This article was updated on March 23, 2022.
On the corner of Dundas St. and Sherbourne St. sits a red-bricked tri-floored mansion, guarded by a grey wooden panelled fence. With chipped white panels, and the occasional wooden plank covering supposed damages, the house sits adjacent to an empty plot of land, totalling 29,956 square feet.
“People call it Drina’s house,” says a member of the Shelter and Housing Justice Networks steering committee A.J. Withers.
At the rear end of 230 Sherbourne St., 41-year-old Drina Joubert froze to death in a truck on December 17, 1985. At the time of Joubert's death, 4:53 p.m., the temperature reached below freezing at -9 C. Soon after, advocates and activists mobilized to fight for rent-to-income subsidized housing, which led to the funding of the Hostel Outreach Program and 3,000 units.
Thirty-seven years later, however, this issue remains. For the last 10 years, the mansion remains unhoused and untouched, much like the neighbouring plot of land where two additional houses once stood until its demolition in 2012. Currently, the house is for sale by Colliers Canada property group with a final bidding date of March 11.
“We continuously see the mass displacement of people and the brutalization of unhoused people on the streets,” says Withers. “Then the stalling around essential properties in the downtown core as well as the offloading of key land that could become housing.”
Over the past eight years, advocacy groups have continued to fight to acquire 214-230 Sherbourne St. to be used for affordable housing. Within the week, the city has seen an uproar in this call to action, with two demonstrations held in front of the property on March 7 and 8. On March 8, the city announced they will be placing a bid for the property.
“The City will be submitting a letter of intent to purchase the properties, which will be subject to Council approval, prior to the offer deadline on Friday, March 11, 2022,” says Marcel Mayo, a spokesperson for the city. Advocates remain skeptical of the bid, considering the city's history with empty promises.
In 2018, advocates had once again pushed for the property to be used for affordable housing, yet no action took place even though the city states it had “been engaged on the potential acquisition of the properties since 2018.”
“The city of Toronto really doesn’t want to provide social housing or rent geared to income housing,” says Withers. “It’s built for the private market, what it calls ‘affordable housing,’ which by definition excludes people who are on Ontario Works.”
Brianna Olson Pitawanakwat, a resident of the community and co-organizer for Toronto Indigenous Harm Reduction, says the displacement of Black and Indigenous unhoused people are overrepresented within the neighbourhood of the property, yet there are constant issues with finding secure housing.
“[We] have been systemically deprived of our freedom to live on our homelands and we face some of the highest rates of homelessness,” she says. “The demographic of these communities who are in these devastating conditions are very visibly Indigenous… it’s a human rights issue.”
Olson Pitawanakwat isn’t wrong. In Toronto, 15 per cent of the homeless population identifies as Indigenous, while 31 per cent identify as Black, most of whom face issues accessing shelters or rent geared to income housing. This does not include those who face hidden homelessness.
The cities bid, in Olson Pitawanakwats eyes, is a lot more complex than what it seems on the surface. “We’re talking about a city where every investment or purchase made of property typically goes significantly over asking,” she says. “I think that's why people are now trying to petition other potential bidders to push their sense of decency to take them out so the city has a better chance.”
For Diana Chan McNally a similar sentiment is shared. The All Saints Toronto and Toronto Drop-in Network community worker spoke at a rally on March 10, held outside the office of Toronto Centre MP Marci Ien on Parliament St. “How has ‘housing as a human right’ materialized for them under national housing strategy? Where is the affordable, accessible, appropriate, safe, healthy, sustainable housing for them – for me?” says Chan McNally outside MP Ien’s office.
“It hasn’t materialized.”
Chan McNally stated that even though they appreciate that a bid has been put in place, it seems unlikely that it will follow through. “The pressure that came from activists and other folks on Monday and Tuesday definitely helped, [as well as] having the support of councillor [Kristyn Wong-Tam].”
A report by the city regarding this information has not yet been made public, leaving advocates and community members concerned with how the city will go about the bid.
The caveat of the bid, however, is how much the city is willing to put down and whether it is below or above asking price. “I have pretty grave concerns about that because we have no bargaining chips to work with except the morality of ‘are you providing housing, are you supporting a good cause,” says Chan McNally.
According to the city “staff will bring a report to the Executive Committee at its meeting on March 30, 2022, and then to City Council on April 6 and 7, 2022.”
For now, or until March 11 at 3 p.m., the future of the property remains undetermined.
“Time will tell,” says Withers. “I know that coming out of Friday, there will continue to be a fight for 214-230 Sherbourne and that fight is either going to be to expropriate those lands because the city has won the purchase, or to ensure that 100% rent geared to income housing is put on that land.”
On March 18, it was stated in an SHJN press release that the city didn’t successfully secure their bid in the purchasing of 214-230 Sherbourne.
“A report on the “Revitalization for the downtown east” will be on the Toronto City Council Planning and Housing Committee agenda on March 25th and on March 30 a report back from the staff on the bid to purchase the property will be going to the Executive Committee,” the press release states. “The community is mobilizing a call for the City to proceed with expropriation immediately.”
The city has yet to respond to this new development.