It's the end of Grace's Places' fiscal year and I faced the difficult challenge of determining which of thousands of worthy causes would get a share of last year's haul. Thanks to tenants Kim H and Mindaugas for their suggestions, and as a result two more charities were added to the list. This year was our most generous, with $18,000 being shared by the Fred Victor, the Canadian Women's Foundation, Ernestine's Shelter and the Daily Bread Food Bank. I really want to thank Grace's Places tenants for their support and enthusiasm.
I had the pleasure last week of visiting 20 Palace Street in the Canary District, home of Fred Victor's Pan Am Legacy apartment project, originally constructed to house athletes and now renovated and repurposed to accommodate 300 tenants threatened by homelessness (families, couples and children) in attractive newly-furnished self-contained apartments. Contributing to the furnishings was Grace's Place's principal charitable endeavor in 2016, and the occasion was the unveiling of the "donor wall". It was, of course, nice to see Grace's Places get the recognition. Even if the name was mis-spelled :-)
Flashback to 2011, when I used to post on the internet forum of an association for small landlords. Many of the landlords looking for help were new to the business, and I was distressed that most of the advice provided was... just. so. wrong. The moderator of the forum keep his identity a secret, but his agenda was to elect a Conservative government in Ontario, with the hope that they would roll back all (and I mean ALL) of the tenant protections now in place (protections which I feel are... for the most part... needed and entirely appropriate). There was also a forum for tenants with questions, and I'd advised a tenant that before renting an apartment they should check with the Bedbug Registry. Moreover, at the time an MPP was proposing a private member's bill which would require landlords to disclose if they had a bedbug issue... a bill which I publicly supported. My posts were entirely unwelcome by the moderator. Subsequently I was banned from the forum, and following day these three postings appeared... apparently in the space of twenty minutes... covering all three of Grace's Places' buildings. I have attempted to contact the Bedbug Registry several times over the years, but there has been no response... although apparently they have moved their operations out of North America to distance themselves from lawsuits. In any case, it seems the site has been inactive for a year or more. Trying to get Google to remove the search results (without an expensive court order) seems to be impossible.
Of course, many (actually, most) of my apartments are rented as the result of word of mouth, so it's not been a big issue (and whenever I advertise on Kijiji or craigslist I get a hundred or more requests for showings). Nonetheless, it's frustrating.
It's also offensive to me that aside from claiming that my building have bedbugs, the poster states that "The landlord likes to act like some sort of Jesus figure/Socialist landlord when you meet him. The problem is when you complain he screams and hollers and won't spend a penny to deal with the problems!"
In the case of Dalton he wrote that "I rented there after being assured it was safe and it looked clean. Only after I signed the lease and paid first and last did I find out the place is full of bedbugs! This landlord has a habit of this. He acts nice to get you to sign the lease and pay, then you getting bitten when you sleep and he won't pay to fix the problem!
Perhaps I'm being a bit too sensitive...
Thanks to those tenants who participated $700 was raised to further the work of the Canadian Women's Foundation.
If you have been apartment-hunting for more than a few days you will already be aware that not all apartments afford equal value. Some landlords will hold out for rents which are higher than "market" rents even if it means leaving apartments empty for months at a time, while others will rent for "below market" rents in the hope of attracting desirable tenants and in order to encourage long-term tenancies. The City of Toronto has approximately 500,000 rental apartments, and given that the average tenancy in Toronto is 3 years we can surmise that in any given month there are about 14,000 apartments turning over... and about 14,000 prospective tenants trying to find the perfect apartment. While finding the right apartment can be challenging your efforts are wasted if you are unable to convince the landlord that you are the best tenant he or she could hope for.
In keeping with Grace's Places' commitment to supporting worthy non-profit organizations I am pleased to renew our sponsorship of the Canadian Women's Foundation "Move for GEN1". Move for GEN1 is an energizing one-hour workout led by a professional instructor for all fitness levels to raise funds for the Foundation’s Campaign to End Violence, with funds raised supporting more than 450 shelters for abused women and violence prevention.
In addition to participating in the sponsorship of the event Grace's Places will match the contributions of any tenant wishing to participate.
The event takes place north courtyard of the TD Centre (77 King St. West) between 11:00 am to noon on Saturday, May 28th.
I am pleased to see that Fred Victor will be providing 108 affordable apartments in the Pan-Am Village beginning this spring.
Grace's Places' relationship with Fred Victor goes back to 2012 when I met Mark Aston, Fred Victor's Executive Director, in my capacity as a Star photographer... covering the story of low-income tenants displaced from their Fred Victor apartments due to a burst water pipe. There were repair workers scurrying everywhere and I was very impressed... not just with the manner with which the repairs were being handled, but with the respect which was shown to the tenants by the Fred Victor staff and by Mark himself, who was there to discuss matters with the tenants one-on-one.
Since its beginnings in 1995 Grace's Places has directed a significant portion of earnings to community initiatives which hopefully resonate with tenants, and since meeting Mark in 2012 the Fred Victor organization has been the primary beneficiary of Grace's Places' charitable efforts. This continues this year with a donation which will cover the cost of the 108 sofas needed for the Pan-Am project (or cover the cost of furnishing two apartments).
There's still a need for more... microwaves ($50 each), tables ($60 each), dressers ($100 each), etc. If you're a current or former Grace's Places tenant and would like to make a contribution Grace's Places will match your contributions dollar for dollar (to a maximum of $5,000).
Like many 1960's era motels the Happy Days Motel has seen happier days, as have many of its guests. Of course, those guests are more likely to be locals renting by the week rather than tourists. One who I spoke to has been living at the Happy Days since being evicted... with three days notice... from the affordable apartment that he'd lived in for years after the building fell into foreclosure. He told me that the rental market is so tight that most landlords won't return his calls, and the ones who do won't take him because he has a dog (a Chihuahua). For now he pays $250 per week for his room at the Happy Days and $250 per month to store his furniture. (That's $1,860 per month in Canadian dollarettes). Thankfully Ontario's tenants enjoy greater security of tenancy, but even here low-income tenants often pay more for rental accommodations than their well-heeled neighbours. Happy days indeed...
The apartment got new paint, and new flooring throughout (including bamboo laminate in the bedsitting room). The apartment got new baseboards, and the bedsitting room got new track lighting utilizing LED bulbs on a dimmer. The kitchen was also converted to LEDs. The kitchen cabinet doors were replaced, with the glossy "Abstrak" doors that have been installed in most Grace's Places kitchen in recent years.
Apologies to those prospective tenants who are on my waitlist, however the apartment was rented to a friend of one of the current tenants before the renovation began.
It occurred to me this morning that yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of Grace's Places (or 1025356 Ontario Limited as it was then known). It was on the morning of February 7th of 1995 that I was handed the keys to 334 Seaton Street... and it was a few hours later that a tenant called to tell me that his water pipes were frozen.
In 1995 334 Seaton looked a lot different than it does today. There was no fence and no gate. The front yard was mud and four broken trash bins permanently decorated the front sidewalk. The front door was an uninviting solid wood slab, as was the door from the foyer to the front hall. The apartments had cheap commercial carpeting (all of them damaged by multiple cigarette burns) and the hallway carpeting was worn through to the subfloor. The basement was a dungeon and the laundry machines had been repossessed.
Sadly, it was not unlike most Toronto apartment buildings in the early 1990's. Ontario had introduced strict rent controls 20 years earlier and the rules at the time prohibited rent increases higher than the "guideline amount" even between tenancies. This meant that there was little incentive for landlords to upgrade... or even maintain... their buildings, particularly when a growing population of tenants and a shrinking number of apartments resulted in a vacancy rate of 0.6 per cent. By 1994 most Toronto apartments could legitimately be described as "substandard", but they could nonetheless be easily rented.
Notwithstanding that there was tremendous demand for apartments, few responsible investors wanted to be landlords in the early 1990s. In addition to strict rent controls the government had enacted the Landlord-Tenant Act in order to protect vulnerable tenants from summary evictions. But the court system was so overburdened that evictions could take a year, and many tenants realized that if they stopped paying their rent they could live for a year or more ("rent-free") before they could be legally evicted. My real estate lawyer... whose parents had owned several rental properties... cautioned me that I ought to expect to lose 15% to 20% of my potential income to defaulted rents and the cost of evictions. In the case of 334 Seaton the previous owner... who had bought the property five years previously... had so many non-paying tenants that he couldn't make his mortgage payments and the bank had foreclosed. By the time I saw 334 Seaton the bank had been trying to sell the property for more than a year and by December of '94 had lowered the price significantly. Still, notwithstanding that apartment properties were relatively inexpensive I was not at all sure that I wanted to be a landlord. In any case, after inspecting 334 Seaton for the first time late one December afternoon in '94 my realtor suggested that we go to a nearby wine bar to share our thoughts.
To be candid I did not think that a self-respecting tenant could live in a bachelor apartment with a bar fridge and a hotplate and my realtor did not disagree. Moreover, the building needed a lot of work, and it did not make sense to invest in capital improvements if I were not able to legally increase the rents. That might have been the end of my interest in 334 Seaton... and perhaps the end of my interest in being a landlord... had another customer sitting a few bar stools away not interrupted us. It seems that she and her friend had been eavesdropping on our conversation. They were both young professionals with student debt to pay down, and they told me that they would happily accept a tiny apartment if it was attractive, and if the building was clean and safe and owned by a responsible landlord. The problem was that in 1994 those apartments... and those landlords... were virtually impossible to find.
By the time we finished our wine Grace's Places had a business plan and a mission. Like most landlords I'd assumed that defaulted rents and evictions were inevitable, and it had not occurred to me that so long as I could offer tenants affordable apartments that met their needs they would not want to risk eviction and the landlord-tenant relationship would be very different from what had by then become the norm. So long as I could eliminate the risk of defaulted rents I could justify the capital costs needed to renovate inasmuch as I would effectively increase the rental income... without increasing the rents... by ensuring that tenants enjoyed attractive apartments, affordable rents and respectful service. When I advertised the first renovated bachelor in April of 1995 it was possibly the first time in twenty years that the words "newly renovated" and "apartment for rent" had appeared in the same sentence, and the response was overwhelming.
A few years later the government would change the rent control legislation to permit landlords to charge "market rents" to new tenants, and would change the tenant protection legislation to permit more timely resolution of disputes. New investors recognized that there was a market for quality apartments and the landlords who had become accustomed to prospective tenants lining up for substandard apartments found themselves with vacant units. A few big landlords such as Concert and Minto built new rental highrises and small landlords helped fuel the condo boom by investing in units to be used as rentals. Initially rents increased, of course, but as new rental stock hit the market competition for tenants increased and market forces came into play, and (adjusted for inflation) rents today are about the same as they were twenty years ago. Nonetheless, while Grace's Places is not as unique today as it was two decades ago there is still enormous demand for these apartments.
"You will get the tenants you deserve".
Those were the parting words of my real estate lawyer when I left his office twenty years ago with my Offer of Purchase and Sale for 334 Seaton. If it is true that landlords get the tenants they deserve then I am truly flattered, as I had never expected to have so many wonderful tenants. You have given me much over the years, including a belief that landlords and tenants need not have conflicting interests, but can share a common interest in creating communities which we all can enjoy.
So thank you for twenty great years.
Keith Beaty is the owner and manager of Grace's Places, and a Toronto-based photojournalist.
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