Poverty, Declining Income,
Housing Quality and Community Life in
Toronto's Inner Suburban High-Rise Apartments
Building community in Steeles L’Amoreaux
A single mother of three boys, Tammy Clarke has been living in an aging high-rise building located in the inner suburb of Steeles L'Amoreaux for more than six years. She’s faced many challenges and some success dealing with the state of her building, the rising cost of living, and the sense of community that is being fostered among its residents.
“High-rises are a community within a community. If you're not opening common space for people to meet each other, then community isn't being built.” —Tammy Clarke
The residents of Steeles L'Amoreaux are slowly building a real sense of community within the aging high-rise buildings they call home. But as local resident Tammy Clarke explains, she and her neighbours face barriers both inside and outside their doors—poverty, isolation, lacking services—which can make the task of strengthening her neighbourhood a challenge.
Tammy enjoys living in her building—thanks to the security it affords and reliable neighbours—Tammy acknowledges that things aren’t always easy and that making ends meet in an expensive city can be tough.
“Not being able to properly feed your children because you can't afford housing in Toronto—because of the way the housing market and rent has increased—it's a huge struggle. It's very depressing and it wounds you. It takes hope away from you,” she explains.
Tammy is not alone in her struggles. According to United Way Toronto’s newest study, Vertical Poverty, families are being squeezed from both sides. Income is declining as the cost of rent is increasing, making it hard for many high-rise residents to cover their basic needs.
Another key finding in Vertical Poverty shows that poverty is geographically concentrated within the high-rises located in the inner suburbs, and it’s increasing in these buildings. Plus, a much larger percentage of the tenants who live in high-rise buildings today are low-income compared to 30 years ago. As a single mother of three boys, being able to feed her children isn’t the only thing Tammy worries about. When it comes to the quality of life she’s providing for her family, the state of her building is another, equally difficult challenge.
A neighbourhood resident of six years, Tammy wishes her high-rise offered social programs and services, or a shared space where residents can gather and socialize. There are also physical issues with her building such as, poor maintenance, broken elevators, hazardous balcony railings, graffiti, vandalism, and vermin.
“My building has infestations of mice, so I'm now the proud owner of two cats. I mean, my cats are definitely my family now, but I had to bring on two cats and two new mouths to feed to make sure mice weren't invading my home and destroying my furniture,” she explains.
“Elevators are often out of service. There are a lot of seniors here and a lot of mothers with strollers. Taking the stairs when we have no elevator service is very inconvenient. My building [management] is now redoing the balconies as well, which have been a hazard from the day I moved in here,” she adds.
These concerns about the state of her building are not surprising, considering that today 70% of the city’s high-rise apartment buildings are over 40 years old. While the concrete skeletons of the buildings are sound, most of the original mechanical and structural features have now reached the end of their lifecycle and need to be fixed or replaced.
Tammy says talking about solutions is the first step to improving life in her building. Along with better building maintenance, like many of her neighbours, she would like to see a youth after-school program, breakfast club, better security, and, most importantly, access to shared common spaced offered in her high-rise. Offering such things, she explains, would foster a better sense of security and happiness among residents, not to mention a better sense of community.
“High-rises are a community within a community. If you're not opening common space for people to meet each other, then community isn't being built.”
Things are getting better, Tammy says, thanks to Action for Neighbourhood Change (ANC). ANC is a resident engagement initiative and a key component of United Way Toronto's Building Strong Neighborhoods Strategy. And thanks to people like Tammy, who work with ANC, community-building within the high-rise is underway and people are starting to get to know each other.
But there is more work to be done. Recommendations in Vertical Poverty underscore the importance of strong neighbourhoods. The trend of growing poverty concentration needs to be reversed by restoring mixed-income neighbourhoods in Toronto, in order to prevent further decline and disinvestment—the greatest threat to our city’s future prosperity. “There's a lot happening here. One of the great aspects of living here is the diversity. Although we may not all speak the same language, we are still able to communicate with each other, build community, feel like a community, and support each other,” explains Tammy.
“There's a lot of work that still needs to be done in Steeles L'Amoreaux, but we're on the right path.”
Life in Rexdale’s high-rises
A newcomer to Canada, Zakeria is a resident of the inner suburb of Rexdale, where he lives in an aging high-rise building with his family. After facing repeated vandalism and security issues, he’s calling for change in his area in the form of renewed resident participation. As Zakeria explains, for things to get better, we all need to start redefining the concept of community at its roots.
“There are two buildings here, and every building contains about 200 apartments, so these buildings should be considered a small town.” —Zakeria Saleh
When Zakeria Saleh came to Canada from Egypt three years ago with his wife and four children, he chose—like many other newcomers do—to live in one of the many high-rises scattered throughout Toronto’s inner suburbs. He anticipated facing challenges in his new home—like language barriers, cultural differences and finding employment—but what Zakeria didn’t expect was that he’d experience vandalism, broken-down elevators and security issues in his aging residence.
“Two things happened to me. One is that someone tried, frequently, to vandalize my car. The other thing is elevator issues. These two things can be considered issues of safety and security,” he explains. According to United Way Toronto’s new report, Vertical Poverty, Zakeria is not alone in his experiences.
Findings in the report show that in Rexdale 44% of high-rise tenants reported vandalism and graffiti as an issue, and more than half of all tenants reported frequent elevator problems. Zakeria thinks that unless real action is taken to permanently resolve these issues, tenants in his high-rise will continue to face difficulties.
While Zakeria does feel Rexdale is a nice place to live, it was his concerns about the physical state of his high-rise that inspired him to get involved with the Rexdale Action for Neighbourhood Change (ANC), whose office is located in his building. ANC is a resident engagement initiative and a key component of United Way Toronto's Building Strong Neighborhoods Strategy.
Zakeria has a clear vision for what is needed to change his community for the better.
“It is a good idea to find a place for newcomers to come together, particularly in high-rise buildings, as they are small communities. Doing so will improve security and make people a little bit more happy to live here. Finding a space for BBQs, for example, is a good idea for people to get to know each other,” he explains.
“We also need good maintenance, good security, safety. We need management to feel that these are not problems just for tenants, but for them as well.”
Zakeria feels that isolation is another challenge newcomers in high-rises may face. He says many newcomers tend to avoid getting to know established Canadians or other newcomers of different backgrounds. “In terms of connection as a resident here, this only happens between people who share home countries, because language is a barrier for newly landed immigrants or refugees,” he adds.
Zakeria also thinks that if residents and their children connected with one another more, isolation would be reduced. “There are no barriers between apartments—in front of you and beside you there is an apartment with your neighbours—but people are isolated here because there is nothing to bring them together. We live here and sleep here—that's it. It’s a boring life. We feel isolated.”
Along with isolation, cost of living is another problem for many newcomers in Rexdale’s high-rises. According to Vertical Poverty, in 1981, 34% of Toronto’s low-income families lived in high-rise rental units; by 2006 this figure had risen to 43%. For newcomers, Zakeria explains, the issue of paying the rent is compounded by the challenge of securing viable employment.
“It's a big challenge to secure rent, all these buildings have [internationally trained] professionals living here. For a lot of them, there’s little work in this low-income area. I think they feel that they can't pay the rent,” he explains.
Zakeria understands what it means to struggle to make rent payments. As a veterinary surgeon with extensive training and education, but without a Canadian license yet, making ends meet while finding employment is a real issue—one that many newcomers residing in Toronto’s inner suburban high-rises share.
For Zakeria, at the heart of change is redefining how we think about building community. “We need community with meaning, with good ideas to solve the problems of newcomers. Community is not just a label—we need new concepts, not old-fashioned ones.”
Other stories from United Way Toronto
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