The unaffordable city: how did Toronto get so !@#$%&* expensive—and is it worth it?
Middle-class life isn’t what it used to be. Thanks to a heated real estate market, a strong dollar, new taxes and stagnating incomes, Toronto has become, improbably, one of the world’s most expensive cities. Is it worth it?
Today, an average Saturday, I spent the following: $6 on a round-trip TTC ride; about $17 on groceries from the Wychwood Barns farmers’ market (organic Crispin apples, an olive boule and free-range eggs); $34 on two bottles of wine (one decent, one plonk); almost $20 on the recent Superchunk CD and $11 on toiletries. Lunch was cheap and simple: a peanut butter sandwich, an apple and a few spoonfuls of raspberry yogurt. Dinner was free: homemade rice-and-bean burritos at a friend’s house. On the way home from that modest dinner party, waiting forever for the Dufferin bus, I almost splurged on a cab, but it seemed wasteful. Then I got home and booked a flight to New York on Porter for a friend’s 40th birthday: another $326. There’s also what I spend on my mortgage, property taxes, insurance, utilities, cellphone, Internet, YMCA membership, charitable donations and credit card debt. All of that adds up to roughly $65 a day. So, as a childless, home-owning, not-terribly-extravagant-but-not-entirely-miserly-either Torontonian, this one day at the tail end of 2010 cost me—not counting the airfare, which, for argument’s sake, I’m setting aside as an exceptional expense—about $153.
That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s about $20 more than what I make every day, after taxes. And it leaves nothing, obviously, for home repairs, clothing, vet bills, investments, medical expenses, birthday presents, savings, recreational drugs, holidays or the kid that Liz, my fiancée, and I have been talking about having this year but which, if things continue in this fashion, we’ll have to postpone having until we get jobs that net us more than $50,000 each a year.
Toronto Life is paying me $6,500 to write this article, which is a good chunk of change, sure, especially given how much less other magazines and newspapers are coughing up these days. But it’s also about the same amount I would have been paid if I had written the same article in 1995. And in 1995, the $420,000 that Liz and I paid last summer for a little three-bedroom semi on a somewhat glum, treeless street at Dufferin and Davenport would have bought us an enormous detached home in Trinity-Bellwoods. We would likely have a car or two and a couple of kids; our kids might even have their own cars. We wouldn’t have cared so much that our food was locally or sustainably grown, but we would also have paid less for it and been able to eat in restaurants more than, say, once a month—even if the restaurants we could choose from would be fewer and not nearly as good.
We would have grudgingly become used to paying GST, but we wouldn’t have been paying HST or two land-transfer taxes or five cents for every plastic bag, not that I’m against that particular idea. We wouldn’t have to pay anything to use public swimming pools or put out our garbage. A TTC ticket was $1.30. At bars, you could buy smuggled American cigarettes, $3 a pack, from a greasy guy who carried them around in a duffle bag. Mike Harris would have just been elected. Toronto was just Toronto, and North York was North York; Etobicoke, Etobicoke. Whenever I used an ATM, I would take out $20 at a time, instead of the $100 I take out now, and the cash would go almost as far.
In 1995, whenever I used an ATM, I took out $20 at a time, instead of the $100 I take out now, and the cash would go almost as far
But nothing goes very far now. Enough, it seems, is never enough. This isn’t exactly news. Businesses fail; money moves. Habits change; appetites evolve. What was once a movie theatre becomes a dollar store. Toronto is today coping with an unforgiving drumbeat of financial strain: a still-booming real estate market, new taxes, perilous debt, stubbornly high unemployment and the possibility of stagflation. The city, in many ways and for many more people, is much more expensive than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Growing income polarization has made the middle class a minority where once it was the majority. We’re in no danger of becoming a hollowed-out Buffalo or Detroit; in fact, we are moving in the opposite direction—our downtown increasingly resembles New York City, for better and worse. If Manhattan long ago became a playground for the rich, Toronto is becoming something like a jungle gym; plutocrats purchase $11-million penthouse suites at the new Ritz-Carlton while the rest of us nervously ponder the nutritional value of a Roasted Vegetable Ritz cracker. Smug self-congratulation has characterized our two-steps-forward-one-step-back journey through the recession—Our banks are the best! Our real estate rocks!—but now that we’ve supposedly come out the other side, unless you are a Stronach or a Rogers, things still look scary. Everyday life now means living beyond our means.
This is not a story of self-pity. Neither Liz nor I have lost a job or been bushwhacked by an illness. We are not desperate or in crisis. I’m putting down a stupid amount of money every month on Mastercard and line-of-credit bills, but even that amount, I know, is greater than the average monthly income of the people who use the food bank at The Stop Community Food Centre, where I work part-time. We’re lower-upper-middle-class, maybe, to use George Orwell’s knotty, knowing phrase. Our siblings and parents are in reasonably decent shape, too, financially speaking.
But Liz and I are also quietly, insidiously, overwhelmed by anxiety. Not status anxiety, exactly, though that factors into it in creeping, inevitable ways. Our anxiety comes from the kind of financial insecurity that makes you second-guess a second beer and turns domestic disagreements into defensive referenda on trust, responsibility and—call me old-fashioned—masculinity. The kind of financial insecurity that can suddenly veer into a weird, whiny and self-immolating anger because you have to work 60 hours a week. The kind of financial insecurity that makes you think seriously about moving to Guelph or Hamilton or Buffalo.
I’ve been carrying some substantial debt for at least a decade, and Liz has only recently escaped the clutches of student loans. We wouldn’t have been able to consider buying a house—which, of course, put us deeper into debt—if not for a small inheritance, plus sizable loans from both of our parents and the ability to transfer our meagre RRSP savings into a mortgage. So far, anyway, this has been a manageable state of affairs, but it’s no coincidence that my accountant, Amanda, the past two years she’s done my taxes, has pressed into my hands a DVD of the documentary Maxed Out. If Liz were to lose her job, or I were to break my wrist and not be able to type for a couple months, or if interest rates finally do rise significantly (as they inevitably must), we’d probably have to give up the house, our sole asset. Liz occasionally suggests, with quiet insistence, that I draw up a realistic plan to pay off my debt, an idea whose logic I can’t possibly deny but which I cringingly resist by saying, both to her and myself, that the debt serves as a kind of delusional nudge. I’ll pay it off completely, I swear, after I finish this book, sell that screenplay, etc. But day after day, the book goes unfinished, the screenplay stays in a drawer and the interest mounts. “Money is a leading cause of anxiety,” Amanda says. “Anxiety, divorce and male suicide.”
Liz and I feel anxious, but we’re lucky: we make almost twice the median household income. According to several reports, including one issued by TD Economics in October, Toronto experienced the sharpest decline in household income among major Canadian cities between 2000 and 2005, dropping from $55,331 to $52,833. Out of the 15 largest cities in the country, Toronto ranked 11th in terms of income and a distant last among the municipalities in the GTA. Also, in 2005, the proportion of low-income families in the city was at a 15-year high, nearly double the rate of other large urban centres, like Calgary. In the past five years, of course, with a recession that has been more stubborn and erratic than expected, things haven’t changed. “Toronto’s economy has done very well in the recovery,” TD’s chief economist, Craig Alexander, told me. “But economic conditions haven’t improved equally.” He points to pockets that consist disproportionately of people under 25 (whose unemployment rate is now 18.4 per cent) and a still-booming population of poorly integrated newcomers.
Connect more recent statistical dots and you get a city that, for all of its much-hyped success and stability, is seriously struggling. In 2009, the number of consumer bankruptcies in Toronto increased by 26 per cent. Debt-to-income ratios have risen over the past 20 years, especially for households earning less than $50,000. Canada-wide, that figure stands at a record 148 per cent, surpassing even U.S. levels. The same low interest rates that helped buoy our real estate market and carry us out of the recession also, of course, helped more families borrow more money to buy more things they couldn’t really afford. Making matters worse: the jobless rate in Toronto has hovered between nine and 10 per cent over the past year, and the social safety net is much more threadbare than it was in the ’90s; about six out of 10 jobless Canadians don’t receive EI. (That number, during the last recession, was two out of 10.) More than 160,000 Torontonians were receiving social assistance in October 2010, about four per cent more than the same month the previous year.
All this economic misery is exacerbated by the fact that Toronto has become too expensive for many people. As improbable as it sounds, it may even be one of the most expensive cities in the world. In a controversial “global purchasing power” study released last August by the Swiss bank UBS, Toronto was ranked as the eighth most expensive city (out of 73 cities)—above London (10th), Paris (14th) and Dubai (16th). It costs a lot to live here, but we don’t necessarily have the incomes to match. Toronto ranked 13th in the study’s wage index, and had about 20 per cent less effective purchasing power than New York. By UBS’s assessment, our ranking jumped from previous years because of the strong loonie. If a consumer is paying a dollar for a product when that dollar has appreciated in value, the consumer is paying more for that product, i.e., cost of living goes up. If our dollar remains strong, it should theoretically make imports cheaper—but that process is slow, if those savings ever get passed on to the consumer at all. Book publishers, for example, have been notoriously poky in adjusting the prices of their Canadian editions; a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is still $7 more in Toronto than it is in Buffalo.
Isn’t one of the privileges conferred upon the privileged the ability to buy a small house in a neighbourhood in which you’d want to live?
Toronto’s exact expensiveness ranking in the world is debatable—a cost of living index put out by the U.S. consulting firm Mercer places us at only the 76th most expensive city out of 214—but regardless of what mystifying measure is used, it’s clearly more expensive than it was a few years ago. Thanks to high shelter and energy costs, inflation is still too high and our wages stagnant. And when people talk about how pricey Toronto has become—and Torontonians do like to talk about it—they talk about how much it costs to go to the AGO (admission rose from $12 to $18 after the Gehry renos, and then to $19.50 to accommodate the HST), the price of Raptors tickets (the cheapest seats available are $19, twice the price of nosebleeds at a Miami Heat home game) or the cost of clothes (a Steven Alan shirt here is about $20 more than in New York). Others moan about public transit (the price of which has increased by about 47 per cent over the past 10 years), taxis (some of the most expensive in the world), daycare (which costs approximately $56 per day per kid) or hydro (more on that later). But what if Toronto’s growing cost of living might simply be the cost of doing business in a more complex city?
When I moved to Toronto in the fall of 1987 to attend university, I expected to become a writer or a filmmaker. I didn’t expect, or want, to become a landlord. But when Liz and I set out to buy a house almost a year ago, it became apparent that becoming landlords would be the only way we could afford to buy something. We’d been renting in Roncesvalles, but there was no way we could afford to buy a home there. And, as it turned out, we couldn’t afford a house in Parkdale, Bloorcourt Village, the Junction, Leslieville or any of the other desirable, emerging neighbourhoods that had enticed our funky, frontier-loving cohort for the past few years. We didn’t want that much, really—a little two- or three-bedroom starter, semi-detached, with maybe a sliver of yard in which to grow some vegetables. Since we don’t own a car, we wanted to be close to transit and within biking distance of downtown. A nearby bookstore and an LCBO would be nice, too, maybe even a yoga studio. We were hopelessly naive. Our ideal price was about $375,000—a figure that seemed impossibly high just a couple of years before—but that number swelled to $400,000 and then, as the fruitless months passed, to $425,000.
House hunting, for us, was like having a hobby you hate and can’t afford but which you’re compelled to spend every free moment pursuing. We kept looking and looking, every weekend, most weeknights, for six months. This crusade ate away at a sense of entitlement I didn’t even know I possessed. Isn’t one of the privileges conferred upon the privileged the ability to buy a small house in a neighbourhood in which you’d want to live? I recalled with some dismay that my parents had suggested they buy a place when I was in university, one that I could rent and then, presumably, buy from them at some later date. But the Toronto I moved to for school was not a city I planned to stay in; it was a humdrum town that I was always bored with and threatened to leave—for Vancouver or New York or San Francisco. Now that Toronto had finally become, in many ways, the city I always wanted it to be and a place in which I wanted to settle, I couldn’t afford to live here.
If Liz and I felt too poor to buy property, how the hell could the rest of the city afford to do so? They can’t. Last November, the median sale price of a residence (detached, semi, condo or townhouse) was $366,000, which might sound like a relative bargain but is nearly six times the median household income. A housing survey in 2010 said that Toronto was no longer just “seriously unaffordable” but “severely unaffordable”—the gradations are almost comical. Such conditions mean that home ownership is possible for fewer and fewer Torontonians. If homeowners are paying more for that privilege, people who can’t afford to buy homes at all are in a far more precarious position. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in 2009 was $927 a month, an amount requiring an annual income of $37,080 to afford. Though Ontario now has the highest minimum wage in Canada—$10.25—a full-time minimum-wage earner makes just over half that amount in a year.
David Hulchanski, a professor with U of T’s Cities Centre, has famously shown that, from 1970 to 2005, Toronto has mutated from a city where most neighbourhoods could be considered middle income to a segregated and polarized metropolis in which over half the neighbourhoods are low income. (Low income is defined as 20 per cent lower than the average, and Hulchanski prefers the term middle income to middle class. “Everyone thinks they’re middle class,” he says.) The number of high-income neighbourhoods—overwhelmingly in the former city of Toronto—doubled over the same period. And those neighbourhoods where income fell also contained disproportionate numbers of renters, who spend much more of their household income on housing than owners do.
Hulchanski attributes this dramatic shift to, among other things, the social-service cutbacks of the ’90s, disappearing manufacturing jobs and federal government housing programs that have long favoured—indeed, subsidized—homeowners at the expense of renters and social housing. He recently updated his study and included a grim graph projecting that almost one-third of the population will be making 40 per cent less than the average income by 2025, assuming trends continue. “It can’t keep going like this,” Hulchanski says. “How could we have social harmony and a productive city? The trend is potentially city destroying.”
The house Liz and I eventually found is in a working-class neighbourhood close to the outer edges of what Hulchanski refers to as City Number One. We got fairly lucky in the end, paying 10 grand under asking for a three-bedroom semi that met most of our criteria (no bookstore or yoga studio, but half a block from the city’s only Mexican bakery). We rent out the basement for $650. This is market value, maybe even a bit lower than market value, but it still feels vaguely criminal. Morphing from long-time renters into landlords, we were now not just enduring the city’s increasing costliness but contributing to it: charging $650 for a basement bachelor with six-foot ceilings and a hot plate when Liz and I are both now paying a bit more each toward a mortgage that is not only a reasonably sound investment but also a far more luxurious place to live than the apartment below us. As another friend, a single renter who pays $850 for her 600-square-foot apartment, said to me, “Now you’re part of the problem.”
Other friends who rent roll their eyes when I whine about how much the house costs. The eye-rolling is a predictable you-think-you’ve-got-problems reaction, but worse, it says, “When did you become such a cliché?” And, worse than that, it hints at the murky class divide that money can create among friends.
It was startling to receive the first battery of bills: property tax, home insurance, water fees, garbage fees, gas and hydro. And though, so far, we’ve been lucky on the hydro front—the house is relatively well insulated, and I adhere to the put-on-another-sweater school of conservation—I don’t relish the anticipated increases in rates (hydro prices reportedly spiking over the next five years, rebate or no). A bit more worrisome is the $200 that we drop at Home Depot every weekend just trying to keep up with the constant maintenance that a house requires. I dread the monotonous, savings-draining, day-to-day chores that millions of mini–Mike Holmeses apparently find satisfying, even intoxicating, and the necessary price of being king of your castle: fixing a drafty door, replacing cracked flagstones, insulating the laundry room, correcting a downspout, installing dimmers (and then hiring an electrician when you accidentally cut your power). Every time I complain about this, another friend, who’s had his own share of homeowner headaches, makes the same dumb joke: “What’s the only thing that works in an old house? The owner.” If looking for a house was like having a hobby I hated, owning a home is like having a second job I hate—and one that costs me dearly.
Just weeks after closing, and despite a home inspection that seemed competent and thorough, we discovered the house was leaking. From the top and bottom. We managed to repair the basement ourselves, thanks to the guidance of a contractor friend, but the roof, which looked like it would have to be replaced entirely, was a greater challenge. Dragging our heels, we received estimate after estimate after estimate, hoping that the price would miraculously drop. It didn’t. When a roofer named Elvis promised he could solve the problem for $600 just by repairing a crack in the chimney, we jumped at the chance, but a couple weeks later, after another of the downpours that characterized last summer, the water continued to flow into the walls of my office. With winter coming, and, it seemed, even more torrential rain, we called the most reputable-sounding company that had offered the lowest price—nearly $7,000—and a crew of six guys swooped in and, two days later, solved our roof problem.
Our money problems, not so much. That $7,000 ate up what was left of my line of credit and represented a big chunk of the money we had earmarked for our wedding reception this spring. We weren’t planning anything extravagant or especially unique—a party on the Island, maybe, or at an art gallery, maybe a hundred people—but the other day we decided that all we could afford now was a party at our place. At least our guests will be dry.
If you were to cast a cold, budgetary eye on the list of expenses at the beginning of this story, your pen poised to strike out any unnecessary items, you’d probably begin with the olive boule. A boule? You can’t just buy bread, you miserable yuppie? The cost of food is complicated and increasingly difficult to reduce to dollars and cents. According to 2008 figures from Toronto Public Health, the price of most basic food items has increased by 27.7 per cent since 1999. Higher food prices are not restricted to Toronto; across the province, milk prices, for example, have risen 39 per cent over the past decade. Worldwide increases in the price of fuel and grain have made many products more expensive all over the world. And yet we would be paying more for food if it were more properly valued and more accurately priced to account for environmental and transportation costs and if those who grow and harvest it were paid a real living wage.
Today, I know more about where our food comes from and how much it costs to get here. That olive boule is $6 because it’s from St. John’s Bakery, an artisanal shop in Riverdale that uses certified organic ingredients in its handmade breads, the proceeds of which support the St. John’s Mission next door. It’s more expensive than a loaf of Dempster’s, but it’s better for me, better for the environment and, by buying it, I’m contributing a teeny bit to improving the welfare of someone less fortunate than myself. I’m under no illusion that buying bread is effecting radical change or that I’m somehow a better person than the person who can only afford a loaf of Dempster’s. I’m still fortunate enough to make such choices, and with privilege comes responsibility; I’m not going to chastise myself for putting my money where my heirloom tomato–loving mouth is. Plus, that boule is really freaking good.
I don’t think I’m terrible with money, but I’m not especially good with it, either. When it comes down to it, I don’t like to think about it much because, like many people, I just don’t know that much about it. As with the intricacies of forensic anthropology or how to make a cassoulet, I don’t want to know that much about it. Call it self-destructive, call it preposterous, but I am reasonably content in my indifference. It’s a bit like poker: my refusal to read anything about Texas hold ’em strategy has made my game a laughingstock, but at least I don’t have to read anything about Texas hold ’em strategy. While I can fold my cards and go home drunk and chip-less, I have to play the financial game to a certain extent—the abstractions have concrete consequences.
Like a lot of people who don’t know a lot about money, I do know that I don’t want to pay a lot of tax. OK, that’s not entirely true. As a good progressive, I’m happy to pay my fair share of taxes as long as the taxes that I’m paying are being used in a way that’s fair, reasonable and intelligent. But there are many people, Rob Ford being an obvious example, who think that many taxes are unfair, unreasonable and stupid. And there are people like Kevin Gaudet, the federal director of the pro–small government lobbyist group the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, who believe that a big reason Toronto is now so expensive is because of increased and punitive taxation at every level of government. “You only have to look at the last seven years under David Miller,” Gaudet says. “A second land-transfer tax, a second vehicle registration tax, a billboard tax, a garbage tax and rising property taxes. Couple that with McGuinty’s tax increases and Toronto has become a painful place to live.” According to Gaudet, property taxes are still too high. Even though the percentage, about .83, that we pay in Toronto is the lowest in the GTA (for comparison’s sake, it’s 1.7 in Oshawa and .98 in Mississauga) and lower than many other major Ontario cities, Gaudet argues that the low tax rate creates a false impression that Toronto is a bargain. The actual dollar amount we pay is among the highest in Canada because our property is that much more valuable (or, depending on who’s doing the talking, overpriced). “Taxpayers don’t care about complicated formulas,” Gaudet says. “They just want to know how much cash is being taken out of their pockets.” Despite what Gaudet believes, if I’m paying higher property taxes because my house has been assessed to be worth more, I still have a house—an asset—that’s worth more (assuming we don’t get foreclosed). And it’s a house that’s very close to downtown Toronto, an increasingly rare asset that will, in all likelihood, continue to appreciate.
Ford is now our mayor at least in part because he promised to take less out of taxpayers’ pockets. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that Ford was elected because Torontonians think Toronto has become too expensive. And, indeed, at the first press conference of his term, Ford took a page from Mel Lastman’s playbook and announced, to much surprise, that he would freeze property taxes. Left-leaning councillors quickly pointed out that Ford could only make such a politically expedient and fiscally irresponsible move because of the $275-million surplus left behind by Miller—a surplus that was attributed to cost-containment but wouldn’t be possible without, yes, the vehicle registration and land transfer taxes that Ford has vowed to eliminate (the former will likely be gone by the time you read this).
Taxes are obviously the lifeblood of any government. And the only way our city, plagued by a structural deficit largely created by post-amalgamation downloading, can operate is through new taxes—the powers of which were granted to the city in 2006. “Our new mayor thinks all taxes are bad,” says Councillor Shelley Carroll, the city’s budget chief under Miller. Carroll has long espoused a city sales tax—something she’s often pilloried for—as the only solution to our perpetual fiscal crisis. New York, Chicago and L.A. all have such a tax. A sales tax grows as the economy grows, and in Carroll’s estimation would bring in $450 million a year.
Ford introducing such a tax is as likely as him giving up football for performance art. Instead, we should expect the kind of destructive self-abnegation that comes when you have a government that hysterically loathes the very idea of taxation. You might end up paying less for certain things, Toronto might once again feel as cheap as Cleveland, but in that race to the bottom, with all due respect to Mayor Frank Jackson, we would also become about as attractive as Cleveland.
Toronto is far from a perfect city. Traffic congestion remains an impossible issue, the TTC’s inefficiencies are insufferable, and there are far too many people being left behind. But Toronto has become, I’d argue, a much richer, more prosperous and compelling place to live than it was 10 years ago. David Miller, for all of his flaws, helped to foster an affectionate culture of investment, engagement and civic pride that was previously unknown in my experience of the city. And contrary to the myths promulgated by Ford and other mayoral candidates, the city is far from broken. Quality of life, for some people, has manifestly improved. Crime is down; our cultural life is more energetic and diverse; there are higher-quality shops and restaurants and more of them; our libraries are better, our architecture more audacious, our waterfront partially rehabilitated; our core is attracting more residents than ever before; our homes are worth more, our hotels more luxurious.
We all want a better city, just like we all want better, and more, health care. Well, better health care costs money, and a better city costs money. As the mayoral election showed, we don’t like to spend money. And we really like to complain. Just look at the long-overdue revitalization of Bloor Street. With the construction equipment at last removed, infrastructure updated and new trees flourishing, the thoroughfare now has a high-street grandeur to match the high-end boutiques that line it. Yes, it cost more than was budgeted; yes, it ran over schedule. But the results, I think, are worth it. A graphic designer friend of mine has long planned to move to New York and, to save money for that move, continues to live, not completely happily, with her parents in Pickering. Toronto rents, she argues, are too high. “I’m not getting my money’s worth in Toronto,” she says. “We’re creeping up to New York prices, but with New York, well, you get New York.” We’re not there yet (the average home price in Manhattan is $875,000), but I take her point. There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing. If we really want Toronto to continue to improve, to become a metropolis where a $1,000 basement apartment is worth paying for just so you can live in a city that offers the same thrilling tumult and hubbub of a New York, then we have to invest in that possibility.
Ultimately, I’m willing to live in a city that costs a bit more, just as I’m willing to work longer hours, pay a sales tax or fork over a premium for my olive boule. The social historian Tony Judt, in an essay published just after he died last year, described New York as a “world city”—not a world-class city (that silly sobriquet that we, hopefully, have stopped using), but a world city. Toronto is, increasingly, such a cosmopolitan place, looking beyond Canada for its sustenance, its trade, its citizenry and its inspiration, where narrow self-interest is trumped by a more ambitious, intense engagement with a global community. The price for this evolution is difficult to ballpark, but it’s one I’m happy to pay.