“Everything I love here was fought for”: This non-profit is seeking millions to keep Kensington Market affordable
The Kensington Market Community Land Trust was successful in its bid to buy two Victorian homes. Now, it has a month to raise $2 million and close the deal
After living in Kensington Market for over 30 years, Dominique Russell has seen stores and residents come and go. But, about a decade ago, something fundamental changed. There were fewer fresh food purveyors, more bars and restaurants. The last straw was the arrival of short-term Airbnbs—that’s when Russell co-founded the Kensington Market Community Land Trust (KMCLT), a non-profit dedicated to preserving affordable rental space in the market. However, like anyone else in the Toronto real estate game, they need millions of dollars to make it work. The KMCLT recently put in a successful bid of $4 million to buy two buildings on Kensington Avenue. Now, with some money already in the bank and the details of a potential mortgage up in the air, they have a month to raise the $2 million they still need to make it work. We spoke to Russell about the KMCLT’s plan, how land trusts work and why Kensington Market is worth saving.
How long have you lived in the market?
I moved here in 1990, and since then, I’ve rented in five or six different places. It wasn’t until I started my family that I realized how much the strong sense of community here meant to me. When my kids were little, we used to have a regular route: getting a pastry at a coffee shop, visiting the owner of Cheese Magic, and going to the bakery and produce stores before finishing at the park. They started getting ice cream alone, facilitated by a call from us beforehand, when they were six. I’m deeply grateful for the environment they grew up in. My husband and I and our three children—now an 18-year-old and 14-year-old twins—are still here, in a townhouse. Even after 30 years, I still love walking up our street.
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Is the neighbourhood different now compared with the ’90s?
Change has always been part of the market—one store disappears, another comes in—but there used to be a stronger sense of stability. Housing has shifted, with long-term tenants getting pushed out so that landlords can charge higher rents. It’s much more tenuous.
Is that why you started the Kensington Market Community Land Trust?
I founded another organization first, Friends of Kensington Market. That was about 10 years ago. Through that initiative, I became much more aware of what was going on. Then Airbnb happened—that was the beginning of the KMCLT. Gentrification is a real estate problem, and we can try to do collectively what we can’t do individually: protect the market, save the tenants.
How does a community land trust work?
We buy land in order to remove it from the speculative real estate market. It’s then held in common, meaning it’s owned by the community and used to serve its needs. In this case, that means affordable housing and commercial space. And the land we buy is held in perpetuity—that’s key. Some federal affordable housing expires after 50 years or so, and then suddenly it’s back on the market. With a land trust, the investment is forever.
What does “affordable” mean in this context?
Like the city, we use the average market rent (AMR) as our benchmark. When we bought our first building, in 2021, our city funding was contingent on keeping rent below 80 per cent AMR. We would aim for the same thing with the buildings we’re trying to purchase now, at 27 and 29 Kensington Avenue.
How do you keep rents down?
We’re a democratically run mutual-aid organization, so unlike developers, we have no profit motive to raise rents—we just need to cover our costs. To start, we’re very selective about which buildings we put bids on. Can it pay for itself? Will the rent from tenants cover our mortgage and maintenance costs? If we do end up buying a building, our financing costs decrease as we pay down the mortgage. Then, we’re in a better position to ensure accessible prices for our tenants.
Do you think this model could help with the city’s rental crisis?
The Toronto housing crisis is a staggeringly complex problem, but I do believe that land trusts are a piece of the puzzle. We can talk all day about new housing, but we have to save the buildings that already exist.
Tell me about the properties you’re currently hoping to buy.
They’re old Victorians that have been repurposed into a classic Kensington set-up: commercial space on the bottom and residential on top. On the ground floor, there are two long-standing vintage clothing stores, Fashion Old & New and the King of Kensington, with six rental units above them.
How much do you have to raise?
Initial calculations suggest we need about $2 million to make it work. And we have a month to do it, or we lose the 5 per cent deposit we put down.
That’s not much time.
Yes—when these buildings go up for sale, it’s a one-time opportunity. But, as I mentioned, we’ve done it before. Then, as now, we had a month to get the funds together. Our city councillor at the time, Mike Layton, helped us get $3 million in discretionary funds from the city. So far, we’ve had less success with our new city councillor, Dianne Saxe. She’s been supportive of our other big project—turning a Bellevue Avenue parking lot into affordable housing—so we’re still hopeful. But we need to move fast.
Besides the city, where else are you looking for funding?
We’re fundraising—people can donate through our website—and we’re launching a community bond campaign. Plus the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation has given funding to Tapestry Community Capital, an investment non-profit, to help us.
What makes Kensington Market worth preserving?
It’s unique, in no small part thanks to waves of immigrants—starting with the Jewish merchants who sold produce, fresh meat and other goods out of the ground floors of their homes. It’s an eclectic, porous community and one of the last open-air markets in North America. There’s something magic in the haphazard mix of stores, homes and repurposed old Victorians, both unplanned and unplannable. It’s also one of the few pedestrian communities in this car-centric city.
Activism is hard work. Why is this fight important to you?
Everything I love about the market was fought for. Take our local Kensington Community School, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. In the 1970s, there was a plan to build a huge residence for the University of Toronto. Market residents—mostly local Portuguese women—fought against it, and instead we got the first community school in the city. There’s an activist tradition here. And there’s something beautiful in the idea of a land trust that will outlive us all. It’s work that has a future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.