‘It’s got grit, it’s got life’: Kensington Market land trust steps up to rescue affordable housing in the heart of the market

·3 min read

For roughly five years, Eric Jensen has lived in a tiny, 250-square-foot apartment above a variety store and a Rastafarian sanctuary in Toronto’s Kensington Market. Each month, the bartender — and until recently, construction worker — pays a modest $770 in rent.

But for years, Jensen has felt the squeeze of costs around him rising. Neighbours started being pushed out of their homes, and struggled to find affordable alternatives. New owners bought his building and started talking about renovations that would displace residents. Then this year, the 13-residential unit building was listed for sale again, leaving him and his neighbours on unsteady footing.

But a recent twist of events may spell out good news for the building’s residents.

A non-profit land trust signed a conditional deal to buy the building, aiming to close by mid-May. Next week city council will consider a motion that — if greenlit — would give the trust $3 million to buy, renovate and operate the building at 54-56 Kensington Ave. as affordable housing for at least 99 years.

“It provides us a real security for the future,” said Jensen, who said he has less options for income now that he’s in his 50s. On the broader scale, he sees preserving the market’s affordability for gig workers like him and other lower-income renters as a way to help safeguard its character.

“We have the traditional vision of diversity down here — it’s not racially or ethnically homogenized, but also because we have a really good income range,” he said; some residents lived comfortably, while others with more “bohemian” lifestyles lived closer to their means.

Coun. Mike Layton, who is moving the motion at council, said Kensington Market had long been a landing spot for new immigrants. With the rapid change in the city, some feared that residents and businesses would be pushed out, he said — rendering the neighbourhood “unrecognizable.”

The funds he’s proposing would come from Section 37 deals, which are trade-offs between the city and developers that set aside money for community projects, like affordable housing in a specific area, in exchange for the right to break zoning rules like height limits.

The building would be the first acquisition for the Kensington Market Community Land Trust, said its co-chair Dominique Russell. The trust was inspired by efforts from a similar charity in Parkdale.

Tenants in the building’s older units are paying around $700 or $800 a month, Russell said, versus $1,300 to $1,500 in newer ones. A single tenant of roughly 45 years pays $455. (One of the 13 units doesn’t currently conform with residential rules, which they’re hoping to rectify.)

Right now, Russell says the land trust’s plans bank on the funding coming from the city. If it didn’t come through, she said they’d have to figure out their next steps.

The purchase is about giving those residents stability, Russell added — but also preserving what she described as the building’s “iconic” flavour, from apartments topping a host of local businesses to a mural splashed across the side and “punks” regularly gathering on its stoop.

“It’s not beautiful. It’s got grit, it’s got life, and a strong sense of community,” Russell said of the market area. “That’s what we have come together, as a community, to preserve.”

Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star