‘They literally saved my life’: Kensington non-profit buying more buildings to lease for less

The Kensington Market Land Trust is offering the community a chance to invest in the neighbourhood as it looks to buy its second property in the area, aiming to keep rents low in the vibrant cultural hub. Dilshad Burman reports.

Sydney Creighton has been frequenting Kensington Market since she was a young teen in the early 1960s to take in the culture, music and art offered up by the eclectic downtown Toronto neighbourhood.

“Every decade the market has changed on the surface, but the heart of the market is still the same … down here, as long as you’re not a toxic a*****e no matter what you are, you get accepted and you make friends and it’s good,” she says.

In 2021, she moved into one of the more recognizable buildings in the area – the one with the Mona Lisa painted on the side – when the non-profit Kensington Market Community Land Trust (KMCLT) bought it to lease out at affordable rates.

“The slumlord was renovicting everyone — that’s when the Land Trust stepped in,” she says.

The apartment cost about the same as the single bedroom she was renting in a shared home, where she felt unsafe with other tenants who were violent.

“It was a former sun porch. The bathroom was built under the stairs … you had to bend over and back in to go to the toilet and remember not to stand up when you got off,” she says.

“I had been sleeping in a parking lot for safety, even though I did have a place … and my best friend put my name up to the Land Trust.”

“So she called me and said, ‘Syd, start packing. You’re moving’ … we walked into this gorgeous apartment and both our mouths dropped open, like, ‘is this for me?’ I couldn’t believe my luck … they literally saved my life.”

Keeping Kensington affordable

“One of the keys to this area is its affordability. It’s a place to start businesses, small businesses, this is a place of renters, of long-term renters, a place for newcomers, a place for people that don’t have any other place,” says Dominique Russell, co-chair of KMCLT.

To preserve that affordability and a vital hub for innovation and new growth, KMCLT is looking to buy its second property. This time around, they’re offering community bonds and giving members of the public a chance to invest in the neighbourhood.

“A community bond is an interest-bearing loan that a non-profit, charity, or co-operative can issue to support a project they are undertaking. Individuals and organizations can purchase a community bond and earn a fixed interest rate, and their investments support projects that generate positive social, cultural, or environmental returns,” explains the organization’s website.

“We are a mutual aid organization and in order to buy a building there’s a number of different ways of stacking the finances. But there is this debt financing and we’re going to be paying interest to someone and we could be paying interest to our community,” says Russell.

The goal is to raise $2 million through the bonds, and once they mature, investors have the option to redeem their principal amount, reinvest in new bonds or donate their principal amount to KMCLT.

“It’s an exciting neighbourhood and I think if you’ve come here and enjoyed it and would like to be able to pass that on, then invest in its future,” says Russell.

Theodore Small, owner of the Supreme Clientele Barbershop in the first trust-owned building says his experiences with the organization as a small business tenant have been worry free.

“Everything’s been smooth sailing, nothing has changed. They kept it the same, it’s affordable for us … affordability is a big thing for small business owners,” he says.

“It’s a good positive vibe because everybody supports each other.”

As the barbershop’s lease comes up for renegotiation in the near future, Small says he has no doubt it will be a painless process.

“I’m pretty confident we’ll have a good outcome. Definitely,” he says.

He adds that he’s all for supporting the trust’s cause to purchase more properties in the neighbourhood and hopes people will invest in the community bonds being made available.

“There’s power in numbers. They just need people to see that people are supporting and benefiting from what the Land Trust is doing. So when they see numbers come out, whether it be residents or business owners, it’s a great thing,” he says.

Federal funding

As part of their 2024 budget, the federal government recently announced the $1.5 billion Canada Rental Protection Fund. It aims to preserve affordable housing by making contributions to community housing providers, non-profits and other partners to help them buy affordable rental buildings that may go up for sale.

“We are very excited about this federal announcement … it is really, really important,” says Russell.

“[It is vital to recognize] the importance of saving buildings in order to save affordability rather than thinking that we’re just going to build our way out of it. We’re not going to build our way out of it. So government financing of acquisition is absolutely fundamental.”

Russell says once the details of how the fund will work are made clear and rolled out, KMCLT will be applying for it.

In the meantime, she says they will continue to raise funds through various mutual aid mechanisms, including donations and community bonds.

“There isn’t one thing that is going to solve the [affordable housing] crisis. And there isn’t one thing for us that’s going to allow us to completely buy a building,” she says.

“The fact is that this crisis is such that we need all types of solutions.”

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