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The St. James Town neighbourhood in downtown Toronto, on April 20, 2020.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Sometimes, Semira Aman has to call her roommates on the phone. She shares a three-bedroom apartment in a high-rise in St. James Town, on the edge of downtown Toronto; she and the two women she lives with are trying to avoid sharing COVID-19.

Before the onset of the virus, “We would usually have coffee and breakfast together,” Ms. Aman says. Now they eat separately; stay in their bedrooms, usually with the windows open; and clean constantly. When they go outside, each of them is careful to maintain physical distancing. “But,” she says, “we have to trust each other.”

Ms. Aman’s situation is not unusual in St. James Town, the collection of high-rise apartment buildings that is likely the densest neighbourhood in the country. For some Canadians, staying home means gardening in the backyard; here it means staying in your bedroom in an 18th-floor apartment.

And while the area provides a critical resource of affordable housing – in ragged condition, having experienced two major fires in a decade – it has been long overlooked. Residents live in cramped conditions, in many cases sharing apartments. They are surrounded by a ragged quilt of parking lots, garage ramps and beat-up lawns. A community centre, library and elementary school are the only good public spaces. There’s one threadbare public park.

Yet these 19 high-rise buildings are home to at least 15,000 people – nobody knows exactly how many – of whom more than half are immigrants and roughly two-thirds are visible minorities. Roughly one-third rent from Toronto Community Housing, and the rest from private landlords.

Many people here are, to use the policy jargon, “underhoused,” meaning they live in crowded or substandard conditions. While Toronto and other big cities have rightly focused on the effects of COVID-19 on the homeless population, there is also a much larger group of people who are underhoused. An analysis for the city from the Canadian Urban Institute found that more than 30 per cent of renter households in Toronto, or roughly 200,000 people, are in this category.

The same need exists on a lesser scale in other Canadian cities. In the City of Vancouver, 85,760 people are living in shared accommodations with people who are not related to them, according to data from Statistics Canada.

Ana Maria Montoya is stuck at home in St. James Town in the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her partner Jasmin Agudelo and, for now, a friend who was visiting from the U.S. and is stranded in Toronto. “We are stir crazy, but it’s difficult to go outside,” she says. Normally she would go running in the schoolyard. Now that doesn’t feel safe.

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Deisy Agudelo and Ana Maria Montoya in a busy courtyard near their apartment building in the St. James Town neighbourhood in downtown Toronto, on April 20, 2020.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

“People in the community, they face some addictions and problems with mental health ... so maybe they aren’t paying attention to what we have to do right now," she says. Ms. Montoya has experienced crowding in the elevators, “people smoking in the lobby and the hallways, having social interactions,” she says. “We are trying to take [the pandemic] very seriously, and there are a lot of situations in the building that we can’t handle.”

People like Ms. Montoya and Ms. Agudelo have chosen the neighbourhood for practical reasons, says Nayanthi Wijesuriya, intake and client engagement lead with Health Access St. James Town. Her organization co-operates with more than a dozen others to provide settlement, physical and mental health services to the neighbourhood through the St. James Town Community Corner.

Ordinarily, she says, newcomers find the place suits them well. It’s relatively affordable if you share an apartment, and close to the jobs of downtown Toronto; newcomers typically settle for 5 to 7 years in the area before moving on, she said.

But it’s crowded. Under normal circumstances, “there's not much space for people to go outside and enjoy,” she says. “On the right side, it's a building. On the left side, it's another building.”

So what does the place need? For one, more and better public open space. The city should fix the fragmented nature of the landscape by imposing a coherent redesign, something that’s been discussed since 1989 and is – too slowly – under way right now, through a city effort called St. James Town Connects. This deserves to be a top priority – particularly since new apartment and condo buildings are being added to this already packed neighbourhood.

For now, it’s time to remake the streets in the area to give people room to distance, says Vickie Rennie, who serves seniors and people with disabilities in the neighbourhood through Bleecker Wellesley Activity Network. “The city has to learn from this, with things like sidewalk width," she said. Her clients, many of whom live alone, “are struggling,” she says. "It’s driving them nuts that they can’t go out.”

That’s true for most of us. But there are towering differences in what that experience feels like.

With files from Frances Bula

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