Essays

Toronto, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down

Years of housing insecurity and watching places I love close down has me wondering why I am staying in a city that doesn't like me back.
February 12, 2020, 6:15pm
Toronto
Remember Honest Ed's? Screenshot via 'Scott Pilgrim vs. the World' / Universal Studios

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

I moved to Toronto 13 years ago and have lived in 10 different apartments. I've been evicted four times. Twice landlords have sold the residence I was residing in. Once they claimed significant structural renovations. Another time an aging family member—a person supposedly feeble enough to need round the clock care—required immediate occupancy of our third floor walkup.

Aside from the evictions there have been issues with bedbugs. Roommates who skipped out on rent. In my early 20s, a raccoon burrowed into the walls of our house. When we asked the landlord to take care of the problem, first they claimed we had been keeping the vermin as a pet, and later asked why having a raccoon in our walls was that big of an inconvenience at all. At the time I was offended by the question but in retrospect, I admire the tenacity. My roommates and I were already prone to living in our own garbage. Really, what trouble was adding another animal to the brood?

Years of housing instability, the constant expectation of being forced to leave, makes me feel a little bit anxious all of the time. If I had to compare the feeling I'd say it's like tinnitus. There is a constant high pitched ringing that's simple enough to ignore, but in the quiet moments—the moments where I'm supposed to relax or calm down—it is easy to go mad on the tone. There are reasons for concern. Half of all renters in Toronto's housing market spend more than they can afford with the rent in the city expected to raise another 7 percent this year. A recent report deemed Toronto less affordable than New York, London, and San Francisco. These facts are coupled with the fever dream of the real estate market. The government recently proposed legislation that would make it easier to evict tenants. Meanwhile, the affordable independent grocers we could shop at can’t make rent anymore because their landlords want more money. Similar situations have been happening in major cities across the world. Massive rent hikes have also been creeping even into nearby places like Hamilton and Guelph, places people used to move to in order to take down some of their living costs. Charlottetown (Charlottetown, PEI!!!) is one of the hardest places to find an apartment in Canada. It feels like it’s happening everywhere.

Toronto

Photo by Jill Krajewski

According to psychotherapist Bronwyn Singleton—who works primarily with Millenials and Gen Z addressing issues of financial/career sustainability and attendant anxiety—that stress can have major implications for people's mental health.

"One thing that strikes me as significant here is the sense of impermanence that goes with this moving. Impermanence is often anxiety-provoking," said Singleton. "Individuals who feel their lives are fraught with impermanence often having difficulty feeling fundamentally safe. This general principle is culled from attachment theory, but I believe it also holds good if we’re talking about moving, financial insecurity, or job insecurity."

I also asked Singleton about the long term consequences of living with that stress.

“It’s not safe to not have enough—or to feel like whatever you do have is under perpetual threat or could be taken away in a second. There is a feeling of lack of control here and that can lead to either obsessive and controlling behaviors or nihilism.”

Fair enough.

In the past few years each move I've made has been marked with another concession: more money for a slightly worse neighborhood, fewer amenities, or a smaller living space. I've acquiesced to these things as necessary compromise for a life in the big city. But the reality is that despite being 30 years old with steady work, a bed frame, and a cast iron pan, the house I live in now is significantly worse than the place I had just after university. And the trajectory this city is heading suggests it only gets worse from here for me. If I stay in this city I will never live in an apartment as nice as when I worked as dishwasher and slept on a sheetless futon covered in Subway crumbs and cum stains. The fact that I've kind of accepted this as an inevitably is really depressing.

As I write this my roommate has begun packing up his bedroom. In a month he'll be moving in with his girlfriend. They're a great couple and I'm genuinely happy the two are taking the next step in their relationship. But his name is on the lease. I am a sub-tenant. While our landlords have been cool—in so much as they leave us alone because we always pay rent on time and absolutely never ask for anything—the question of whether or not I'll be allowed to stay is still kind of up in the air. For the next little while I'll continue to pay my roommate who will then pay the landlord, but who knows how long that arrangement lasts for. I complain about the ordeal but I don't expect much sympathy from my peers. Everyone I know has been in a similar situation. Soon enough they'll probably be in a similar situation again. It is not that any of this is particularly new. The only thing that feels different this time is lately I've been trying to come up with reasons why, after the next move, I should stay in Toronto at all. When I moved to this city as a teenager it felt full of possibility. There seemed like endless opportunities to make a life for yourself. Lately, less so.

There is a genre of essay that is widely made fun of in literary circles. It is called Leaving New York. In the essay people explain how the city they loved had changed to the point where they no longer recognize it. How the cost of living no longer justified being in the center of culture. Growing up I always found these essays painfully lame. If you don't like the city, old man, get the fuck out! There are younger, hungrier, people who want to be here and couldn't give a shit about your raising rent and your bygone glory days. Get over it! Manhattan has been Disney World since at least the late 90s. Lately I've found them kind of relatable. My two favorite restaurants closed last year due to disputes with the landlords. The place I saw my first punk show now sells high-end furniture. The goth record store of my youth is now a Christian burger chain. My local gym became a condo. The pub by my last office job became a condo. The place I put on my first play is a condo. My local bakery became a frozen yogurt place, then became a bubble tea restaurant. Recently I found out that building is slated to be torn down for condos. And more and more I find myself wondering where the line is. I ask whether it is worth another rent increase to struggle in a place I'm not even sure that I like anymore.

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