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Exhibit Showcases History Of Rental Housing In Toronto

Whether it was a unit in an apartment tower, a second-floor flat or a subterranean crash pad, chances are most Torontonians have rented at one time or another, or still do.

Renters have made up about half of Toronto’s population since the 1970s and a new exhibit at the City Archives highlights some of the struggles tenants have faced over the past 100 years in their attempts to find good, affordable housing. “A New Lease on Life: Rental Housing in 20th Century Toronto”, which opened Thursday, also examines some successful, controversial and ill-fated public and private rental housing developments.

Archivist Sarah Carson said a book written by former mayor John Sewell, “Houses and Homes: Housing for Canadians”, inspired the collection.

“He just said rental housing has often been regarded as housing at the bottom of the heap,” she said.

“I wanted to look at examples of rental housing that had started off with really good intentions … it isn’t necessarily about judging that, but looking at it and going, what did they intend, what were they trying to do?”

The exhibit gives viewers the opportunity to step back and look at developments like Regent Park, Moss Park, St. James Town and the St. Lawrence community and decide if those urban planning ideas have stood the test of time.

Toronto’s first official apartment building – the St. George Mansions – was erected in 1903 at Harbord and St. George, across from where Robarts Library stands today, Carson said.

It offered fancy flats aimed at wealthy citizens and professionals. It was eventually demolished to make way for a U of T lab.

The city’s second apartment building, which was equally upscale, went up a year later on University Avenue just south of College.

Carson said the apartments were built to mimic the cosmopolitan lifestyle of New York City and Chicago.

By 1912 the number of purpose-built apartment buildings in the city likely hadn’t cracked 20, Carson said. A decade later an apartment boom occurred with several high-end developments cropping up across the city, including the Clarendon (1927) and the Claridge (1928) apartments on Avenue Road, that still stand today.

City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1648, Item 10N, Title: Construction signboard for The Claridge, March 13, 1928

While a few wealthy Torontonians populated these purpose-built apartment buildings, several others were living in squalid and cramped tenements with inadequate access to light, fresh air, water and proper sanitation. The situation was so bad the city’s medical officer of health at the time, Dr. Charles Hastings, issued a report declaring it a public health concern in 1911.

As the city was debating municipal responsibility when it comes to housing, Carson said, it was also receiving complaints from homeowners about the unsightly boarding houses.

This led to bylaw 6061, which stated tenements could only be built on commercial streets.

The Spruce Court cottage flats at Sumach and Spruce Streets was the first public-private project created for the working class in 1913 – it still stands today, and now operates as a co-op. The Toronto Housing Company, a philanthropic organization, was behind the development.

“The idea was let’s give them clean, healthy housing. Happy workers equal better business and that was sort of the idea behind it,” Carson said.

City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3106, Title: View of the courtyard at Spruce Court, [ca. 1920]

The development stood out because of its high-quality construction and was designed by the prominent Toronto architect Eden Smith, who called in favours to get high grade fixtures and fittings for low prices. All properties face a central court yard.

“It was really progressive at the time. What people liked was the cottage flat, your own front door because it connected it to homeownership,” Carson said, noting rental living at the time often violated domestic privacy, as fellow tenants could see you cooking or washing.

The project was funded partly by a limited dividend scheme in which people could invest and receive up to a six per cent return.

By the mid-1940s the city was facing a lack of quality affordable accommodations and that, combined with veterans returning home from the Second World War, created a serious rental housing crisis.  

“People took this into their own hands,” Carson said. “They thought well, I don’t like the rental properties I’m seeing. I’m going to buy a trailer, rent some land … and live in a trailer park.”

A big encampment was located on the site where the Hospital for Sick Children sits now. Smaller trailer parks were littered around the city, but politicians forced the residents to move citing health and safety concerns. The city bought them a plot of land at Runnymede and St. Clair to park their mobile abodes until they could find permanent homes.

Around the same time city officials were deciding on how to improve conditions in one of Toronto’s worst slums in Regent Park.

At the time, many of the roads in the area weren’t paved and several homes had severe structural problems, Carson explained.

The public housing development was built over nearly a decade, starting in 1949. The units were cut off from the surrounding areas, she said, by eliminating all through-streets and offered large central green spaces, meant to be family recreational areas.

“It’s certainly a planning concept that was favoured at the time because they felt it was best for people – it’s this sort of dirty area with industry in it, it’s not terribly healthy and what we’re giving you is clean, green quiet space to raise a family in,” Carson said.

“It was done with good intentions.”

City of Toronto Archives, Series 1333, Item 115, Title: Wilmot Avenue slum inspection with Mayor Saunders, Mrs. Luffman, Louis Shannon, J.E. Hoare, and C.J. Woolsey,July 24, 1947

The exhibit features photographs of the first family to move into a Regent Park public housing unit – the Bluetts – and a 16-minute NFB film, which has the air of a propaganda piece, called “Farewell Oak Street” (pictured at the top of the page). It tells the story of the problems caused by sub-standard housing on crowded Oak Street in Regent Park. It’s narrated by Lorne Greene.

The philosophy behind the design didn’t play out in real life and the area is currently undergoing a massive revitalization.

“It was good for people at the time,” Carson said. “It evolved into something else.”

Related: Toronto Filmmaker’s “Invisible City” Takes Sombre Look At Regent Park

The City Park development, consisting of three apartment buildings on Church Street just north of Yonge and College, went up in 1955 and was Canada’s first post-war high-rise apartment complex. Those buildings operate, still very successfully, as co-ops today.

Moss Park was another area of the city officials had flagged as having issues with sub-standard housing since the 1930s. The land was expropriated to make way for six apartment buildings in a major urban renewal project in the 1960s. In the end, only three were erected with mostly one and two-bedroom units, when the city was desperate for larger units for families.

“There’s not a lot of relationship between the buildings and the street,” Carson noted. “It didn’t necessarily work and it was, I think, a sign the times were changing, that this wasn’t an approach that could continue for much longer.”

The St. James Town community, which is often referred to as the most-densely populated neighbourhood in Canada where more than 90 per cent of the population are renters, was constructed in the 1960s and originally marketed to young sophisticates.

“I think people have some interesting, kind of complex feelings about this space,” Carson said.

City of Toronto Archives, Series 374, File 1048-2, Title: St. James Town Housing Project, taken for the Finance Dept. annual report, November 3, 1967

One of the more successful community developments highlighted in the Archives’ exhibit is the revitalization of the St. Lawrence community through the 1970s, 80s and 90s, as directed by former mayor David Crombie.

“Unlike everything we’ve seen in the past, this was collaborative approach where the planners were not the ones driving the show,” Carson explained, adding all community stakeholders had a say in how this development unfolded.

The area features a mix of housing including rental units, condos, co-ops and community housing.

City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 757, Title: Crombie Park Apartments, [ca. 1983]

‘What they tried to do was actually create a community,” Carson said. “Nobody will argue that it’s not workable … it feels like a neighbourhood that evolved naturally.”

StreetCity is also featured in the exhibit. It’s a development intended to provide housing for the chronically homeless. The original project was near the Distillery District and later moved to Strachan House on Strachan Avenue, south of King. It won a Governor-General’s award for architecture.

In her extensive research, Carson would’ve liked to explore other areas, including Lawrence Heights, but she was limited to the records the archives had on file.

“This isn’t meant to tell a comprehensive story by any stretch, but it is meant to showcase significant developments, and generally they’re firsts.”

The renting exhibit runs through 2010. You can see more historic photos and other interesting artifacts at the City Archives.

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