I lived in a windowless room in a basement. When rental prices dropped, I went penthouse-hunting

I lived in a windowless room in a basement. When rental prices dropped, I went penthouse-hunting

In the spring of 2017, I moved into an 140-square-foot basement rental in a six-bedroom rooming house, paying $700 a month. It was a decent spot, located on a quiet street about a 10-minute walk from Victoria Park Station. There were grocery stores, banks and a few decent restaurants nearby. The house was nice, only a year old, with a big kitchen and backyard. But my room was tiny, with space for only a double bed and a small desk. No windows and no closet, so I had to stuff my clothes in a dresser.

Around that time, after trying out careers in cooking and construction, I decided to pursue something that had been a fixture in my life for as long as I could remember: music. Growing up, I played piano and violin, sang in the church choir, collected hip hop albums by Jay-Z and OutKast and memorized all of the lyrics. So, in September 2017, I launched Norfside Entertainment, a management company for local artists. Over the next few years, I started collaborating with a handful of other companies, expanding my operations, doing everything from producing concerts to managing artists. I was bringing in maybe $1,500 a month, enough to cover rent, food and a few other necessities.

Michael’s windowless room in the basement of a house in Scarborough

In early 2020, just before the pandemic hit, I partnered with International Artists Agency, a big talent agency based in the U.S. That provided me with the opportunity to work with bigger clients and bumped my monthly income up to $4,500. Things were looking up, and yet I felt stuck. I was 27 and living in a basement, in a house with five other roommates. Food would often go missing from the shared fridge, snatched by someone else. There would only be cold water available when I showered. If I didn’t get out of that apartment, I was going to go crazy.

Things got worse during the pandemic. Alone, stuck inside a windowless room for most of the day, I knew I had to make a change. So, when rent prices started dropping because of the pandemic, I made my move.

On June 5, I found a 640-square foot penthouse in a mid-rise building at King and Strachan for $1,875. I loved the idea of living downtown with a place all to myself, right near the entertainment district for when everything opened back up. I wore gloves and a mask to the viewing. This was a north-facing unit, with one bedroom, blue-tinted 18-foot windows and exposed concrete walls. In normal circumstances, the place would go for $2,500, plus utilities. I made an offer, but they picked another couple because of their combined income.

Then, on June 18, I saw another penthouse at the 404 and Sheppard Avenue for $1,900, plus utilities. This place was a 650-square-foot corner unit, northeast-facing with a pretty view of Markham. It had floor-to-ceiling windows, plus a balcony with a large patio. Again, the landlord chose a couple over me.

Finally, I found a listing for a 700-square-foot penthouse for $1,825, with all utilities and parking included. The place was perfect. It was located in a gated condo complex in Scarborough, right beside the 401, making for an easy commute downtown. It was also a two-minute walk from the Scarborough Town Centre, plus a bunch of grocery stores and restaurants. There was a large kitchen and living room, with a separate space for a comfortable dining room. The best part: it had a huge double-door den—with a view of Lake Ontario—that could be converted into an office space. It also had in-unit laundry. Once I finished the tour, I immediately asked what the next steps were. I told the landlords that I’d provide post-dated cheques. I followed up with them twice that weekend, and it paid off. By Monday, June 22, they called to tell me the place was mine on a one-year lease.

Michael, in his new solo apartment

I moved in on July 1. I just purchased my first king-size bed, an 80-inch flat-screen TV for the living room, some artwork, a large loveseat sofa, a dining room table from Wayfair, and I have my eye on a new IKEA L-shaped desk for the office. Six months ago, this unit could have easily gone for $2,100, plus utilities. It sure beats the 140-square-foot windowless basement apartment.

As told to Roxy Kirshenbaum