#TorontoIsFailingMe: My apartment tower is infested with cockroaches and bugs

#TorontoIsFailingMe: My apartment tower is infested with cockroaches and bugs

Toronto’s inner suburbs have become shorthand for crumbling postwar apartment blocks, underfunded schools or gang warfare. They’re among the neighbourhoods with the lowest incomes in the city, the longest trek to a TTC stop, and the highest concentration of immigrants and visible minorities. This month, we’re sharing stories from Torontonians who live in the inner suburbs, told in their own words. Some are shocking, some tragic, some hopeful. Together, they convey an urgent truth: Toronto is failing too many of its citizens. Have a story of your own? Tweet, Facebook, or Instagram with the hashtag #TorontoIsFailingMe to tell us.
#TorontoIsFailingMe: My apartment tower is infested with cockroaches and bugs Abbas Kolia in Thorncliffe Park. (Image: Eamon Mac Mahon)

Abbas Kolia, 51
Thorncliffe Park

When I first came to Toronto in 1980, I was 24. I remember thinking, What a beautiful city. I came from a very small village in Gujarat, India, and had no idea how to live in a western country, but I learned quickly. I got a good job at a factory on Kipling that made the foam for mattresses and pillows. I worked 12-hour shifts seven days a week to pay for a ­Thorncliffe Park apartment I rented with my two brothers and sister. I eventually married and raised three children here.

Thorncliffe Park is the place where people come to start a new life in Canada. Families arrive from all over the world, they work hard, and then they move to wealthier suburbs. I’m the one who stayed—this is the place I love, so why leave the community? It’s a safe neighbourhood with people from all over the world, where you can walk to grocery stores, schools, mosques, churches.

What makes life hard here is the housing. In 1982, I moved my growing family into our own apartment. These ­Thorncliffe buildings are 40 years old. When I arrived here there were maybe 9,000 people living in the neighbourhood. Now there are more than 30,000. The buildings are infested with cockroaches, mice, bedbugs and anything else you can name. Our landlord rarely cleans the carpet in my hallway. I can’t bring my friends into my tower’s common area without feeling embarrassed about the dirt. Our last councillor, John Parker, blamed tenants for the conditions, saying they don’t know how to live properly.

In 1992, a neighbour encouraged me to get involved with tenants’ rights. She said: “You have energy, you will fight, you can talk to the immigrants.” I’m now the president of the tenants’ association, and I do my best to help newcomers who don’t know their rights—that the landlord is responsible for leaky pipes and broken toilets, not them.

People always talk about a divide between downtown and the suburbs, but never mind downtown—just look at ­Leaside, the expensive suburb next door. We’re in the same ward, but the difference between what councillors have done for them versus us is huge. We don’t have any resources for seniors, anything for youth, anything for women. There’s not enough space where people can just get together and enjoy their lives. Walk to Leaside and there are playgrounds, all sorts of facilities for children, beautiful parks.

The difference? We’re immigrants. People think this is all we deserve.

—as told to Nicholas Hune-Brown