Structural Eviction

I live in New York City (I know, big whoop), in what by current standards is my own home (equity shared with spouse and bank). We bought it in 2002, a scruffy fixer-upper between Penn Station and the gallery district.

As a real estate deal, it’s been great: the value of the property has quintupled since, and would have whether or not we had lifted a finger to renovate. But that’s not why we’re selling– the property taxes have gone up so much that we can’t afford to keep the tenants with whom we have been delighted to share the building over the years. To be fair, this part of town was already nothing like legendary activist homeowner success stories here or in Toronto: the West Village, Brooklyn Heights, the Annex, Cabbagetown… Our immediate neighbours are absentee landlords and the Hudson Yards. When we think of our “community”, it really is an un-spatial network spread all over the five boroughs, and has been for some time. The idea of a neighbourhood, as a distinct area developed and cared for and protected by the people who live there as a matter of local governance, and as a matter of the legitimate interest and tenure of the people who have taken that kind of trouble over the years is almost confusing to most New Yorkers now. Just ask Williamsburg. If you’re not one of the few artists who actually bought the wreck they fixed up in 1983, you don’t live there anymore.

Toronto is a different story, and it’s not. The eccentric project house I left behind in the Niagara/Massey lands area in 1998 has merely quadrupled in market value since then, and many of the downtown art venues are still within a mile (sorry, 1.6 Km.) of where they were when I left: Gallery 44, YYZ, Open Studio… except that they all seem to have taken refuge in the same building: 401 Richmond, which was of course developed expressly for the purpose of providing stable low-cost shelter for such groups in the early 90’s.  Its property taxes are now set to triple over a few years under the enlightened-sounding rationale of “highest and best use”, the idea that it’s essentially legitimate and wise to tax a property as if it were fully built out to the maximum height, floor area, and market allowable. This means that it’s effectively illegal to do anything else. As urban Bohemias come to serve as lifestyle real estate market attractions built largely by tenants (both residents and small business operators), those same tenants are driven out. Why is there is no urban equivalent to security of land tenure, beyond the very limited and adversarial scope of residential tenants’ rights and short-term commercial contracts? They currently do better in Sao Paulo and Lagos, where these issues are at least think-able. There are places in the world where tenants are more than simply freelance livestock, and the provision of affordable cultural and social-interest space downtown isn’t being de facto banned through tax burdens designed to enforce real estate hyper-development.

Arguably, getting the planning and finance folks at the city and province to treat the downtown core in explicitly agricultural terms might actually be progress now– since the dustbowl, the public sector has been able to make some kind of sense of first-generation industrialized monoculture as inherently unstable. With Toronto’s downtown core, it’s going to be simpler than that– as the last of the oddball bars and restaurants are supplanted by shopping mall chains, the appeal of all those high-rise condos will blow away.

On a good day, there’s a kind of rough justice to these things in Manhattan: Marc Jacobs has been priced out of his Bleecker street shops. If I live right, I may last long enough to see what Toronto seems to want to be next: a ghost town a mile (1.6 Km.) high. Or maybe the city can get past its crude notion of “highest and best use” to something a bit more sophisticated. How about “highest and best mix”? A little less Matrix, a little more civics, even for those whose stake/legitimacy portfolio doesn’t happen to include a title deed.

Sweet dreams, coppertops.

– Carl Skelton

By the way: