University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Illustration of people standing outside a house with a big padlock on the door.
Illustration by Josh Cochran

Gimme Shelter

Students propose a new use for abandoned buildings

Toronto has 200,000 people waiting for affordable housing; it also has hundreds of abandoned buildings. Two members of the U of T community believe that these problems present a novel solution for each other.

David Wachsmuth, who graduated with a master’s degree in urban planning last spring, and Shiri Pasternak, a second-year PhD student in geography, are the coordinators of Abandonment Issues, a coalition of Toronto housing activists. In February, the group proposed a new bylaw – dubbed Use It or Lose It – to the city’s Affordable Housing Committee. The bylaw would allow the city to expropriate abandoned buildings and renovate them into affordable housing. City staff are now studying the proposal and a council vote is expected in the fall or winter.

“There are plenty of examples of buildings across the city that are either in fine shape right now, or have been in fine shape and are now deteriorating,” says Wachsmuth. Often, owners simply board up buildings because they hope to sell the property in the future at a higher price. Wachsmuth says this kind of speculative ownership hurts neighbourhoods.

Similar bylaws are common in the U.S., where abandoned buildings are a more serious problem (Detroit and Philadelphia, for example, each have more than 30,000 such buildings.) Although the number of neglected properties in Toronto is far smaller, Wachsmuth says the bylaw represents “a small, tangible and relatively painless difference in making sure there’s housing for the people who need it.”

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