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Facts & Arguments

Toronto has no room for us

The house was just another investment for our landlord, but to my daughter and me it was home, Shawna Curtis writes

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Dear Mr. Landlord,

My name is Shawna (although you always call me Tania). I’m your tenant. I’m the one who has been paying your mortgage for the past six years; the one who has painted walls and changed the furnace filters each year and planted a garden in the front yard. I’m the one who told you not to worry when you lost my rent cheques for the second time. I’m the one who made the arrangements to have your downspout fixed before the city deadline (I bet you didn’t even know that you had to do that).

Remember that time you left the country for six months and I was so worried about paying my rent that I tracked down your real estate agent to get your overseas phone number to make sure I could arrange to get you my next round of cheques? Fun times.

Then a few weeks ago you called with the news – you’re selling the house and cashing in on this red-hot real estate market. And, as you gleefully told me, you are going to sell it for more than a million dollars! The quirky little one-bedroom bungalow was just another investment to you – but to me it is the home where I have raised my daughter, laughed with my friends and planted tulips each spring. I’ll skip over the part where you basically told me I had 60 days to pack up my daughter and vacate the house so you could get it up for sale as soon as possible. And I’ll take this moment to officially apologize about my reciprocal threats of calling the Landlord and Tenant Board and filing a complaint. That summer working at the university housing office still comes in handy.

But you didn’t even need me out of the house. You listed on a Tuesday with no “for sale” sign – just an online listing – and sold it for $320,000 over the asking price four days later. (This was after your rather bold request to have me meet the agent at the house to let people in for showings, and after I refused, the secondary request to leave my key in the lock-box because you can’t find yours.)

The care and attention I took with your investment doesn’t even matter. The new owner, who doesn’t live in Toronto, will eventually tear it down to build one of those stucco-covered monstrosities that now litter my street. My lovely street, which used to be filled with children playing road hockey and neighbours chatting while they shovelled snow on a Friday morning, is now filled with demolition bins and iron gates and “keep out” signs. It makes my heart physically ache.

Moving forward, the most important thing to me is that my daughter not have to leave her school, her friends and her community. Her world is already shaken – she can’t understand why we have to leave and wonders why I can’t afford to buy a house. She points out “for sale” signs as we walk home from daycare, “Can we buy that one Mommy?”

It’s a difficult topic to navigate – I have a good job and make a good salary. I’ve saved a healthy down payment by spending wisely, doing some freelance work when I can and skipping out on meals at expensive restaurants. And sadly, what felt like a significant nest egg a few years ago, now feels an extra $20 bill in a birthday card that will treat me to a non-fat vanilla latte.

Explaining the housing bubble and speculation to an eight year old is difficult, but she actually caught on pretty quickly. “But if no one is actually going to live there, why can’t we stay? I thought houses were for living in. Why does our landlord need to make so much money?” Smart kid. Fair question.

And so I’ve become just another statistic in the stories that have dominated the front page for more than a month. I’ll move into a small apartment – that is if I’m lucky enough to be picked from the hundreds of people who apply for each new listing. And that will cost most of my monthly income. I’ll walk by the Popeye’s Chicken that moved into the storefront where a local florist proudly displayed his bouquets for years; until his rent doubled and he went bankrupt. I’ll look away from the row of “for lease” signs littering the windows of now empty stores where I used to buy fresh fish, share an ice cream on a warm summer evening and stock up on homemade lemon bars made daily by Gus at the family owned bakery. I’ll pick up a Starbucks (there are lots of those) and think back on the city that Toronto used to be – vibrant, welcoming, full of opportunity.

So, Mr. Landlord, thank you. You’ve taught me an important life lesson – greed wins. I am a Torontonian who contributes to the economy of this city, volunteers in this city, chose to raise my daughter in this city. Heck, I even pay my water bill early every three months. And yet this city has no room for me. Literally.

You’ve chosen not to live here but to invest here. And in the Toronto of today, those who want to build an investment trump those who want to build a life.

Best of luck! Hope to see you next time you are in the T-Dot.

Sincerely, Shawna (not Tania)

Shawna Curtis lives in Toronto.

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