the notwithstanding clause to cut council almost in half reignites talk of the urban-suburban divide, the Star finds the old differences aren’t what they used to be. In the occasional series One Toronto, we look at what divides us and what we share, no matter where the ward lines fall.
Every day, a small army of service workers in neighbourhoods across Etobicoke and Scarborough board buses, start their cars and climb on the subway to pour the coffee, change the sheets, and serve the food downtown.
Toronto’s core, with its restaurants, bars, retail stores and tourist attractions, is full of service-sector jobs. But many of the people who do them aren’t living anywhere near their workplace.
As part of an occasional series this summer, the Star is taking a closer look at the megacity, 20 years after amalgamation, and some of its old, and new, divisions.
This dynamic of lower-paid suburban workers servicing downtown’s bankers, lawyers and “creative class Sunshine List professionals” is turning the city into a kind of “Downton Abbey,” according to one researcher who’s studied the phenomenon. It’s a divide that could lead to labour shortages in the core — as service workers forced to commute farther and farther lose the incentive to take those positions.
“The comparison to Downton Abbey is that you have the lords and ladies living upstairs and then you have this cadre of people who support them,” said John Stapleton, innovation fellow at the non-profit Metcalf Foundation, of the PBS period drama about an upper-crust Edwardian family with a houseful of servants.
“But the joke is at least with Downton Abbey you got to live there.”
Statistics Canada data from the 2016 census shows the so-called suburban-urban divide is true to stereotype when it comes to occupations — with old-school white-collar and blue-collar jobs divided by neighbourhood.
Higher percentages of sales and service, trades, transport and equipment operation, and manufacturing and utilities jobs, as a percentage of total occupations, are clustered in the more suburban Etobicoke and Scarborough.
There are some service workers living in the downtown core — especially in pockets around Kensington Market and Queen St. E. — but percentage hovers between 10 and 20 as a whole, while in Scarborough it’s closer to 30-35 per cent, with similar figures in northern Etobicoke.
Jobs in management and a broad category including education, law and government services are more clustered in the downtown core and in Midtown. This is true, to a lesser degree, for jobs in business, finance and administration.
There are some pockets in the suburbs with higher percentages of these jobs.
Management occupations made up 26.6 per cent of jobs in one central census tract at Richmond St. W. and Yonge St., for example, while sales and service only 11.8 per cent.
Other occupations, like health, were more evenly spread out across the city.
Occupations in art, culture, recreation and sport, while making up a smaller percentage of Toronto jobs, are still better represented downtown — though not in the financial district — and in the west end.
While it’s no secret that downtown is increasingly becoming unaffordable, that’s also where those in the industry say the best hospitality jobs are — jobs experts say are unlikely to remain a draw if wages don’t rise and Toronto’s cost of living continues to push workers farther from the core.
Krystyna Nesterenko, a guest services manager/manager on duty who travels from the western edge of Scarborough to her job at a downtown hotel, says she advanced to the management position after about four years in various hotels.
Her commute isn’t so bad now that she has a car, about a 35-minute drive one way, often not in rush-hour traffic as she works all kinds of shifts.
But before she got a vehicle, she had to do a one-hour-and-15-minute bus/subway/streetcar combination commute each way. On a weekend shift, she took a “blue night” bus she remembers as “a true hustle” that required her to leave the house at 5 a.m. for a 7 a.m. start time.
Nesterenko worked in Scarborough and North York, but the hotel jobs downtown, she says, offer more opportunity for advancement and a better working environment, as well as better wages.
“Suburb hotels, they very rarely offer anything that’s at the point over minimum wage,” said the 29-year-old, adding it’s “very good motivation” for leaving her neighbourhood to work.
Aside from wages, Nesterenko enjoys the busy “dynamic” downtown and says the hotels there offer more types of jobs in one building.
But living downtown is “totally unaffordable,” she said.
“The industry itself, the salary range that we are on, doesn’t really allow to be spending that much money on housing, it’s just not possible.”
In a 2015 report about “the working poor,” the Metcalf Foundation’s Stapleton found a growth of “knowledge workers” — senior managers and professionals in business, finance, law etc. — and the “service entry” people who cater to them, like clerks, chefs and waiters, since 1987.
Meanwhile, the number of “middle” workers, people like Nesterenko who are service managers, retail supervisors or equipment and machine operators, has stagnated in the years since amalgamation.
Metcalf’s report also found the Toronto region has the highest percentage of working poor in the country, more than 9 per cent of workers, 264,000 adults living on poverty-level wages, an 11 per cent increase since 2006.
A lack of better paying mid-range jobs, combined with higher rental and real-estate prices, drives lower paid workers farther out into the suburbs, and even into illegal rooming houses in Scarborough and North York, he said.
“And of course we’re not building any new subsidized housing, so in a way we have the perfect storm of a situation,” said Stapleton.
“It means that we’re going to start looking more and more like Manhattan,” he said, adding it also puts a strain on the environment and the transportation system because of so many commuters travelling longer distances to afford housing.
Deena Ladd, with the Toronto-based Workers’ Action Centre, believes it’s critical to have “minimum standards” like the planned minimum wage hike and other protections around precarious work introduced in fall 2017, to make sure workers across sectors can live in the city.
“Otherwise what we’re doing is we’re basically saying to them, you’re good enough to work, but you’re not good enough to live in the city that you work in, and that’s ridiculous,” she said.
The $14-an-hour minimum wage is supposed to go up to $15 an hour in January. It’s a hike that Ladd said workers sorely need — but Premier Doug Ford promised to axe it during the campaign trail, and may still scrap it.
It’s cost of living that led Roberto Perez to seek housing outside the city limits — 13 years ago.
The 43-year-old Burlington resident commutes daily for a job as a housekeeper at the Toronto Marriott Bloor Yorkville Hotel, a job he loves, but knows even Burlington housing is too much for many of his coworkers.
Perez looked for a house in Etobicoke, Mississauga, Port Credit, Oakville, Appleby, but had to go even farther west before he could afford one.
“I don’t live in Burlington because I want to,” he said during a busy lunch hour at the hotel. “People ask me how do you do it? I do it because I have no choice.”
Despite his brutal hour-and-a-half commute on the bus, GO train and subway, Perez considers himself lucky.
Out of almost 150 colleagues, he estimates maybe three live in the downtown core.
They’re driven, like him, to seek jobs in the higher-end hotels downtown, as many of them are unionized, his with Unifor Local 7575, and offer higher wages and a better environment.
“People have pride in what they do,” he said of the staff. “It’s a big family.”
Abdalla Idris, on leave of absence from a housekeeping position at the Chelsea Hotel on Gerrard St. W., usually commutes from Scarborough by car and said it can be “frustrating” living so far from work.
“Sometimes we get written up by the management (for being late), they don’t understand how we get here,” he said, adding some of his colleagues work two or three jobs to make ends meet.
“We want people to have one job, a good living wage, to live in Toronto.”
Unchecked, the situation could lead to a labour shortage for the service and sales industry downtown, and even businesses closing, said Cherise Burda, executive director of Ryerson’s City Building Institute.
“It is a gutting out of our city if we’re not putting in place the right types of policies and investments to ensure that a range of family incomes can live in the city where they work,” she said.
It’s something that’s already starting to happen in downtown Vancouver, where a popular bagel shop had to close one of its locations for a few weeks in August because of difficulty finding staff.
One exception to the trend of low-to-middle-income workers leaving the core is the artist community.
But musician Lily Frost says if not for the fact that she’s co-parenting, she’d consider leaving for Prince Edward County or Hamilton, where many artists fleeing high rent have already settled.
Frost returned to the city after three years in Caledon where she had a “much bigger house for way less,” to get back to a community of artists in the west end.
“The problem with being out of the city as an artist is that it’s really hard to find people to connect with, and people you can collaborate with,” she said.
“It’s about proximity and the people and the exposure to culture,” Frost said.
Burda said it’s crucial to build more affordable housing, as well as a transit network to reduce commutes, and “get away from this divisiveness of suburbs vs. downtown,” to solve the problem as a city.
“It really is a bit of a perverse correlation because the more people who are lower income and might not have enough money to own a car are doing some of the longest travelling across the city, on some of the slowest transit service,” Burda said.
May Warren is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11