Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Vaughan Metropolitan station gets green light

TORONTO - Next stop, Vaughan Metropolitan Centre.

TTC commissioners voted Wednesday to reject staff advice and appease the City of Vaughan by naming the new Hwy. 7 and Jane St. station on the Toronto-York Spadina extension Vaughan Metropolitan Centre rather than simply, Vaughan Centre.

Councillor Norm Kelly opposed giving Vaughan the station name it wanted.

“We have before us a city that has for many years poached our businesses asking now for our understanding and cooperation,” Kelly said. “And secondly, Vaughan and some other municipalities of the 905 suffer from the same conceit that led the former municipalities of Metropolitan Toronto to believe that they were cities, they weren’t. And Vaughan is not. The world-class city is the GTA and the metropolitan centre of the GTA is Toronto.”

TTC chair Karen Stintz successfully urged commissioners to let Vaughan have the requested station name.

“The municipality and region has contributed quite a bit of money to the construction of the subway and in fact we wouldn’t be able to do it without their support,” she said.

“Part of being a good partner is sometimes understanding when we can compromise somewhat and bend a little to the needs of our funding partner.”

Vaughan Mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua called the name an important step towards cooperation with the city and stressed the station’s name is important.

“We want that area to be known as the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre, it is part of our outlook on the promotion of the city,” he said.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Impose sales tax to pay for Toronto subways: Councillor

TORONTO - Toronto should impose a dedicated sales tax to help rocket subway construction, says Councillor Norm Kelly.

The Scarborough councillor believes Mayor Rob Ford could find a way to inject cash into his subway dreams by getting the city to ask the province for a 0.5% sales tax.

He estimates the tax would generate around $250 million a year — money he says would solely go towards subway construction.

“I think it is the fairest tax,” Kelly told the Sun Thursday. “Every buck would go into subways, every dollar, it would be a special fund, it would not go into general revenue.”

The veteran councillor and TTC commissioner argued a sales tax would be paid by anyone buying goods or services in the city — hitting Toronto residents but also 905ers, tourists and anyone else not paying property taxes.

“It spreads the tax base out and captures people right now who don’t make a contribution to the running of the city,” he said.

Kelly’s subway sales tax idea comes the same day Mayor Rob Ford suggested in a national newspaper op-ed that a “modest parking levy” could help the city “start building subways now”. Ford argued the levy would generate more than $90-million annually and fund a public-private partnership to build the Sheppard subway.

Kelly said a sales tax would be a “decisive, bold, statesman-like move”, but it would end the debate about the city’s rapid transit future.

“It’ll be subways and you’ll have the money to pay for it,” he said.

Earlier this month, council voted to derail Ford’s transit plan that buried the Eglinton LRT across the city and pushed for a Sheppard subway to the Scarborough Town Centre. Councillors, led by TTC chair Karen Stintz, endorsed putting the Eglinton LRT at street-level in Scarborough, reviving a light rail line on Finch Ave. and re-examining transit options for Sheppard Ave.

With a subway sales tax and other revenue tools, Kelly said the Eglinton line could stay underground, the city could build extend the Sheppard subway line into Scarborough and then build the Sheppard West subway line from Yonge to Downsview.

“Then we build Finch West and then we’d take the Scarborough RT from the Town Centre up into Malvern,” he said.

Budget Chief Mike Del Grande said he is concerned the amount of the subway sales tax could creep up over time and become lost in general revenue.

“I don’t like taxes for the sake of taxes however a sales tax would capture everybody and anybody that comes into the city,” he said.

The Scarborough-Agincourt councillor stressed Toronto’s transit system has fallen way behind.

“We had a great system in the 70’s but compared to other cities in the world, I don’t know why we didn’t go with incremental funding, just build a tunnel to the next station and build a tunnel to the following station,” he said.

“We lost about 30 years of momentum where we just stayed still.”

Stintz said Ford’s parking levy was news to her Thursday morning.

“The big question for Mayor Ford and what he needed to answer is how is he going to get his financing? It appears he is now wrestling with that question,” she said.

Councillor Adam Vaughan accused Ford of “making numbers up” when it comes to the parking levy.

“If he is prepared to bring a car tax forward, I’ll look at it and see what it does to help us build the right kind of transportation,” Vaughan said.

Vaughan said his position on what transit to build in the city stays the same.

“I believe that the plan council passed is the best plan for the city,” he said.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Tough times for horse market

While the spotlight focused on banks, housing prices and the auto industry, the economic meltdown of 2008 also sparked the so-called “horse market crash” in the U.S.

The Canadian horse market isn’t in free fall, but equine owners north of the border are definitely feeling the sting from what’s happening in the U.S. as they deal with rising costs and lower prices for their equine stock.

“Everything is not hunky dory,” said Bill desBarres, chairman of the Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada (HWAC). “We need to be constantly aware that a balance of product in our marketplace is critical. As the cost of inflation goes up, the cost of keeping horses goes up.”

In 2007, the U.S. federal government banned funding for all regulatory inspections of horse meat plants, effectively forcing their closure. As a result, 138,000 horses were transferred to Canada and Mexico in 2010 — nearly the same number of horses slaughtered in America prior to the ban, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

More than 65% — 59,933 — of the 89,160 horses slaughtered in Canada in 2011 were shipped from the U.S.

“Because there are so many of them, it lowers the price of (slaughter) horses,” desBarres said. “Because of the supply, there’s less demand.”

According to the most recent 2010 Canadian Horse Industry Profile Study published by Equine Canada last year, the impact of the inspection ban, as well as the recession, caused market sale prices to drop for horses.

Prices for horses sold for meat production have fallen below the $300 per animal with $75 a more likely scenario at auctions.

“Canada’s major export market for high-performance or pedigree horses was the U.S. and that market depressed as well,” said Vel Evans, the author of the Equine Canada study. “The number of U.S. horses going into Canada is a problem for the Canadian industry. It’s devaluing the prices of Canadian horses at the lower-end of market.

“If you can buy a (slaughter) horse for $300 and someone can purchase a horse for that price instead of $1,500 ... the reality is purchasing a horse to ride for less than $500 is not covering the cost for the breeder to have produced that horse.”

In the U.S., because many horse owners can’t afford basic upkeep of the animals, classified ads have been surfacing advertising horses for free on a permanent or leased basis.

“As a result, because of the lack of demand, some people are turning their horses loose in the United States,” desBarres said. “I don’t have any record of that happening in Canada ... Horses (set free) were damaging the properties and taking away food from other wildlife. It’s a pretty tenuous situation.”

Also, costs to keep horses in Canada have increased significantly over the past decade, according to Equine Canada. The average annual cost of keeping horse was $2,700 in 2010, compared to $1,500 in 2003. The increase can be blamed on rising costs of hay, feed, and higher expenditures on veterinarian care, hoof maintenance and horse therapy services.

Shelley Thomson, who runs a farm in the village of Oil Springs — about 30 kilometres southwest of Sarnia — said she has been forced to sell horses for a lot less than in the past.

“Normally, we would have gotten $1,500, but we took $600,” said Thomson, who also heads the Mid-western Ontario Horseman’s Society. “The slaughter (closures) have caused it, when disabled animals went to the slaughter it meant people wouldn’t have to keep feeding them. So now, people have to keep feeding horses that have no purpose and that would’ve gone for meat.”

Other groups in the Ontario horse industry are downplaying the impact of the U.S. economic downturn.

“There are always horses people are looking for homes for, regardless of slaughter or not,” said Dianne Graham of the Ontario Equestrian Federation. “Ontario is a viable and healthy horse industry. We have over 300,000 horses living in the province and (our membership) is increasing by 5% each year.”

Bill Simmons — who runs horse auctions in Claremont, near Stouffville — said people who might have purchased their horses years ago at inflated prices want a hefty return.

“They feel that they’re going to sell their horse for $10,000 and they can’t get it sold so therefore the horse market is terrible,” he said. “The fact of the matter is they don’t have a $10,000 horse. In reality, it was probably a $6,000 horse and if they had priced it that way, it would’ve sold.”

The Ontario Horse Racing Industry Association said racetracks have suffered because of competition from other sporting events and entertainment attractions.

“So from that point of view, the equine industry has been hit, but I wouldn’t say that it’s not a somewhat healthy industry right now,” said association president Sue Leslie. “The last three years, there have been heightened awareness of the afterlife of race horses. It is a top priority of the racing industry to make sure they have a dignified quality retirement.”

Nelson Bilyea, who runs one of the biggest sales of saddle horses in Ontario, said buying has slowed in the past few years.

“A lot of people don’t want to talk about this,” added Bilyea. “Everything in this horse business has gotten higher, except for the prices of horses, which have gotten lower. Last week, I had a horse given to me. If you have a specific horse that someone’s looking for, it’s worth some money. If it isn’t, it ain’t worth nothing to nobody.”

The influx of U.S. horses for slaughter is concerning to animal activist groups.

“Horses have been crossing the border from the United States and that’s about 50% of the horses in Canada today,” said Sinikka Crosland of the Canadian Horse Defence Coalition. “A big part of problems in the horse industry is overbreeding. What we’re seeing a lot of are quarter horses going down the slaughter pipeline.”

There are four abattoirs in Canada — two in Alberta and two in Quebec — that process horse meat in Canada.

In 2010, 66,168 horses were imported from the U.S. for processing and feeder purposes, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

A shortage of horse meat

Despite an increase in slaughter horses coming to Canadian processing plants from the United States, restaurants that serve the delicacy aren’t getting as much of it as often as they’d like.

The shortage can be attributed to government restrictions such as ensuring horses have a certificate that confirms the animals haven’t been injected with non-permitted drugs in the past six months before coming across the border.

“We’re not getting as much as we’d like,” said Shamez Amlani, co-owner of La Palette on Queen St. W, a French restaurant that offers horse meat on its menu. “Our supplier has limited supply because (the government) is applying very strict standards in what they’re getting in. If they’re not seeing proper papers and certificates, then they’re not processing the animals.”

To make it tougher for horses to get into Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced — effective Jan. 1 — shipments of American horses destined for Canadian abattoirs can only enter Canada at border crossings, including three in Ontario.

Only Windsor, Sarnia and Niagara Falls/Queenston ports will accept slaughter-bound horses in Ontario.

“When we want to get three tenderloins a week, we’re only getting one. We have it in supply, but we’re getting less of it than we were used to before,” Amlani said. “There’s a lot of controversy around the meat. But at the same time, I’m confident you’re getting food that’s much safer food than other foods in the mainstream.”

Supply aside, Amlani said their horse tenderloin, which sells for $40 with side dishes, is an acquired taste.

“We’re a niche restaurant and we do things very differently than other restaurants,” he said. “We’re recreating a piece of Europe in the city of Toronto. We have a cult following because we were the first place in the city to serve it.”

Much of the horse meat processed in Canada is exported to Europe and Asia, although there is a small domestic market for the product in Quebec. The top importers of Canadian horse meat in 2010 were France, Japan, Mexico and Switzerland.

The industry is worth an estimated $60-million annually in Canada.

Over 1 billion people, or 16% of the world population, eat horse meat, according to Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

T.O. Archbishop elevated to Cardinal in Rome

Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins will have to get used to being called, “your eminence” after being newly-appointed as a cardinal Saturday – but it’s something he won’t mind getting used to, according to the Archdiocese of Toronto.

Collins, 65, was among 22 priests who were officially appointed cardinals by the Pope during a special ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. He is the 16th Canadian to be so honoured and the fourth from Toronto.

“He was very excited, maybe a little bit nervous as well,” Archdiocese of Toronto spokesman Neil MacCarthy said in a phone interview while at the ceremony. “It’s an amazing scene to be a part of. It’s part of history. It’s not only a recognition of his own gifts and talents but at the same time, it’s recognition of the Arch-diocese of Toronto itself.”

MacCarthy described the celebration as “very joyful” with roughly 10,000 people flooding St. Peter’s Square. Those from the Canadian delegation lined up 3.5 hours prior to the 10:30 a.m. ceremony. Of the 22 cardinals who received their red birettas and rings from Pope Benedict XVI, only one from Germany was missing because of health issues, he said.

Collins hails from Guelph and was ordained as a priest in 1973. Pope John Paul II named Bishop of St. Paul, Alta. in 1997 and Archbishop in Edmonton two years later. On Dec. 2006, he came to Toronto as the city’s 10th Archbishop.

Collins’ 15 family members – mainly from Ontario – and others who have been touched by his work came from across Canada to attend the induction.

“They’re all here, beaming with pride,” MacCarthy said. “He’s got two sisters that have been by his side over the last couple of days and we have 215 others who have travelled literally from coast-to-coast.”

When he returns to Toronto’s St. Michael’s Cathedral next week, Collins’ primary responsibility will continue being the Archbishop of Toronto, however, the call to cardinal will bear some extra duties, which MacCarthy equates to being “the Prime-Minister’s cabinet members.”

“In this case, they’d be a group of advisors that would be called from time to time for meetings and most notable responsibility is when a pope dies, they’re responsible for electing a new pope,” MacCarthy said. “There are 125 Cardinals eligible to vote for a new pope – and the pope usually come from the College of Cardinals. It’s a fierce group of leaders from around the world and now he’s part of that group.”

Friday, February 17, 2012

British Freedom Party leader to speak in Toronto

TORONTO - Security will be tight on Monday as a controversial leader of a far-right British Freedom Party (BFP) talks to supporters in Toronto about his tough stand against immigration and spread of radical Islam.

Toronto Police officers will be on hand as Paul Weston is expected to draw a large crowd at the Toronto Zionist Centre, on Marlee Ave.

The BFP was formed in Oct. 2010 and features a 20-point platform with a priority to “stop immigration to Britain from countries that promote the Muslim brotherhood.”

Other points of the platform include abolition of the human rights of foreign criminals and terrorists; deport dual nationality Islamists and illegal immigrants and stop or turn back all aspects of the Islamisation of Britain.

“We have witnessed the spread of fundamentalist Islam across Europe and are witnessing the same trend in North America,” Weston stated in party literature.

Meir Weinstein, of the Jewish Defense League, an organizer of the event, said security will be high when Weston takes to the stage to bash immigration and Muslims.

“We are very excited to have him (Weston) here,” Weinstein said on Thursday.

“His party wants more stringent rules for people coming from countries that promote the Muslim brotherhood.”

He said police have been notified of the event and private security will be on hand to prevent possible disruptions by protestors.

“There has been some chatter on the Internet about protests,” Weinstein said. “We are not taking any chances.”

He said Weston is following in the footsteps of powerful anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilder, of the Freedom Party of the Netherlands, who holds similar views.

“There has to be a change to our immigration policy,” Weinstein said on Thursday. “One of our goals is to stop the spread of Muslim fundamentalism.”

The BFP was formed in Oct. 2010 by a group that broke away from the British National Party (BNP) after internal fighting.

There are similar Freedom Parties in Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Finland and Russia.

Officials of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said Weston has no criminal convictions to bar him from entering the country.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ridership continues to grow at GO Transit

TORONTO - GO Transit has had a “phenomenal” growth in ridership, a Metrolinx meeting heard on Thursday.

In the last five years ridership has risen from 48,000 to 58,000 a day, said Gary McNeil with the board of Metrolinx.

“We have had an amazing increase in ridership and it continues to grow. Ridership is up by 6%,” McNeil said.

GO had a 96% of on-time performance in the last two months.

“That is very impressive. Mother nature has been good to us but we are always going to have medical emergencies or police investigations,” McNeil said.

There will be no changes to the monthly pass or day passes but the old 10-ride and two-ride tickets will be phased out after June 1, 2012.

The last of these tickets will be sold on May 31, 2012 and riders will have until July 31, 2012 to use them.

Any ticket not used by that time period will be refunded or converted to PRESTO.

A survey of 55,000 GO riders showed there was a 82% satisfaction rate with the PRESTO cards.

Customers who use two and 10 ride tickets will enjoy discounts with PRESTO that are the same or better.

Riders who use the two-ride will see a discount of 7.5% on their first 35 rides.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Vaughan wants casinos banned from Toronto

TORONTO - Councillor Adam Vaughan wants what happens in Vegas to stay out of Toronto.

But hours after Vaughan hit the jackpot Tuesday by getting his colleagues on the Toronto and East York community council to urge staff to find a way to ban a casino from the city’s downtown, Scarborough community council voted to support in principle “the development of casino(s) in Toronto.”

Before the unanimous vote at Toronto and East York community council, Vaughan pointed to comments Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday made during Monday’s executive committee meeting.

Holyday said although he isn’t supportive of a casino “it’s in the wind here in Toronto” and it could yield money to fund public transit.

“That stimulated an immediate response about the fear that casinos would be popping up here, there and everywhere,” Vaughan told reporters.

The councillor for Trinity-Spadina (Ward 20) said casinos are an “absurd way to pay for things.

“And it hurts people; we know it hurts people,” Vaughan said, adding a casino could also hurt local businesses and local land values. “If we’re going to sell out Toronto, what are we here for?”

Councillor Paul Ainslie blasted Toronto and East York councillors for trying to ban a casino in their area and called Vaughan’s motion “bizarre.”

“You’re too good for a casino but I’m sure you’ll take the revenue for your roads and your transit and your parks,” said the chairman of the Scarborough community council. “You can’t suck and blow at the same time.”

Scarborough councillors voted 8-1 to support Toronto casinos in principle. Councillor Chin Lee was the lone opposing vote.

Gary Wright, the city’s chief planner, said Toronto’s zoning bylaws do not permit casinos.

“They are not a permitted use in any of the existing zoning bylaws,” he said. “Could that be strengthened? Possibly.”

But the province can trump the city when it comes to allowing a casino.

As it did in the case of Woodbine Live, the province can issue a ministerial zoning order allowing a casino on a property in Toronto.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Toronto real estate: Why home is where the hurt is

Melissa Hart is ranting. And what she has to say is both hilarious and heartbreaking for anyone who just wants what their parents and their grandparents had.

A house.

For three weeks now the 30-year-old Toronto woman has been venting online and she has a fast-growing following — house hunters, and even realtors, who agree with her frank assessments of “Ridiculous Toronto Real Estate” on a blog called FML Listings.

The site, a kind of anti-MLS, was born of Hart’s three-year search for a house she and her 33-year-old husband can afford. It has touched a nerve among homebuyers who feel locked out of the market and confused by an industry that speaks in code.

Related: Average detached Toronto home now $606,000

Well, Hart has cracked it. And she’s done the math.

That tiny North York bungalow listed on MLS for $996,000? It’s “NOT anywhere near transit, NOT anywhere near shops, NOT renovated or upgraded in any way shape or form, and there is NO living room as it’s been converted into a bedroom,” Hart writes.

Okay, it does have a skylight.

“If you’re counting, that means your deposit needs to be MINIMUM 200k, and your Land Transfer Tax is $32,000.”

Hart rails against realtors who create “false hope” by deliberately underpricing homes to create emotional bidding wars. She laughs at the $829,000 west-end home that needs a complete overhaul but “produces.”

“The listing says there are fruit trees in the front that, luckily for you, come with the house.”

The M and L in FML Listings stands for My Life. The F is … well, symbolic of the frustration which Hart has unwittingly tapped into among househunters struggling to stay in the city but battered by bully offers and fearful they are doomed to live in glass-and-steel condos forever.

She’s heard from a father of two who grew up in a blue-collar Etobicoke neighbourhood and can’t break back in on his white-collar salary.

“I’ve also had a lot of realtors email me. I was so afraid they would say, ‘You don’t know what you are talking about. Go buy a house in Whitby.’

“But I’ve had a lot of them praise me, saying thanks for showing what’s going on right now.”

Hart is an advertising project manager. Her husband, Brian Wolk, works in IT.

They aren’t na├»ve first-time buyers. They’ve owned a condo and traded up to their 1,800-square-foot “dream home” in Richmond Hill four years ago. But they decided to lease it out and move into a rented downtown condo when their commute escalated from 1½ to three hours daily.

But they found virtually nothing under half a million dollars within transit distance of their downtown jobs that didn’t need tens of thousands in renovations. They came close to bidding on a North York bungalow but decided it was too much to handle at $499,000.

Recently its smaller neighbour went on MLS for $858,000.

“If you’re counting, that’s a $359,000 rise in price in 2 years. Seems totally in line with inflation,” Hart blogs.

Related: Why it's a good time to buy a house

The couple gets supply and demand. But they see that equation getting wildly out of whack in the GTA where real estate prices have doubled in the last decade and become barely bearable only because of the lowest interest rates in history.

Adding to upward pressure has been what Toronto realtor John Pasalis calls “a massive surge in demand” coupled with an unusual shortage of listings the last two years.

Veteran realtors were stunned recently when three derelict Toronto Community Housing Corp. homes, needing tens of thousands in renovations, had dozens of offers and went for a combined $602,000 over asking price.

Some agents are bracing for another spring like last when the usual rush of warm-weather listings didn’t materialize, driving up demand — and prices — especially in coveted neighbourhoods close to transit and good schools.

“One of the things people don’t talk about is that the urban family has come back full force in the last 10 years. People aren’t, by default, moving to the suburbs the way they used to when they have kids. It’s a significant trend that’s really helping drive up house prices,” says Pasalis of Leslieville’s Realosophy Realty.

“We’ve got clients stuck where they are because there’s nowhere to move up to,” says veteran agent Tom Cook, who advises people to buy first and sell later.

“We’ve asked other agents, we’ve asked economists, we’ve brainstormed amongst ourselves — why aren’t people listing their houses? Some people say it’s the economy, but that doesn’t make sense because there are lots of buyers out there.”

Realtors and housing experts cite a number of possible factors: Baby boomers who are in their peak earning years and too worried about their jobs, the economy and buying down unprecedented levels of personal debt to move.

They’re also working longer and unlikely to downsize for years, which may be creating a bottleneck of sorts in the housing market, much the way boomers are impacting the workplace.

Instead, folks are making do and fixing up with the money they would otherwise spend on real estate and legal fees: Statistics Canada says renovation spending grew 40 per cent across Ontario in the five years up to the end of last September.

The Toronto Real Estate Board says Toronto’s four-year-old land-transfer tax, which Mayor Rob Ford has been slow to eliminate as promised, is also impacting inventory. It, alone, adds about $6,000 in upfront costs to the price of a $500,000 home and is believed to be putting some folks off moving.

At the same time, the construction of single-family homes, row houses and townhouses has plummeted across the GTA as provincial greenbelt policies fuel an explosion in condo development.

“Anybody looking to buy a house in the city is looking at a scarce resource that was manufactured 50 or more years ago,” says James McKellar, associate dean in the real estate and infrastructure program at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

“What you’ve got is basically a limited supply and growing demand.”

Demand is becoming especially fierce along transit lines where condo developers are looking for dwindling building sites and house prices have become especially astronomical, largely because of the land, notes McKellar.

Hart reserves a particular brand of sarcasm on her blog for those places — the million-dollar teardowns.

Toronto Catholic archdiocese a multi-million organization in transition

Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins doesn’t like being called the archdiocese’s CEO. It has too much of a corporate ring for a man who sees himself as a simple evangelist.

But administering to spiritual needs in Canada’s biggest Roman Catholic jurisdiction includes managing a multi-million dollar organization in transition. Salvation may be the ultimate goal, but aging bricks and mortar, strained human resources and changing demographics also require daily attention.

Downtown Toronto’s St. Michael’s Cathedral, for instance, is an unquestionably beautiful place to unburden the soul. But it’s not so good at providing physical relief.

“We now have only one washroom in the whole church,” Collins says. A $23 million renovation includes making room for more bathrooms.

The archdiocese spent an estimated $80 million renovating and restoring churches in the last five years. That’s part of the story. There are also the waves of immigration and demographic shifts, as revealed by an ongoing review of the archdiocese’s demographics.

Headed by Most Rev. William McGrattan, one of the archdiocese’s auxiliary bishops, the review looks at population flows and church attendance to determine service levels.

The archdiocese has 225 churches spread across 13,000 square kilometres, stretching from Lake Ontario north to Georgian Bay. Masses are conducted in 37 languages. It also fully or partially funds more than 40 social service agencies.

The archdiocese’s defining story — at least in the GTA — is the dominent impact of immigration, starting with tens of thousands of Irish migrants driven to Toronto by famine in the mid-1800s. Successive waves have kept the number of Catholics living in its spiritual jurisdiction consistently growing. There are now 1.8 million.

Toronto’s churches have reflected these waves. Our Lady of Mount Carmel, on St. Patrick St., initially served worshippers of Irish origin. Then came Italians, Koreans and now Chinese.

Rev. Brian Clough, pastor of Leaside’s St. Anselm’s Parish, describes immigration as a “huge sea change” for the church. Parishioners bring religious traditions that don’t always conform to liturgy. And different cultural practices, like arranged marriages, raise new issues for priests to handle.

Language is an obvious challenge, in more ways than one. Clough’s parish includes Catholics of Indonesian origin. But while parents attend services in Indonesian, their children prefer English.

“There’s a huge generational gap,” says Glough, 69, adding there were 600,000 Catholics in the diocese when he was ordained in 1968.

The influx has largely saved Toronto from the decline that Catholic diocese have seen across North America. Edmonton, for instance, has closed half of the 200 churches it once had. In London, 30 per cent of churches have been closed or “twinned” — brought under the responsibility of one priest due to declining attendance.

Toronto has instead built 13 churches in the last decade. A 14th is under construction in Barrie. In 2010, the archdiocese spent $34.4 million to build new churches, renovate existing ones and purchase land for future parishes.

The growth is in the suburbs or wider GTA. In Markham, two parishes serving Catholics of Chinese origin are baptizing more than 600 adults a year, all of them converts, McGrattan says. A new church will soon need to be built.

Parish expenses are paid from collections during mass, which last year totalled $72.5 million. Some of that money pays for new buildings. The archdiocese gets no funding from the Vatican.

The only church closed in the last decade — St. Catharine of Siena — was on Danforth Ave. (It’s now used by Sisters of Life, a religious order dedicated to helping pregnant women.)

Its fate points to a different story in the old city of Toronto, where average attendance for Sunday mass is down to 50 per cent of seating capacity.

“At face value people would say that we need to close the parishes,” McGrattan says, “that the buildings are becoming somewhat of a — not a burden — but a heavy responsibility that maybe a smaller, dwindling population might not be able to handle.”

But McGrattan’s review found that former parishioners who fled to the suburbs remain attached to the Toronto churches they originally attended. That’s where they want their children to be baptized or married.

“The sacramental demands and celebrations that are happening on weekends are showing me that there’s still a vibrancy to these parishes,” McGrattan says in an interview at the archdiocese’s offices on Yonge St.

Gentrification and the downtown condo boom are also bringing people back to the city core. So the archdiocese is holding off on closing churches. It’s considering reducing the number of daily masses, freeing up priests and volunteers for outreach.

The movement of Catholics of Italian origin from Toronto to Woodbridge resulted in the “twinning” of two parishes — St. Clare and St. Nicholas of Bari — in the St. Clair and Dufferin area. But even here the archdiocese is reluctant to close one because of a small but growing number of Eritrean and Ethiopian Catholics attending.

While conducting the review, McGrattan was surprised to find that, “The biggest pastoral issue for some of the parishes downtown is parking.”

Sunday lifestyles have changed. Where once most worshippers attended noontime or morning masses, afternoon services are becoming more popular. Parking bylaws, however, continue to allow parking during morning church hours, but not afternoons.

The parking fines have parishioners in an uproar at St. Agnes’, on Grace St., and St. John the Baptist, on Dundas St. W. The priests do what they can to get the tickets waived, McGrattan suggests.

“I’ve been to parishes where they have said, ‘If you’ve got a parking ticket, just come and see me,’” he says.

Immigration also helps the archdiocese find much-needed priests. About half of the 386 diocesan priests serving parishes have come from abroad. (Another 450 priests in the archdiocese belong to religious orders, such as Jesuit or Basilian. They teach, do outreach and run roughly a quarter of the parishes.)

Collins has made a priority of getting more local recruits. On average, four or five priests graduate yearly from Toronto seminaries (although this year there will only be three). It’s a pressing matter because baby boomers approaching retirement form the biggest group of priests in the archdiocese.

“We are short of replacing them,” says Rev. Hansoo Park, the archdiocese’s vocational director.

One reason is that parents with only one or two children are reluctant to see a son embrace a vocation where grandchildren are out of the question. Rev. Stephen Hero, who was vocational director in Edmonton when Collins was the archbishop there, estimates that allowing priests to marry would increase the number of recruits by one third.

Collins, a staunch protector of church orthodoxy, opposes the idea. Priestly celibacy, he argues, has its roots in the example of Jesus Christ.

“I think it’s not essential to the priesthood, and there are wonderful married priests and I totally support that, for example, in the Eastern churches and the Anglican church,” he says in an interview. “But if I were asked, ‘Should we change this?’ I would say no.”

Park, 35, believes the lack of priests reflects a more general malaise.

“There’s an old saying, if there is a crisis in vocations it starts with a crisis in faith,” he says.

Park, who often gives talks in Catholic schools, says Collins has put a lot of resources into youth outreach.

“He’s not just trying to get guys into the priesthood,” Park says. “He wants young people to understand their faith, to love it, to enter more deeply into it, and to be able to hear what God is saying to them.”

In the end, that’s where the archbishop, who becomes a cardinal Feb. 18, puts his focus.

“Our mission is not to be administering things — there are people much more competent than us to do things like that,” Collins says. “The main thing we have to do is get out there and proclaim the Gospel. That’s what we’re here for.”

TCHC launches aggressive push to sell off 675 houses

Toronto Community Housing has launched a strong push to convince city councillors to okay the sale of 675 single-family homes.

A report on the matter goes before a special executive committee meeting next Friday.

TCHC issued a statement this week saying its bill for backlogged repair work now stands at $750 million, up $100 million from last year. The housing corporation says it needs proceeds from the house sales — an estimated minimum of $222 million — to address the backlog.

Without new money for the fixes, the shortfall is expected to continue to rise by $100 million a year, reaching $1 billion by 2015.

“By doing nothing, we’re going to be beaten here,’’ Len Koroneos, TCHC’s interim CEO, said in an interview this week.

TCHC has nearly 60,000 units in buildings and houses across the city. Buildings are an average of 40 years old, and many are crumbling.

The latest figure reflects new repair needs outpacing the housing corporation’s ability to pour money into improvements, TCHC says. The corporation invested $72 million in fixes to multi-unit buildings last year, but says that amount was surpassed by $173 million in new repair needs that emerged from its aging buildings.

The 675 single-family homes — some vacant and in poor condition, others livable — are valued at between $250,000 and $1 million. TCHC has already sold nearly 30 homes, 20 of them to an aboriginal housing organization, but the proposal to sell all 675 has raised consternation.

Ontario’s housing minister has expressed strong concerns, saying essentially that she’s uncomfortable with uprooting families from mixed-income neighbourhoods and moving them into subsidized highrises.

Residents in many of the 675 houses have also been up in arms.

TCHC, on the other hand, argues that with only 2,600 people living in the single-family homes compared with about 164,000 in the mostly multi-unit buildings that make up the rest of its portfolio, selling the houses would benefit more people.

The sale was supposed to be discussed by the city’s executive committee last month, but the discussion was delayed until some questions could be answered — for example, how tenants would be relocated and how the proceeds would be spent on a ward-by-ward level.

For example, according to a breakdown released Friday, Councillor Anthony Perruzza’s area (Ward 8, York West) stands to see about $14 million in funding for repair work. The upgrades would benefit 10 neighbourhoods in the ward, addressing issues such as crumbling roofs and ceilings, deteriorating beams, furnaces that need repair or replacement, as well as hot water boilers, elevators and plumbing.

Koroneos, the interim CEO, says the sale would be done in the course of a three-to six-year plan, with no more than 60 to 75 houses put on the market each year.

Noting that the $222 million doesn’t cover the entire repair backlog, Koroneos says TCHC would still have to borrow substantially on top of that amount just to keep the agency’s portfolio in a “fair state of repair.’’

But Councillor Adam Vaughan, a critic of Mayor Rob Ford’s housing initiatives, calls talk about a $750 million repair backlog a “manufactured crisis.’’ He argues that there are numerous ways to fix public housing.

“There’s revitalization, refinancing, low-income home ownership, partnering with co-ops — at least a half-dozen different financing options available to us — that render this entire discussion (about massive repair backlogs) unnecessary.”

Single people make up a crucial, fast-growing demographic

So, yeah, Valentine’s Day.

Hearts, flowers, candlelit dinners, whatever.

If all that manufactured schmaltz makes you feel like a loser just because you aren’t partnered up, you’re going to like this.

Despite the ceaseless romancing of the idea of coupled life, and the political focus on families as the building blocks of society and community, Canada’s population of singletons — defined as people who live alone — is arguably the fastest-growing demographic. And it may well be the most crucial — socially, culturally and even economically.

The evidence is literally towering.

All over Toronto, soaring glass warrens of tiny box-like “lofts” are shooting up into the skyline. They create densely populated areas where everybody walks to work in the morning and stops by the new supermarket on the way home for a freshly made, single-serving microwaveable meal. Later, these people fill the local gyms and pubs.

Singles are fuelling inner-city growth and keeping the core alive, frequenting the parks and other public spaces with their pets, dining out and attending cultural events, while couples, with or without kids, are in watching TV.

Singletons also contribute to the community through volunteer work; unlike married people, they have the time for it and it is a social network-building opportunity.

So take heart all you singletons, whose V-Day dates will either be with the girls (or boys) over drinks, with Facebook friends or with NBC’s cruelly timed The Biggest Loser and a bowl of popcorn.

You are not alone.

“I think the incredible rise of living alone is the biggest social change that we have failed to name and identify,” says New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg, on the phone from Manhattan. “We treat it as a personal matter, like we are the only ones in the world dealing with it. The truth is, it’s now a widely shared condition and we need to understand it and talk about it.”

Klinenberg’s just-published Going Solo: the Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone is causing a sensation, both for how it has shaken up our traditional notions of the single life and as a sociological breakthrough. Psychology Today has already described it as “a social science classic.”

“This is the first book on this topic to take it on comprehensively, but it’s clearly not going to be the last one because we’re just coming to terms with what I call this social experiment,” Klinenberg explains. “We have 200,000 years of experience as a species living in domestic groups and we have about 50 or 60 years living alone. So we have a lot to learn.”

While Klinenberg’s research focuses primarily on the U.S., much of what he writes pertains to Canada.

According to the 2006 census, one in four Canadian households are single-person. In Toronto, almost one in three households consisted of people living alone, up 11 per cent from 2001.

And they form clusters.

“People who live alone tend to live better when they live in an area where there are a lot of other singles,” Klinenberg says. “One of the amazing things about contemporary cities is that we can name the neighbourhoods where living alone is a social experience. I don’t know the neighbourhoods of Canada, but in the United States you have Greenwich Village, West Hollywood, Lincoln Park in Chicago . . . these are places where we know people go to live alone together.

“One of my big arguments in the book is that urbanization has made living alone not just possible but also pleasurable.”

The numbers haven’t yet been crunched for the 2011 census, but the 2006 data show that in Toronto, the postal codes covering the Harbourfront highrises, as well as those in the Church-Wellesley and Davisville areas, just to name a few, are single-person household hubs.

When many of these buildings went up, the ’60s had swung the pendulum toward living single. The ’70s “Me Decade” grew into the Me-llennium. And, of course, the divorce and remarriage rate soared, with people moving in and out of the single state from one life stage to the next.

Women, especially, were breaking out, getting careers and gaining independence. Marriage was no longer mandatory and mothering for many fell right off the map.

“A lot of (divorced) women felt that they had neglected themselves for too long,” Klinenberg says of his findings. “They needed to have time for themselves. They wanted intimacy. They wanted to be in relationships. But they didn’t necessarily want to live with the person. They wanted to maintain their autonomy.

“Women are more likely to live alone than men but they are less likely to get isolated and the reason is because women are, on average, much better at establishing relationships and maintaining them.”

Twice-divorced Toronto writer Joanne Ingrassia, 57, is typical. She’s one of many who responded to an informal poll on Facebook.

“I’ve lived alone for the past 18 years,” she notes. “I’ve never let being alone hold me back in any way. I’m very active, community involved and very passionate about music, the arts in general, nature, travel (yes, alone) and more. I love the people in my life and have nurtured good relationships with family and close friends. But would I consider sharing my life and living space with a guy again? My life, yes. My space, quite possibly. I am at least open to the idea of both!”

And then there’s government worker Darlene Tansey, 43, who volunteers at the Toronto Humane Society: “I lived with a man for over 10 years. Gradually, I began to feel like I’d lost myself; I didn’t remember who I was or what I wanted to accomplish in life for me. Since I’ve been living on my own (about seven years now), I bought my own condo in a neighbourhood I love, I vacation in super hot climates and I do volunteer work that I love. I am waaaay more confident — and I can do what I want, when I want, how I want.”

“The stigma of living alone is much less than it used to be,” says Klinenberg. “In 1957, a group of psychologists from the University of Michigan surveyed Americans about their attitudes toward marriage and singleness and they found that 80 per cent of the respondents thought that adults who wanted to be unmarried were either ‘sick,’ ‘neurotic,’ or ‘immoral.’

“Learning that fact cracks us up today because it is so foreign to us and it tells us that our attitudes have changed tremendously. But at the same time the social pressure to couple up remains intense. Many people get uncomfortable around their single friends and family members because they’re independence feels threatening on some level. That’s true even though half of the adults in the U.S. are single. I think we failed to collectively make sense of why this has happened and what it means for us and at the very least I hope that this book sparks a debate.”

And that debate needs to be political, Klinenberg tells us, because it is the senior cohorts and not the young ones who are increasingly living alone.

As StatsCan found with the 2006 census, 63 per cent of those over 65 in the GTA — almost 90,000 people — live alone. Those numbers will go up as baby boomers age and while the Harper government talks of postponing old age security benefits, the need for housing, health care and related services will grow greater.

“You can make the case that the needs of people who live alone and single people have not been served by political parties and the issues that matter to single people have not been championed the way they should be given the size of the population,” warns Klinenberg.

This, he maintains, “will be a real challenge” in the years ahead — and we don’t seem to be prepared for it.

Meanwhile, governments, media and Valentine’s Day card-makers ignore singletons at all our peril.

“I am not advocating for living alone,” insists Klinenberg, “but I am concerned that we fail to understand why so many people have made this decision and collectively have failed to remove the stigma of living alone — and we can be so judgmental. And our judgments are alienating for about half of the adult population.”

Happy Valentine’s Day all you singletons.

You deserve the love.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Students in the lurch as condo crush forces school boundary changes

Like many mothers, Anu Gupta was fussy about which school to choose for her children, and decided on McKee Public School along the Yonge-Sheppard condo corridor for its reputation and heady test scores.

But to qualify for the popular grade school — some parents have been known to fake their address to get their kids in — the single mother had to be strategic about where she lived. In the fall of 2010 Gupta bought a condo near Yonge and Finch that was built before 2003, which is one of the few ways to meet the Byzantine school boundary rules in one of Toronto’s hottest boomtown strips.

They got into McKee and they love it, Gupta said; her daughter is in Grade 1 and her son in junior kindergarten.

But now, with the area still booming, the Toronto District School Board may vote Wednesday to change boundary rules again in a way that would bounce 115 McKee children, including Gupta’s, to Finch Public School this fall – a move she called unfair.

“I pretty much planned my life around being able to have my kids walk to McKee, and now I find out we’re being kicked out in six months? I’m left helpless,” said Gupta. “This is really unfair.”

The proposal to carve off the northwest corner of McKee’s catchment area is board staff’s latest desperate bid to cope with the “vertical city” of 100 condos that has grown up over the past two decades between Sheppard Ave and Finch Ave. for whom the nearest schools in the neighboring “flat city” are simply too small, said School Trustee Mari Rutka.

“Moving students is awkward; I wish we didn’t have to do it and I don’t blame parents at all for being upset,” said Rutka. “But we have a ‘vertical city’ here; a virtual town in the air without schools and we can’t get funding to build new schools in areas like this until the board gets rid of some of its under-enrolled schools in other areas,” she said.

“This is the dark side of keeping under-enrolled schools open.”

When the city planned some 25 years ago to push “intensification” up Yonge into North York and ease traffic pressures from downtown, planners expected buyers to be young singles and empty nesters.

“They were spectacularly wrong,” noted Rutka. Families flocked to the area, often from east Asian countries where parents are used to raising children in dense high-rises. The board soon realized it couldn’t fit all these children in neighborhood schools like McKee and Earl Haig Secondary School, and decided to bus all those living in condos built after 2003 to schools a little farther away that had room.

Today, some 900 condo children are bussed outside their neighborhood. Even so, McKee’s numbers are still climbing. In the past two years even the “flat city” population has begun to grow, said Rutka,

Still, some McKee parents say the board is over-reacting. While McKee was built for 664 students between kindergarten and Grade 5, and has 744 students now, some are only in half-day kindergarten, making the true enrolment the equivalent of about 658 full-time students. That’s a whisker below capacity, they argue, so surely the school could “grandfather” all current students so they can finish their studies at McKee?

No way, sighed Rutka, because with more students expected this fall, plus a crunch when full-day kindergarten starts in 2014, it essential to start shrinking McKee’s catchment area, and this is only the first of many changes expected in the coming years.

Principal Cheryl Patterson said 90 per cent of McKee’s students speak a language other than English – mostly Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin and Farsi – and the school already scrambles to find the space for ESL, settlement workers and special education classes.

It added its first portable last fall on an already crowded playground; the school already has created two shifts for lunch and the gym is so busy students can have only two gym classes a week. The school converted a specially designed music room last fall into a regular classroom because of the space crunch, said Patterson, and put an ESL Grade 3 class in a windowless room designed for library storage.

“We could add a third storey to house more bodies, but this isn’t a factory,” said Patterson. “How would we create more play space and more gym space and more room for all the things that can make a real education?”

Says Rutka: “We need a school in the air, but right now that idea’s up in the air - it’s too expensive.”

Canada census 2011: Toronto’s suburbs are still booming

OTTAWA—Take a bow Milton, you’re Canada’s fastest growing city.

The city on Toronto’s outskirts grew by a whopping 56.5 per cent to 84,362 residents between 2006 and 2011, according to new Statistics Canada figures released Wednesday.

Whitchurch-Stouffville, another suburban Toronto community, rang in at number three with a 54.3 per cent jump to 37,628 residents.

Statistics Canada released its first batch of data from its May, 2011 census and it reveals that several Toronto-area cities were the stand-outs in a period when most Ontario towns and cities grow at slower than average rates.

But even Milton is cooling off compared to the last census when it had grown 71.4 per cent.

Brampton also grew significantly, up 20.8 per cent to 523,911. Mississauga was up 6.7 per cent to 713,443.

Toronto stood at 2,615,060 residents, up 4.5 per cent, with growth focused along the waterfront, the downtown core and several pockets across the city.

The Toronto census metropolitan area, stretching from Oakville to Ajax grew by 9.2 per cent to 5,583,064 residents.

This census shows a change in the growth pattern in the Greater Toronto Area, said Jane Badets, director general of social and demographics statistics with Statistics Canada.

Unlike the 2006 census, which showed growth happening on the suburban periphery, the latest counts show the growth happening closer to Toronto itself.

“It’s shifted down slightly, it’s come in closer to what we call the central municipality, around Markham and Richmond (Hill),” she said in an interview.

2011 Canada census: Young professionals, baby boomers fuelling Canada’s condo boom

TORONTO — When Debrah and Joel Weiss first moved to Toronto, they wanted nothing more than a proper house with a sprawling yard and lush garden.

Four decades later, the retired couple is part of the condo craze — lured by the promise of a life free of clearing snow and scooping out eavestroughs, drawn to the gleaming glass-and-steel towers and newly scrubbed factory conversions that are reshaping Canada’s urban lifestyle.

After years of living in cramped apartments in New York City, the Weisses craved space — enough to hold a few kids without forcing anyone to share a room, as they had in their childhood.

“We really longed for a house,” and scrimped and saved for a down payment, Debrah Weiss said. “While the kids were growing up, I never would have considered an apartment.”

So the family traded up to bigger and bigger houses until, five years ago — their daughter and son long moved out — the pair, then in their 60s, decided to pack it all in for a spacious condo just blocks away from their home in the burgeoning east Toronto neighbourhood of Riverdale.

The garden they loved was getting harder to maintain and climbing steep stairs to the third-floor bedroom was getting increasingly tricky, said Weiss, 71.

Their not-yet-built condo promised a view of the Don Valley, a guest room for visiting relatives, two separate work spaces, a customized kitchen with a full-size pantry and a wine fridge — and no shovelling snow in the winter.

After their move in 2010, “I wasn’t longing for the house,” Weiss said.

Experts say fundamental shifts in population and lifestyle — couples putting off marriage and children, workers rebelling against tiresome, traffic-clogged commutes — are pairing with a growing backlash against urban sprawl to spur one of the most pronounced and sustained real-estate booms in recent history.

That explosion is, in turn, changing the shape and culture of Canada’s cities.

“It’s a combination of economic and demographic factors,” said Adrienne Warren, senior economist and manager with Scotiabank.

Condos present a more affordable option for first-time home buyers such as young adults and new immigrants, she said — two groups naturally drawn to the buzz of big cities.

Empty-nesters looking to downsize to a smaller home are also driving the condo craze, but for lifestyle reasons more than financial ones, Warren added.

Meanwhile, demand for land is pushing developers to build vertically rather than horizontally, encouraged by government policies designed to curb sprawl.

As a result, multi-unit dwellings — a category that includes condominiums — now make up roughly half of all new housing stock, where detached homes traditionally led the way.

“It’s a big shift that we’ve seen over the last several decades,” Warren said — one likely to hold up over the long term as the population ages and land grows even more scarce.

At the time of the last census in 2006, close to 11 per cent of homeowners lived in condos, up from just over three per cent in 1981. Comparable numbers from the 2011 census won’t be released until September, but it’s clear from population figures released Wednesday that Canadians are re-populating Canada’s cities.

In Toronto, population increases of more than 17 per cent over the previous census period were apparent in the downtown core along the shore of Lake Ontario, where a gleaming crop of highrise towers seems to multiply on an almost monthly basis. A similar phenomenon is apparent in Vancouver.

Recent years have also seen an outcropping of billboards touting sleek, modern condos in cities not previously known for city-centre lifestyles, such as Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton, although the suburban growth long a hallmark of prairie cities remains a dominant trend.

Some have tried to contain the boom. In Vancouver, officials capped condo developments to preserve downtown office space. Councillors in Ottawa last fall questioned the city’s ability to boost services to match the influx of condo-dwellers.

Meanwhile, some analysts fear the number of highrises could bog down the market with a glut of unsold condos if the economy took a turn for the worse.

“The risk is that if demand were to weaken sharply and unexpectedly, then builders would be left with this backlog of housing,” Warren said.

“So I’d say there is more risk in terms of pricing in the condo market than there is in other areas ... but as long as demand holds up reasonably firm, I don’t expect that we’d see a sharp correction down the road.”

Eventually — say, over the course of the next decade — any oversupply would be absorbed, she added.

Buying an investment property wasn’t on Chris Buyze’s mind when he signed the papers for his 58 square-metre studio on the edge of downtown Edmonton.

“It was a place I wanted to be, it was something I could afford ... I wanted to be close to amenities,” including the city’s light rail transit network, he said.

Buyze was 20 when he purchased the loft in a three-storey converted warehouse in 1999. The neighbourhood, which was deserted after business hours, was considered a rough one.

“When I moved downtown, people thought I was crazy,” said Buyze, now head of the Downtown Edmonton Community League.

Since then, hip lowrise walkups and shiny towers have multiplied near his home just blocks from bustling 104th Street, bringing with them a wave of coffee shops, bakeries, restaurants and bars.

“There’s suddenly an after-hours nightlife and attention to downtown that there wasn’t before,” which attracts more people, he said.

As more condos crop up and more people move in, the challenge will be to foster diversity within those fledgling communities, said David Gordon, an urban development expert at Queen’s University in Kingston.

Otherwise, some areas could become enclaves for young professionals and affluent retirees, shutting out families and lower-income residents, he said.

Buyze said planners in Edmonton are looking for developments with larger condos to draw families away from the suburbs.

“The challenge at this point ... is to provide the park spaces and the schools and the infrastructure that’s necessary,” he said. “If the schools aren’t open, those people aren’t going to move downtown.”

Monday, February 6, 2012

Toronto real estate: Average detached house $606,600

The Canadian Real Estate Association has launched a new system for tracking home and condo sales prices aimed at giving buyers and sellers a more precise picture of what’s happening right in their neighbourhoods.

The new system will track Canadian and regional home sales and price escalations based on “benchmark prices.” Those benchmarks are based on quantitative factors (the number of rooms, bathrooms, age of home) and qualitative factors (proximity to schools, parks) and are intended to shine a light on highly localized factors that may be skewing prices up or down but not necessarily reflect market conditions.

CREA has also established a new MLS Home Price Index — similar to the Consumer Price Index which measures price inflation — that tracks prices relative to January, 2005 based on house type, be it single-family homes with one or two storeys, townhouses, row homes or condo apartments.

As of January, the benchmark price of a single-family home in Toronto hit $606,600 — $100,000 more than the $499,800 benchmark price for a similar home in the rest of Canada. That Toronto home cost 50.3 per cent more than it would have in January, 2005.

Over time, far more localized data will become available for MLS districts that should paint a clearer picture of neighbourhood trends.

“One of the key goals is to take a little bit of volatility out of housing statistics,” says Jason Mercer, senior analyst for the Toronto Real Estate Board. “It’s going to provide a good tool for consumers to understand where their home fits into the market.”

CREA will continue to release its traditional Canada-wide and regional breakdowns of average and median home prices, which it claims are often “misinterpreted” and can swing significantly, as national prices did last year when there was a rush of foreign investors snapping up homes in high-end Vancouver neighbourhoods.

Right now, just five major real estate boards across Canada are part of the new system — the GTA, Greater Vancouver, the Fraser Valley, Calgary, and Greater Montreal.

Eight more boards will start using the new measures this year, and another eight boards next year.

Bag tax could save trees

Mayor Rob Ford’s executive committee will wade into tinkering with Toronto’s five-cent bag fee next week.

Councillor Michelle Berardinetti wants the city to find a way to encourage businesses to donate the 5-cent fee towards the city’s emerald ash borer strategy.

The ash borer beetle is expected to hit the city’s tree canopy hard. The city has around 860,000 ash trees.

If approved by the executive committee, a report could be back in April about incentives for businesses to donate the profits from the 5-cent fee towards the ash borer strategy.

Berardinetti wants any incentives to include a tax receipt to match the voluntary contribution and visible public recognition from the city.

Next week’s debate will put the bag fee in front of Ford for the first time since he was elected.

Back in December, Ford vowed he’d move a motion at some point in 2012 to kill the bag fee.

“I’m going to put it forward. It is not about winning or losing, I never believed in this bag tax, I never supported it,” Ford said. “During the campaign, I never said I was going to do it, but now enough people have called me. I think it is time we reopened it. Let’s have a vote with the new group of councillors.”

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Better odds for Toronto casino

TORONTO - Every day the story is the same.

Scores of buses full of Toronto gamblers leave the city at all hours in search of a little casino action and somewhere to place their bets.

If a growing number of boosters have their way, it may soon be a very short trip indeed. You can bet on it.

Increasing support within the city - and an acceptance at the provincial government level that the gambling market is changing - dramatically increases the odds that Toronto will have a casino to call its own.

“For the first time in, I would argue, well over a decade, the basis upon which gambling was developed in Ontario, the foundation, fundamentally changed,” a senior provincial government source told Sun Media. “We no longer have a monopoly and people aren’t travelling as much.”

Of the gambling venues, the source said, the government hasn’t made any decisions but is now asking, “Are they in the right location?”

Better serving homegrown gamblers, rather than relying heavily on border-phobic American tourists, is the new game plan in Ontario.

And with six million residents, all eyes have turned to the Greater Toronto Area.

“Toronto deserves a world-class casino,” Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti said.

In fact, he would like to see two casinos in the city - a Las Vegas-style showpiece at a revitalized Ontario Place and another casino at the Woodbine Racetrack in Etobicoke.

The anti-casino mood at Toronto Council has shifted as local politicians look for new ways to attract tourists and revenue, so now is the time for the province to reconsider its opposition, he said.

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) is wrapping up a land-based gambling review at the request of the provincial government.

OLG President and CEO Rod Phillips said in an interview that the report looks at all aspects of the organization to determine the best way to serve both the customers and the shareholder, the Province of Ontario.

“We were asked over a year ago by the government to prepare a report and look at how we can modernize and improve the returns to the province in a responsible manner,” Phillips said. “We’re looking at what is the right way to approach lottery and gaming in Ontario for the next three to five years based on what’s in the best interest of Ontario.”

While the results of that review are not yet public, it’s obvious the status quo is rolling snake eyes.

The OLG continues to pour close to $2 billion a year into provincial coffers, but profits have flat lined and it’s relying less and less on its “resort casinos” that border the United States, a once lucrative investment for the province.

“Over the last 10 years, the contribution to the province from our border sites has declined from $800 million to about $100 million this year,” Phillips said. “We know that some of our busiest game locations are the ones in the GTA.”

In fact, the Woodbine Racetrack slots are so hugely popular that it’s one of the most bustling gaming floors on the continent.

Still, the OLG has to consider all its casino assets before making recommendations about a possible Toronto site, Phillips said.

Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, who has the dual responsibility of overseeing the OLG and representing a Windsor community with a huge stake in this issue, has not ruled out a Toronto casino.

“When Casino Windsor was opened there were no casinos in Detroit. There are three now and there’s a casino coming to Toledo, Ohio. The border is much, much more difficult and Americans need a passport to come over,” Dwight said. “That world is changed so what does that mean going forward? How do we continue to protect those border casinos as we maximize the profit potential of OLG?”

No casino proposal is a sure bet - witness Windsor’s woes - but rolling out the green felt carpet in Toronto would likely be a successful venture, gambling expert Prof. Jeff Derevensky said.

“That would make a lot of money,” he said. “The casino industry is the fastest growing industry in the world.

“There are some social costs and I think you have to be concerned about that - I don’t think a place like Toronto could handle three casinos for instance - but one casino certainly would not be over saturation.”

The worldwide trend is dramatic, he said, with casinos popping up all over.

“The reason for that is clearly the poor economy. Governments are strapped for money around the world,” he said. “And people enjoy gambling. The vast majority of people, in fact, enjoy gambling and don’t experience any problems. Gambling’s become normalized.”

Derevensky, a founder of the International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors at McGill University, is wary of unbridled gambling expansion but says governments are in a bind.

Their citizens can go elsewhere or online to gamble.

He tells the story of the Governor of Massachusetts, who only recently agreed to open a casino in his state.

“His staff took him to the biggest casino in the area in Connecticut,” Derevensky said. “They rode around the parking lot and they looked at the cars’ licence plates. They saw Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Massachusetts, Massachusetts.”

And there’s no guarantee a community can avoid the social costs through prohibition because the travelling problem gamblers bring their troubles home with them, he said.

A casino manager in Slovenia told him the customers “all come from Italy, they lose all their money and then they go back to Italy.”

Regardless of the impact a casino would have on Toronto, there’s little doubt it would not go over well in Niagara Falls, local MPP Kim Craitor said.

“In my community - no, it would not be good,” Craitor said, noting a Toronto casino is all the buzz in town. “It’s in articles, it’s on talk shows, it’s generating a life of its own. Down here, people are already starting to react as if it has been proposed.”

Not only would it damage the prospects of both Niagara Falls’ existing casinos but it would hurt the tourism industry in the area as a whole, he said.

Craitor said he’s prepared to challenge his own Liberal government if it proceeds with a Toronto casino.

Mammoliti said the need to protect existing casinos has long been used as an excuse to deny Toronto its own version.

Places like Niagara and Windsor may have to revisit their gaming plans, but many jurisdictions have been successful with multiple casinos, he said.

“I would say it’s time for Toronto to get some help here. We’re suffering. And it’s time that everybody consider us for a change,” Mammoliti said.

As for concerns that a casino would bring social ills, only the very naive would believe this type of gambling doesn’t already occur illicitly in the city, he said.

“People like to gamble, whether we like it or not, and they will gamble.”

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Business owner fears for future of Kensington Market

Ossie Pavao’s family has been operating their cafe and bulk food store in Kensington Market for nearly 50 years.

The 54-year-old grandfather of eight says he can still remember when Jewish, Portuguese and Italian vendors all worked alongside each other and got along famously — and how his dad and brother turned the fixture at the corner of Baldwin and Augusta Aves. into what it is today.

“I feel very I’m sitting watching it all fall apart,” he told me as we sat over a full-bodied latte, a speciality of Cafe Acoreana. “It hurts to see it crumbling the way it is.”

Pavao, rough around the edges but passionate about his neighbourhood, gets very emotional about the demise of Kensington Market.

“What hurts the most is you have a federal government that appreciates the heritage and history of this site,” he said. “But you get a city council that just ignores it.”

He minces no words about his councillor, Adam Vaughan, who he feels has his own agenda.

“It (Vaughan’s agenda) has nothing to do with the market,” Pavao says.

He strongly believes Vaughan only caters to special interest groups — select business owners, activists and cyclists — within the community because they seem to get whatever they want.

His concerns are lengthy,

The market is difficult to access by car and there’s not enough parking.

He was forced to hire a private contractor to pick up his garbage two years ago when the city stopped twice-weekly pickup in the Market. Not surprisingly, his taxes did not go down as a result.

Grafitti is a “joke,” he says, because everytime his store is tagged, the city fines him, not the perpetrator.

Pavao would like to see graffiti better “enforced” and those who do it, required to come back and clean it up.

The drug pushers are a constant problem in Bellevue Square Park down the street.

Which brings Pavao to his biggest sore spot — Vaughan’s vanity project for Bellevue Square park.

He says Vaughan’s newest goal is to spend $1-million to redo the whole park. Pavao thinks that is an outrageous amount when you consider all it really needs is to be cleaned up, new grass and flowers planted, the washroom redone and a privately-operated concession stand added. He thinks all that — plus some repairs to get the wading pool running again — could be done for $60,000.

Getting rid of the pushers there just requires better “enforcement” by the bike cops — tickets, for example, that “make it very uncomfortable” for the pushers to trespass.

“I think he (Vaughan) wants to turn this area into Yorkville 2,” Pavao says. “There’s no need to spend money on a park that doesn’t need to be spent.”

Vaughan says $500,000 will be spent on the actual rehabilitation — money taken from the parks levy which is collected from development in the city and the ward.

He said a new playground alone will cost $200,000 on top of soil remediation, new tree plantings, rehabilitating the wading pool and reconfiguring the washroom.

He added that all of the electrical also has to be redone because there are two lines currently serving the park — for a cost yet to be determined.

A “huge community consultation” on the park started about 1 1/2 years ago and a firm has just been selected through a city tender to “create designs and workshop them” with area residents, he told me Thursday.

Once the designs are narrowed down, a tender will be issued for the project.

Now I’m all for consultation but this sounds like the Second Coming of Christ.

No wonder Pavao is frustrated by the lack of action on so many fronts.

Vaughan calls the Cafe Acoreana owner a “great character” in a neighbourhood of “lot of strong opinions” and says he walks through Kensington on almost a daily basis.

But Pavao — who last saw his councillor in the Market three weeks ago --thinks if Vaughan has any notion of running for mayor, he’d better learn to represent the entire community.

“He won’t talk to me because I’m not in his inner circle ... I’m just a taxpayer,” he said, noting at least Rob Ford, Vaughan’s nemesis, is trying to clean up the mess left because the last council pandered far too much to the special interests.

“Vaughan’s a man with two faces and I don’t trust either one right now.”