It’s modest: a home of about 300 square feet with a sink, a fridge and stove. The bathroom is down the hall and Aya Higuchi shares it with three other tenants in the Riverdale rooming house.
It took Higuchi a year to find a place she could afford. The rent, $800 a month, stretches her budget as a part-time city worker with no benefits. But the room at 28 Langley Ave. has bright windows, there is a park and streetcar stop at the top of the street and the library is only a short walk beyond that.
The 40-year-old loves living there; she considers herself lucky.
So when she learned earlier this year that new homeowners were evicting the tenants in order to do a major remodelling, she was crushed. Rather than accept the legally required payment of three months’ rent, which the new owners later upped to six months, she decided to stay and fight.
“This is not only about me,” says Higuchi. “It’s also the other tenants as well, and I just feel that the new owners and what they’re doing is not right, taking affordable housing away from people who can’t afford other apartments.”
With the stock of affordable housing units shrinking in Toronto, a rally was held in front of 28-30 Langley on Saturday as tenant groups, legal support teams, neighbours and local politicians gathered to bring attention to the issue and show support for those being forced to leave this house. Nine tenants remain. There were once 24.
While there was speculation that the new landlords might be converting the dwelling into student housing or an Airbnb, one of those owners said that is “absolutely not” going to happen.
Ian Leggett, reached by phone, said the plan is to maintain the building as a rooming house for long-term tenants but only after major construction work. He said, when finished, the house will have 21 rooms, for which it is zoned, each with an enclosed bathroom. The tenants will share a kitchen in the basement.
“They’re small, basic units. That will dictate their value, which is certainly going to be on the lower end of rentals in the city,” said Leggett.
Leggett said he and the two other owners have tried to assist existing tenants in finding new accommodation and he helped two of them move with his pickup truck.
“I get that we’re making people’s lives a little difficult,” he said. “But we purchased this from someone who was letting the building go derelict and it needs a full-on revamp.”
Stewart Cruikshank, a lawyer with East Toronto Community Legal Services who is representing the tenants, said the bottom line is that the neediest renters in the city are being squeezed again as the new owners “move everybody out and, whatever they do with it, they’re going to make a lot more money per unit.”
The case will likely end up in court, where Cruikshank said he will argue that the building is undergoing a renovation, not a demolition as the owners have stated in their paperwork. That would allow existing tenants the right to move back in once work is complete, with only a modest rent increase. A demolition leaves the previous tenants with no rights.
While the exterior of the stately home will remain, Leggett said he doesn’t see how the extensive work planned could be considered anything but a demolition.
Cruikshank, looking at the bigger picture, said: “We need more protection for rooming houses. We need protection for the affordable housing that we have before we lose it all.”
Paul Hunter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @hunterhockey