From Shacktown to Subsidized Housing
Housing: Downtown and Shacktown
Developers laid out new subdivisions beyond Shacktown to the east of Coxwell Avenue.
In 1909 the City of Toronto annexed the area south of the Danforth between Greenwood Avenue and the Beach. It included the area called “Midway”, on the former Ashbridge’s farm, between Greenwood and Coxwell Avenues. All was not smooth sailing. Many Midway residents had to rely on City water carts for drinking water. Their wells were too contaminated to ever allow them to be used again. Safe drinking water was an urgent necessity when even the City water was bad.
Toronto World, May 31, 1912
Toronto Star, May 17, 1912 The subdivision plan for Danforth-Woodbine Park.
DANFORTH-WOODBINE PARK is right in the heart of that new suburban section of the city where development is the most rapid and where values are going to increase by leaps and bounds.
DANFORTH-WOODBINE PARK is just such a subdivision as will prove the home seeker’s delight — where a man may build his home, and, while being in closest touch with the most convenient of transportation facilities within a half hour’s ride from the business sections, yet be away from the constant din of the congested sections of the city.
DANFORTH-WOODBINE PARK is naturally a beautiful spot.
All the city conveniences are being applied for, such as sewage, granolithic walks [cement sidewalks], paved streets, electric lighting, gas.
And the property will be still further beautified by the addition of thousands of shade trees.
Tanner & Gates, Real Estate Brokers, 46 Victoria Street
Toronto Star, May 17, 1912
Many developers were inspired by the Garden City movement. Architects and designers wanted to create new kinds of suburbs with crescents, trees, vistas, harmonious and healthy.
The subdivision plans reflected this.
The Kelvin Park Model Home: Then and Now
Dream House vs Poor House
For more about New York’s tenements go to: http://collections.mcny.org
British immigrants were just beginning to build Shacktown just outside the City limits. City Council was focus on the evils of the Ward, the low income neighbourhood where Toronto’s New City Hall is today.
The Shackers built their own houses where the land was cheap, taxes low, services non-existent.
The City of Toronto felt no obligation to the and neither did the City of York where most of them lived.
YORK TOWNSHIP ASKS FOR THE CITY’S AID
In the Care of Poor People in the Township on the Borders of the City.
“You have roads that are a disgrace to York township, and why don’t you put men to work breaking stone for them?” demanded Mayor Oliver of reeve Henry [George S. Henry], of York township this morning, when the latter asked the Board of control to provide work for the unemployed in shacktown, just outside the city limits.
“We are breaking stone now,” said the reeve.
“Well, then, break more of it,”” replied the mayor.
“The city should be more generous.”
The Mayor: “We must be just first. I tell you that those people in Shacktown have been given enough clothing to last them four or five years. Toronto has given them $18,500. What more do you want?”
Toronto Star, February 26, 1908
Many of the houses in the Coxwell-Gerrard neighbourhood had been built by the owners themselves when the area was outside the City limits. They did not want to live in a tenement either. They came to Canada for a better life and a better life for their children. They wanted sunshine, fresh air and places for their children to run, play and explore.
Owner-built bungalows in the Gerrard-Coxwell neighborhood. Photos by Joanne Doucette.
By the time of amalgamation in December, 1909, the East End was well on its way to becoming a working class, low income streetcar suburb of Toronto.
Good water, Good sewers, Good Housing
The biggest difference between being poor today may be the waning of the epidemic diseases. They swept through the City like the grim reaper, cutting down people of all ages. Children were especially vulnerable.
La Miseria by Cristóbal Rojas (1886)
The woman in the painting above died of consumption or phthisis. We called it tuberculosis or TB.
Most of us are immune. Doctors and nurses inoculated most of us when we just kids.
A common nickname for it was The White Plague. This was not because the bacillus that caused TB liked people with fair complexions better. TB consumed or ate its victims alive. They withered away to skin and bones, coughing their lungs out. It was also known as the “white death” from the paleness of its victims.
Tuberculosis was endemic in the big cities of the time. Crowded living situations and poor diet made low-income people particularly vulnerable to tuberculosis. TB was rampant in the slums of “the Ward” downtown but also in the new working class suburbs like the Gerrard-Coxwell neighbourhood.
There were no antibiotics to fight infectious diseases until Alexander Fleming found penicillin in 1928 and it wasn’t mass-produced in World War II.
One of the biggest differences between that era and today is the development of effective pharmaceuticals to treat infectious illnesses as well as inoculations to prevent diphtheria, typhus, typhoid fever, polio, etc.
Small pox has now been eliminated worldwide. Yet viruses still elude the best efforts of medicine and another flu epidemic, some say, could be as bad as the epidemic of 1918 to 1919.
Inadequate housing was, and still is, associated with tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is not the most infectious of infectious diseases. But crowded living conditions facilitate its spread.
An antibiotic resistant form of tuberculosis is now haunting the poorest of poor people, transients and homeless men, women and children. New strains of other diseases such as e-coli may mean that we too might see the kind of epidemics that our great-grandparents lived through — or did not live through. I hope not.
If two families, each with more than five children, live in a 10 by 15 foot shack, they are in harm’s way. If the parents of those little ones are worn out with exhaustion and worry, those children don’t get the care they need and deserve. If none of them gets enough food and enough good quality food, their house becomes a disease trap.
Erie Terrace (now Craven Road), 1916. 1916 Photographs courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives. Photo 2012 by the author.
Some streets, particularly Erie Terrace, later called Craven Road, were densely packed with small houses, some mere huts, without running water or sewage, with contaminated wells and over-flowing outhouses, creating a public health nightmare.
Some, including Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Charles Hastings, saw these Shacktowns as epidemics waiting to happen.
SOME RECENT EXAMPLES OF CIVIC IMPROVEMENT IN ENGLAND AND THE UNITED STATES
After the crisis brought on by an unprepared city and a bitter winter the Globe called for building a new kind of housing for low income people, as part of the City Beautiful movement then sweeping North America.
George Cadbury, the wealthy chocolate maker, had set up a trust to provide subsidized housing to low income workers.
The Trust built a housing estate outside of Birmingham, England, and rented the comfortable, well-built houses “at the low figures of from $5 to $14 per month.”
Each house was had the potential for a garden, an important consideration for those who looked to their own vegetable plot for spuds, cabbages, carrots and other mainstays of the British diet.
The Trust carefully handpicked its tenants from a long waiting list. A shopping mall was built in the heart of the housing project.
The project offered not only clean, comfortable and attractive housing; it was sustainable. The rents, though low, generated enough profit to the Trust to allow the building of more housing.
The Globe called for something similar to be done in Toronto:
To compare these buildings with the houses of Shacktown, on three sides of Toronto is not to our credit, and evidences the need of a stronger civic spirit than at present exists.
Globe, March 13, 1909
HOUSING OF THE POOR IN CANADA
By Miss FitzGibbon
Speaking to the preceding papers on the housing of the poor, Miss FitzGibbon said that the great difficulties in Canada lay in the high rents and in the fact that there were almost no small and inexpensive houses. Thirteen to twenty-four dollars a month had to be paid for poor quarters by working-people. The remedies that are being tried are building societies, buying on the instalment plan and division of expense by two families living in one house.
But there is still a large class of people who can afford to pay only about five dollars a month in rent. Emigrants from the old countries should take into careful consideration the fact that rents in Canada are high—even in proportion to the higher salaries paid here than in the old lands.
Mary Agnes FitzGibbon, “Housing of the Poor in Canada” in Report of the International Congress of Women held in Toronto, Canada June 24th-30th, 1909 under the auspices of the National Council of Women of Canada. (Toronto: G. Parker & Sons), 140.
Decent housing to keep people fit to work seems a cheaper proposition than housing them when unfit in our hospitals, asylums and jails. We can never build from the top down. We must begin at the bottom up. We must not spend our time and money getting rid of slums, but rather spend brains preventing slums. Closing the doors after the horse has gone has been the policy of too many cities. Cannot Toronto do better?
Flora MacDonald Denison in The Toronto World, February 5, 1911
Individual self-effort and private enterprise had not solved Toronto’s housing famine. Something new was needed.
In 1912, after this meeting, Frank Beer, of the Canadian Manufacturers Association helped found an organization to build affordable housing. The other man key figure was Robert S. Gourlay, businessman and President of The Presbyterian Union for Extension. It was Gourlay who had pushed for the founding of missions like Reid Avenue Presbyterian Church. It is now Rhodes Avenue United Church. There were others, both men and women.
That wasn’t the name at first.
This private charity that built the houses. Then it sold them to low income people at cost and subsidized the mortgage. The main object of their plan was to provide affordable, healthy housing for returned soldiers. After World War Two, this type of plan was also offered. It was called “veterans’ housing”.
The Garden City concept was behind much of the Toronto City Housing Company’s thinking.
LISTEN TO HOUSING SCHEMES
S. B. Armstrong of Housing Co. Explains Problems of Large Cities.
Riverdale, January 13 – The exceedingly cold weather of last evening was largely responsible for the small audience that turned out at the Royal Canadian Bicycle Club Hall on Broadview Avenue to hear a very interesting address on “Toronto’s Housing Problem, by Mr. W. S. B. Armstrong of the Toronto Housing Company, at a meeting of the Riverdale Business Men’s Association.
“The first question to be faced in this momentous problem is essentially one of health – health of the children and a decrease in the death rate being the striking result of reforms in other cities.
“The home is the fundamental unit of the country, and unless the home is kept on that basis a calamity will result. This the English communities keep in mind, their motto being: “One family to one house.”
The object is for each family to live in one house, with space enough around it for a garden. In Germany the people have developed large tenements, but their children do not get a fair chance in life.
New York City has by far the worst housing of any city in the world, largely because of the tenements. But seemingly the people will live in no other kind of abode.
A Geographical Problem.
“Toronto’s housing problem is a geographical one. The slums of to-day were twenty-five years ago the aristocratic district of Toronto. This class now lives on the outskirts.
“The housing problem in any city is the same, and can be divided into three parts,” continued Mr. Armstrong. “The slums – a municipal sore and a wound that no municipality can ever hope to cure. Nor can a housing company. But the municipality can prevent the slums.
The second part is the foreign element. These people should be made to conform to the civilized mode of living in our city. Conditions in the foreign slums in Toronto are intolerable. These people should be compelled to live decently.
“The third part are the great body of wage earners. About half of the citizens of Toronto live in houses that they own. Eighty per cent of the wage earners renting a house, live in only part of a house. Can an average laboring man afford to pay $25 a month rental for a home? He can’t rent a decent abode for less. To this end he must need rent part of [the] house to another family or other people, and this is detrimental to the upbringing of his family. The problem in a word is to house the average wage earner and not to re-house the slums.”
Mr. Armstrong, in reply to a question put by Mr. James T. Upton, in that land ought to be bought on the outskirts of the city for housing blocks, replied that land had been acquired in the north-western and north-eastern sections of the city and that as soon as transportation facilities were installed the blocks would be built.
Toronto Star, January 13, 1914
After the War to End All Wars
The soldiers started returning from France and Belgium.
First came the wounded, blind, limbless, shell-shocked, gassed. Then came the others, troopship after troopship to Halifax. There the men boarded special trains for Toronto. Crowds met them both at Union Station and at the North Toronto Station (now an LLBO).
The Great War to End All Wars didn’t. The men who came home were angry, disillusioned and, most of all, disrespectful. These unemployed heroes no longer “knew their place”.
Finding Places for the Returning Heroes
Diverse organizations, including groups lead by women, came up with plans to provide housing.
Since the enlistment rate from the Coxwell-Gerrard neighbourhood was the highest enlistment in a Canadian city, casualties were high too. About every third house lost a man killed in action, died of wounds, or a victim of the diseases spread by trench life. The First World War devastated communities, robbing them of husbands, sons, brothers, friends and neighbors.
The other places with higher enlistment rates were First Nations and Metis communities. . Perhaps life on Reservations would have been very different if a generation of indigenous men had not been wasted. In some “Rezs” over half those who went never came back.
Boy soldiers were now men with wives and sometimes children. Young men in their twenties found that they could not get their first “civie” job. Men in their 30s and 40s expected to step back into their jobs in factory or mill. In many cases, it didn’t happen. to their shock they were unemployed…again.
They expected gratitude, at the very least, and they got that, but gratitude wouldn’t pay the bills.
At home frustration boiled over into violence in the early days of August, 1918. The returning veterans hated “slackers”, and especially foreigners who had not endured the horrors of the trenches. These “foreigners” stayed in Canada and seemingly got rich while others died. It was a racist time and the war did not improve this aspect of Toronto.
In August, 1918, what came to be known as the “Greek Restaurant Riot” or the “1918 Anti-Greek Riots” saw thousands of veterans pouring onto Yonge Street and other city streets to loot and burn Greek-owned businesses. They fought pitched battles with the police on Toronto’s streets.
The East End was not immune. Rioters assaulted a policeman who tried to stop the sacking and burning of a Greek restaurant at Broadview and Gerrard.
This xenophobic outpouring of resentment against foreigners who had not fought in the War reflected not only the racism widespread in Canada at the time but the thwarted sense of entitlement of war veterans.
For more information on the riots see: Thomas W. Gallant, Michael Vitopoulos, George Treheles, The 1918 Anti-Greek Riot in Toronto, Toronto: Thessalonikeans Society of Metro Toronto, 2005
When they went overseas in 1914, Empires and the hierarchies that ruled them seemed as eternal as the mud they had fought in at Ypres, the Somme, and Vimy. But in 1917 the Russian Revolution overthrew the Romanov dynasty. Bolsheviks massacred the British King’s cousin, Czar Nicholas and his family in a dark, secret cellar.
Nothing would ever be the same again. If Empires could fall and Kings be murdered by firing squads, no government was safe from civil unrest.
The “cheek” of the returned soldiers appalled those who were accustomed to deference. Prime Ministers worried. Members of Parliament lost sleep. Those in the “Pink Palace” (Queen’s Park ) shook their heads as the soldiers returned to Shacktown. The Mayor, the City Council, Board of Control and City staff felt the heat of the men’s rage.
Highly unionized the Coxwell-Gerrard neighborhood became a nursery for radicals. Over the next five years strike after strike paralyzed the city. Transit workers, police, teachers, postal workers and more hit the picket lines and the street.
In the civic elections in the winter of 1918, a housing shortage for working men and returning veterans was on everyone’s minds.
Many suggested that the City build homes for working men in the suburbs, including the East End. Debates at Riverdale Collegiate between the various candidates focused on this issue. Globe, December 31, 1918
In February 1919 the City ‘s Board of Control recommended that the City appoint some prominent businessmen to lead its new Toronto Housing Commission.
H. H. Williams was a real estate agent closely connected to The Timothy Eaton Company. He had arranged the purchase of the property for their College Street store. It is now College Park.
Williams did not think much of tenants, preferring to sell houses, not rent them.
EATON, ROLPH, WOODS, WILLIAMS, AND ROSS
Toronto Housing Commission Appointed – Advisory Body Later.
Toronto’s new permanent Housing Commission consists of Sir John C. Eaton, Mr. H. H.
Williams, Sir J. W. Woods, Mr. Frank A. Rolph, and Mr. J. Allen Ross.
The five names were submitted to the Board of Control to-day by the interim Housing Commission which consisted of civic officials, and the Board adopted the suggestion.
This honorary commission will organize and appoint an advisory committee representing the following interests: banking, loan, trust and insurance, manufacturing, mercantile, labor, returned soldiers, building and real estate, city and provincial government, each of which will be entitled to two representatives.
The procedure which will be followed may be indicated by the following recommendations from the officials’ report made some weeks ago:
That a company be formed with share capital to erect and sell moderate-sized dwellings.
That the city guarantee its bonds to the extent of 5 per cent of the value of land and houses, as already done in the case of the Toronto Housing Company.
That dividends to the subscribers be limited to 6 per cent.
That the Provincial and Dominion Governments, either jointly or separately, undertake to provide the funds by buying the bonds guaranteed by the city on a basis of 5 per cent interest.
That all vacant lands held by the city be available for such a company on more reasonable terms than would ordinarily apply.
May Itself Be Company.
The foregoing recommendations were those made before the personnel of the new commission was announced, but there is no reason to believe that any different procedure will be followed.
It is conjectured that the commission may itself form a company without waiting for others and in that case the construction of hundreds of new houses would go on forthwith.
The officials’ report suggested a capitalization of $1,000,000, of which $250,000 would be paid up by the stockholders, and the other $750,000 guaranteed by the city and provided by the Government at 5 per cent. This is not exactly the Ontario Government’s plan, but the money could undoubtedly be obtained in this way by special legislation.
The report suggests that houses could be sold to citizens on an initial payment of ten per cent of the price, and paid for in instalments covering five to twenty years.
For a house selling for $3,000, the instalment would be $19.22 per month, for twenty years, assuming that the interest charged is 6 per cent. The initial payment would be $300.
The buyer would thus be getting a house for what it would cost to rent.
Will Be a Success.
The five members of the Permanent omission have consented to act, and the fact that Sir John
Eaton is identifying himself with the enterprise, guarantees that things will be done in a big way.
One of the most pressing reasons for the construction of new dwellings in the city is the need of accommodation for returned soldiers, and Sir John has taken the keenest interest in these men since the war began, his disbursements of his private funds on behalf of enlisted employes having run into seven figures. But even apart from this, Sir John is a public-spirited student of civic affairs, and the housing proposition is of an importance which appeals to his desire to serve his fellow men.
Mr. H. H. Williams, the well-known real estate expert, has been very active during the war as an organizer of patriotic effort. The energy and business efficiency which he has displayed in this public capacity will be brought to bear upon the Housing Commission’s affairs. He is a Torontonian born and bred, has an intimate personal knowledge of the city and its needs. It is interesting to recall, in the present connection, that he began his career as a lumber merchant and builder.
Has Served the Empire.
Sir James W. Woods, president of Gordon MacKay & Co., ex-president of Toronto Board of Trade, and founder of the War Production Club in Toronto, has served the Imperial Government in New York as one of Canada’s “dollar-a-year” men in the purchase of war supplies, co-operating with the Morgan interests.
Mr. Frank A. Rolph, head of Rolph, Clark, Stone, Ltd., succeeded Lloyd Harris as chairman of the Canadian War Mission at Washington, having previously, at the cost of sacrificing his business interests, accepted the position of vice-chairman.
Mr. J. Allan Ross is vice-president of Wm. Wrigley, Jr., Co., Ltd., and has had an interesting career. Known as the holder of the American intercollegiate championship in 1906, he jumped into the night managership of the Bell Telephone Co. in Chicago in 1907, became associated with the Wrigley Company in 1909, and founded their Canadian business the following year.
Toronto Star, February 18, 1919
The Toronto Housing Commission would need strong leadership. Conflict and attacks from all sides would bedevil the organization from day one.
In February, 1919, as the post-war housing shortage worsened, representatives of the Great War Veterans Association (G.W.V.A.) wanted the Toronto Housing Commission to build houses in the suburbs where taxes were more affordable.
The G.W.V.A. was a forerunner of the Canadian Legion, but far more obviously politically active. For example, the G.W.V.A. endorsed some running for election, preferring “soldier candidates” with a known track record for leadership such as officers and non-commissioned officers sympathetic to the plight of other veterans.
They called each other “comrade” and some talked revolution.
Wants Suburban Houses Most.
Comrade Morani, of West Toronto G.W.V.A., advocates that the new Toronto Housing Commission build suburban dwellings. He believes that houses of 25-foot frontage in the centre of the city, would be too heavy a burden to the owner on account of the present system of assessment.
Toronto Star, February 21, 1919
VACANT LOTS NOT ENOUGH
Those owned by City Insufficient to Solve Housing Problem
TOUR OF THE CITY
All Members of Commission but Sir John Eaton Make First Survey
In company with Assessment Commissioner Forman and W. Swine, their newly-appointed manager, the members of the Toronto Housing Commission spent yesterday afternoon [May 14, 1919] in an inspection of the lands owned by the city which might be suitable for the purposes of the new project.
Although several thousand feet of such properties were included in the trip, the conclusion was arrived at that the amount of city property available will not be sufficient for the needs of the commission, and they will have to investigate the resources of the privately-owned lands of the city with a view to supplying this deficiency.
Sir John Eaton, who is out of town, was the only member of the commission not present.
The area covered during the afternoon extended from Morton road and Gerrard street east [and] as far west as Jane street, and in all some thirty blocks of land were visited.
It was considered desirable to apply the activities of the commission so far as possible to large blocks of land suitable for the erection of units from ten to twenty houses each.
Several such blocks were discovered.
To Meet Board of Control.
The commission has arranged a meeting with the Board of Control to-day, when the question of the acquisition of city lands will be discussed at length.
The erection of houses in such units would, it was felt, materially lower the cost of construction and accelerate building operations. The greater part of the land under consideration will cost less than forty dollars per foot, as a high price would tend to places the houses beyond the reach of the purchaser of limited means.
By making large purchases of both land and material it is anticipated that substantially-built houses can be sold by the commission at prices ranging from $3,000 upwards. The terms suggested include a first payment of ten per cent, the balance to be paid in monthly installments of principal and interest, extending over a long period of years.
These houses will be of sound construction, and the unit system will not of necessity involve that they be all of one type. Their frontage will probably be in the neighborhood of twenty-five feet.
Swaine, who accepted the managership of the Housing scheme, went yesterday to New York, where he has been associated during the war with Sir James Woods of the War Mission. On his return the commission will open the temporary offices which it has acquired on the ground floor of the Temple Building. The permanent quarters of the commission will be on the ninth floor of that building.
The chief properties inspected yesterday were on Danforth avenue, Carlaw avenue, Dundas street east, Munro street, Cavell avenue, Leslie street, Jones avenue, Rhodes avenue, Coxwell avenue, Morton road, Shaw street, Roxton road, Montrose avenue, Edna street, Keel street and Jane street.
Globe, May 15, 1919
Notice of Registration of By-law
Notice is hereby given that a By-law was passed by the Council of the Corporation of the City of Toronto on the 9th day of May, 1919, to appoint “The Toronto Housing Commission,” and to authorize the borrowing of money for the purposes thereof, and that such By-law was registered in the Registry Office of the Registry Division of East Toronto on the 13th day of May, 1919.
Any motion to quash or set aside the same, or any part of thereof, must be made within three months after the first publication of this notice and cannot be made thereafter.
Dated the 14th day of May, 1919.
City Clerk. Toronto Star, May 21. 1919
At 11:00 am on May 15, 1919, workers left their jobs and marched into the streets of Winnipeg, leading to one of the biggest labour actions Canada has ever seen. Strikers included both the private and public sectors, and ranged from garment workers to police officers.
The Housing Commission moved quickly.
Toronto Star, June 26, 1919
Housing Commission Plans Coxwell
Those for Six-Roomed Houses Filed at City Hall
The Housing Commission’s plans for seven pairs of semi-detached houses on Coxwell avenue (price unstated) have been filed at the City Hall.
The houses are to have brick basements, stucco on the first floor, and clapboard on the second. They will have spruce floors, heavy table oilcloth on the kitchen and bathroom, dadoes, combination sink and tub, and a kitchen dresser supplied.
Each semi-detached house is 19 feet wide, and the dimensions are as follows:
First floor – Porch, 6 x 6t.; dining room, 8 ft. 3 in. x 11 ft.; living room, 14 ft. 3 in. x 9 ft. 6 in.; hall 4 ft. 6 in. x 10 ft.; kitchen, 10 ft. 9 in x 11 ft.
Second floor—Bedroom, 9 x 13 ft., bedroom, 11 ft. 3 in x 7 ft. 6 in.; bedroom, 7 ft. x9 ft. 3 in. Toronto Star, May 31, 1919
“QUADRUPLEX” HOUSES ARE NEWEST DESIGN
Semi-Detached Houses Built Back to Back Require Change in By-laws
Have you heard the very latest in house-designs? They are known as “quadruplex” houses, and, as their name implies, they are really four houses in one.
Everyone is familiar with the ordinary, semi-detached house.
Take two semi-detached dwellings and place them back to back, and you have the proposed “quadruplex” houses. For there are none of the houses yet erected in Toronto, but, if those behind the scheme are successful, there will be before long. In fact, it is proposed to put up 100 as quickly as possible.
There is a unique feature of the quadruplex houses. They will, of course, have no rear yards, all the lawn being at the front and side.
In order to give the kiddies plenty of room in which to play, it is proposed to erect two rows, leaving street between them open for pedestrian traffic only, thus making it safe for the little one to play to their hearts’ content.
Deliveries will be made from the two streets facing the outside rows of houses, there being plenty of room left between pairs.
It is claimed that by building in this way a considerable saving will be made in cost of construction, so that one of the houses may be purchased for $2,500. Each will have a lot of 25 foot frontage, and contain four rooms, a bath-room and a large reception-hall.
The only difficulty the promoters are “up against” is the fact that the city by-laws require so many feet of land at the rear of every dwelling. It is understood that an attempt is to be made to induce the authorities to make an exception in the case of quadruplex houses, as there will be all the required space, only not in the exact place the by-law says it must be situated.
Toronto Star, June 16, 1919
On June 21, 1919, the Royal North-West Mounted Police and hired union busters rode on horseback and fired into a crowd of thousands of workers, killing two and injuring countless others.
Not everyone liked their new Toronto Housing Commission homes.
One solution to the housing problem was the building of small apartment buildings with four units, called a “Quadraplex”. So-called Quadraplexes were objectionable to many.
Sam McBride, Controller and later Mayor,
You’re forcing people for the want of homes to go into houses that are a disgrace to Toronto.
The City voted to allow the construction of these buildings. Toronto Star, December 5, 1919
The map above shows the subdivision that is discussed in the article to the right.
This pioneering subsidized housing project was in the Coxwell-Gerrard area. It covered the whole block of land between Coxwell and Hillingdon Avenue –from the Toronto Transit Commission’s property on Danforth Avenue to and including both sides of Hanson Street.
The City of Toronto changed the name of part of Stacey to Woodville.
At some point it became no longer a Toronto Housing Commission project. Instead the City of Toronto took it over.
And trouble began.
Not In My Back Yard
In 1920 some people in the neighbourhood objected to the City of Toronto building subsidized housing. They formed the The Toronto Housing Commissioner Ratepayers’ Association Coxwell to fight the construction of this project..
These were the people who purchased at a subsidized cost their own housing — from the Toronto Housing Commission. The Toronto Housing Commission Ratepayers’ Association didn’t want City housing nearby. They feared lower quality housing or renters nearby.
They registered their objection to a cheaper grade of houses being built in rows on every street adjacent to the better houses of the Housing Commission.
They objected to the houses being rented, as tenants of the city in large numbers would lower the morale of the district.
Later others would blame the area’s decline not on larger economic changes, but on renters.
In 1957, a 30-year resident of the neighbourhood stated that he had:
…seen during the course of that time a considerable deterioration, partly due to age but mainly from tenants with no pride in the appearance of the property they rent and with little regard for the property of owners who try to hold back the inevitable creation of a slum area.
Toronto Star, June 20, 1957
The families in the Toronto Housing Commission houses were mostly those of returning war veterans who had a strong sense of entitlement. City Architect G. F. W. Price tried to be reassuring:
My proposition is to erect the houses in pairs, not in rows, and I want to say that they will be just as well built and will look just as well as the Housing Commission houses. They will not be as wide of course, but otherwise their appearance will be just as good.
Toronto Star, May 4, 1920
CITY’S HOUSES NOT TO BE TENEMENT ROWS
City Architect says they Will Look Just as Well as Housing Commission Dwellings.
Those people now living in the homes built by the Housing commission in the vicinity of Coxwell avenue have formed an association to protest against the City of Toronto constructing an inferior type of house adjacent to their homes.
Their homes are on four streets running east from Coxwell avenue, immediately south of the civic property, namely Stacey, Haig, Currie and Hanson.
The Toronto Housing Commissioner Ratepayers’ Association, Coxwell avenue district, was organized last night to protest against this proposal of the city.
They registered their objection to a cheaper grade of houses being built in rows on every street adjacent to the better houses of the Housing Commission.
They objected to the houses being rented, as tenants of the city in large numbers would lower the morale of the district.
They point out that ninety per cent of the occupants or prospective occupants of the houses were returning men who have invested most of their savings and gratuity in their homes.
Kerkhoff, 2 Currie avenue, was elected president of the association, and Mr. Duncan, 16 Currie avenue, its secretary-treasurer.
“Our plans are not such as to make a Shacktown or a tenement block of these houses,” said City Architect G. F. W. Price, when The Star asked him about the protest from the Coxwell avenue district.
“My proposition is to erect the houses in pairs, not in rows, and I want to say that they will be just as well built and will look just as well as the Housing Commission houses. They will not be as wide of course, but otherwise their appearance will be just as good.
Mr. Price pointed out that the pictures published last night, comparing the Housing Commission houses with the ones planned for erection by the city, were so made that the latter were shown off to a disadvantage.
“I think we will be able to beat the price we gave,” added the City Architect, “when we come to build these houses in quantities.”
Mr. Price is opposed to the row idea, and he does not believe that the Fire Chief will stand for the elimination of the middle brick wall.
As for the objection that the city’s houses might be rented, and thereby fall into careless hands, to the detriment of the whole neighborhood, Mr. Price said that he doubted whether the city could or would rent them. Why should it when the houses could be bought and carried for just about the same amount as the rental, or even less?
“Mayor Church said that the Coxwell avenue complaints would be taken up by the Board of Control to-morrow. Toronto Star, May 4, 1920
Toronto’s Housing Needs
Philadelphia requires 30,000 homes; Detroit, 30,000: Washington, 10,000; Toronto, at least that number.
All up and down the continent the same story is being told—the story of house scarcity, abnormal rents, overcrowding, and the consequent non-demolition of buildings which ought to be torn down as unfit for human habitation.
The menace to health, happiness, and morality no one can estimate.
In New York, apartments are at such a premium that space is being saved by building single beds into the walls, one above another, like steamer berths.
The ancient jest about sleeping in bathtubs has become a reality. It is stated that “children by the hundred are sleeping in bathtubs in which crib mattresses have been placed.”
In Chicago several hundred residents are living in houseboats.
Toronto’s problem may not be as acute as that of some of the larger American cities, but here it is complicated by the severity of the winter and the consequent necessity of substantial buildings.
And while the city is fortunately free from the tenement evil, it has street upon street of houses—and not in the slum districts alone—where every house, or every second house, is occupied by more than one family, though built to accommodate only one.
The resulting promiscuity of life, the disappearance of family privacy, is often times an invitation to immorality as well as to disease.
The Health Department is unable to destroy unsanitary buildings because the families thus thrown upon the street would have nowhere else to go.
The overcrowding of homes must be judged in the light of the statement that “where the average number of persons per room is two, the death rate is more than twice what it is where the average number of persons is less than one.”
But what is the remedy for overcrowding?
The construction of more and still more homes is the only solution. Towards the encouragement of such construction it is the duty of the civic authorities to bend their energies.
Any measure which will lighten the tax burden upon residential properties will encourage building operations.
Any measure which will afford cheaper land will have the same effect. The transfer of a portion of the taxes now levied upon improved property to the vacant land which is held by speculators will result not only in a lighter tax upon homes, but will discourage the holding of land out of use and will force it upon the market at prices which builders can afford to pay. But this is not enough.
The far-out lands must be brought into competition with the close-in areas. This is a problem for the Transportation Commission and the Hydro radials to solve.
In the meantime the city itself must continue to take a hand in the building game. It will not thereby discourage private builders, for there is a market for all the houses which these can erect.
Toronto should also take advantage of the offer of the Housing Company to enter upon a new program of apartment building. There should be no hesitation about furnishing capital for an established company with a dividend limited by statute and a record of successful construction and normal rents.
Toronto Star, November 20, 1920
Neat duplexes, mostly owner occupied. line these streets to this day. One model, repeated over and over, distinctly resembles the Toronto Housing Commission houses on Coxwell.
There is a lesson in this for those who would restrict municipal housing schemes to the construction of what might be called “creditable” houses – homes which visitors to the city could be shown with pride.
Undoubtedly such dwellings serve a useful purpose, and those erected by Toronto’s Housing Commission will long be a monument to the public spirit of its members.
But here are artisans who would gladly put their own labor into the building of much less pretentious structures, if they could get cheap land, cheap material, and cheap credit from the city.
Every house so built, no matter how humble, would relieve the pressure upon the downtown slum-districts which breed mental defectives, and would lift some family into the home-owning class in a healthy outlying district, where the “steady progression” which has taken place in other Shacktowns would be repeated.
Toronto Star, April 9, 1920
Despite the best efforts of the Toronto Housing Commission the housing shortage continued into the early 1920s. The economy was in a brief depression following the War.
In those days almost all rental leases expired May 1. This created a spike in demand for rental accommodation every spring. The Toronto Star suggested that, in order to deal with the crisis “Toronto may even have to relax its building restrictions for a time in order that humble homes may be constructed to meet the pressing need.”
The Editor remarked that “…the emergency is such that even Shacktowns upon the outskirts would be justified.”
The reasoning was that experience showed that the tarpaper shacks would be replaced with better, brick houses as this had happened in places like the Midway Shacktown (Gerrard Coxwell). Toronto Star, April 30, 1920
By 1923, there was a building boom across Toronto as prosperity had returning following the brief depression of 1919. The area filled in with rows of brick bungalows, detached, duplexes and triplexes.
BUILDING ACTIVE IN ALL DISTRICTS
Winter Weather Has Left very Little Frost in Ground
An amazing number of houses and stores are now under construction in the four corners of Toronto within the city limits. The depth of frost varies in the numerous localities, running from six to eighteen inches deep, but builders claim little frost has entered the ground since December, and the heavy blanket of snow has acted as protection or the earth.
The Danforth district has witnessed a continued activity in home building during the stormy months, and a large number of houses are now in the process of construction in the Danforth and Woodbine, north of Danforth avenue, where houses valued from $4,000 to $7,000 are rapidly filling up the subdivisions, Danforth Gardens, Monarch Park, the Gledhill and Parkview avenue districts adding a large share to present-day new homes now building are filling Patricia Park, Jones avenue, Woodbine, Leslie and Pape avenues.
Building Is General.
The building impulse is also evident south of Danforth and Gerrard street east from Main street to Coxwell avenue, including the new subdivision, Kelvin Park Beach, which is astir with scores of houses rising above the snow-cloaked fields. Variety in architecture and price underlie the building movement of this district, and homes range in value from $5,000 to $9,000. The ring of the hammers of the builders in the Gerrard street east district echoes over the hills south to Kingston road, where from the city limits at Victoria Park avenue to Queen street, with its lake frontage streets, are building up with blocks of homes valued from $4,500 to $8,000. During the last few days cellars have been excavated in the new Bingham avenue subdivision and Glenmount Park.
Globe, February 27, 1923
Shacktown was no more.
The Bees in Our Neighborhood
There are bees that buzz and make honey and sometimes, when frightened, sting.
There are bees that buzz and make houses and never sting — or charge money. In a building bee neighbors got together and built a house for free.
The homeowner already would have dug the basement. A skilled worker would have laid the concrete floor and foundation long enough in advance to allow the cement to cure.
The family would have ordered any supplies needed or scavenged for them. Maybe they’d pop over to Hamilton’s Hardware store on Gerrard for some nails or putty for the window.
The woman of the household and her friends would have baked and cooked their very best pies and cakes and wholesome hearty food.
Then the buzz began as neighbors streamed down Coxwell, Rhodes, Craven, Ashdale, Hiawatha, Woodfield or Hiawatha, laughing and chatting as they came. Men, women and children went to work.
People with little money still live here. They rely on family, friends, church, food banks and hope to get through.
When they could afford it they built a bungalow, using their own hands and the help of the community. Often they used a kit and assembled it, following instructions. it was like putting a jigsaw together. Sometimes they just bought a plan. Many of the men in the Coxwell-Gerrard area were skilled tradesmen: carpenters, plumbers, electricians, bricklayers, roofers, etc.
Minimum wage jobs, casual day labor, pensions disability ground people down. The grinding still goes on, quietly in the background, but relentless.
We live in an increasingly affluent area, no longer affordable to the families of those who built it. Scattered through it are the renovated shacks, now neat bungalows. And Coxwell Avenue reminds us of a time when subsidized housing was respectable, desirable and quite feasible.