By: Sam Reiss
I’m torn about the column you’re about to read. On the one hand, if you didn’t read Sue-Ann Levy’s two-part ramble in the Toronto Sun this week, I hate to call your attention to it. On the other hand, it’s just too big and juicy not to have a little fun of my own.
Levy’s big two-parter ran Sunday and Monday with titillating headlines like SUITE DEAL and UTOPIA FOR POOR? THAT’S RICH!
If there’s a through-line to them, I suppose it’s that … well, I actually don’t know what the through-line is. Let’s see if we can figure it out.
First, let me confess that I don’t have an in-depth knowledge of the Regent Park revitalization, so I’m not in a position to dispute her facts. Then again, there don’t seem to be many.
Levy starts out on Sunday by taking to task City Councillor Pam McConnell of Toronto Centre-Rosedale for supporting the revitalization while not revealing she might have a pecuniary interest in the development. Hmm. I wonder how many city councillors own real estate in the wards they represent. I wonder if, every time they attend a community event in support of their constituents, they make a point of saying they have a pecuniary interest in it.
Then she goes after McConnell for paying $418,464 for a two-bedroom unit — a nice one! With a balcony! And a southwest exposure! Clearly, if she really cared about the public she serves, McConnell should have forked over $400Gs and taken a studio in the basement. Facing north. Imagine paying full market value and thinking you should feel OK about choosing the suite you want the most.
Levy then attacks former TCH executives Derek Ballantyne and Gordon Chu for buying units as well, although by her own math, it seems they paid market value.
More big news — Ballantyne’s partner (whom I now know, thanks to Levy’s ground-breaking article, is on the editorial staff at the Star) and Chu’s wife (whose name is Cynthia!) are named on their respective deeds as joint tenants. Spouses as joint tenants? And one who works at a competing newspaper? Yes, that does seem fishy. And definitely hugely newsworthy.
Her next big reveal? That Daniels’ CEO Mitchell Cohen bought two suites as well — nice ones, with balconies!
In a sidebar (or I suppose bottom bar, to be precise), Levy details who bought what and for how much, and seems to want us to know that they all paid fair market price. And that Martin Blake, a Daniels’ v-p and a board member of the joint venture partnership formed by Daniels and TCH for the Regent Park developments, bought a suite for $343,411 — which, at the time of its purchase was worth $275,000. It was this year assessed — at $342,000. That might not make Blake the best investment advisor ever, but it doesn’t seem to make him guilty of anything.
She goes on to report that a licensed private investigator named Bert O’Mara said the public servants who purchased the units “appeared on paper to have a ‘laissez-faire attitude’ about what they had bought with no attempt to cover their tracks.” Wow. Now that is gutsy – imagine doing something you believe in no way compromises any legal or ethical principle, and then being so “laissez-faire” as to not bother trying to cover it up! That’s just pure laziness.
She wraps up Sunday’s column with the scoop that real estate appreciates. Apparently, more than 10% of the units were flipped in the first year, and many of the condos in the development are being resold at prices that are higher than the original purchase prices. Amazing.
In another sidebar, she attacks Mitchell Cohen, Daniels’ president and a man I know to be genuinely caring, a man who personally and through Daniels does a great deal to give back to his community — a man, folks, who has the unmitigated gall to also be rich. I mean, where does he get off living in a nice part of town, and yet still allowing himself to be lauded for his community work?
(To put the sarcasm aside — just for a second! — how is it relevant that Cohen owns numerous condos in the GTA? How is the price he paid for his family home in Scarborough relevant? And how is it OK under any journalistic tenet ever invented, to print his home address? )
She wraps up her scintillating sidebar with the shocker that only 12 TCHC tenants have been able to afford to buy in any of the market value condo buildings. OK, wait, so does that mean people who couldn’t afford condos before a bunch of condos got built near them still can’t afford condos? I smell a Pulitzer. (What is the Canadian equivalent of a Pulitzer anyway?)
Monday’s column takes an entirely different tack, asserting that the “poor” people who lived in Regent Park prior to redevelopment have been shunted off somewhere to parts unknown, when we Toronto taxpayers were all promised (apparently) that the poor would live in the same buildings in which the “upwardly mobile” had bought condos, and yet, there’s not a single rent-geared-to-income unit in any of the four condo buildings. Putting aside the fact that I’m a Toronto taxpayer, and I was never promised any such thing, let’s look at the cold facts of integrating the “poor” and the “upwardly mobile.”
It may be an ugly truth, but no one is going to sell condos by telling potential buyers, “Even though we’re going to charge you half a million dollars for your unit, the guy next door is paying $650 a month. Oh, and he doesn’t own it, so he doesn’t really have the same stake in the building that you have. Oh, and since he doesn’t pay HOA fees or contribute to the reserve fund, we’re going to have to double your contribution, m’kay?”
Then Levy disingenuously asks, “What exactly is a mixed-use community?” Well, a mixed-use community is one that has banks and groceries stores, things Regent Park hasn’t had for decades but now does. Likely contributing to the “real estate appreciates” revelation from Sunday’s column.
She points out that “only” 12 TCH tenants “had the means to take advantage of a special program called Foundation to buy units in the Cole St building or in One Park West. That program provides a second mortgage of up to 35% of the value of the home which is payable when the resident sells the home.”
Yet, she takes issue (“to add insult to injury”) with the 175 market condo buyers who “have been handed” 30-year second mortgage plans through a taxpayer-funded Toronto Affordable Housing Fund. Never mind that the mortgages are up to only 10% of the home’s value, or that even though they don’t have to be paid back until the condo is sold, they do, in fact, have to be paid back — what about the fact that those bastards at the presentation centre are helping people buy homes! Oh, wait … I’m confused again.
Are we mad because only a dozen TCH residents could take advantage of one program? Or because a whopping 175 took advantage of another? I wish this column came with a decoder ring.
The fact that her requests to find out “where all the poor people” have gone was met by “a dizzying array of numbers and bafflegab” at TCH should not come as a shock to anyone who has tried to renew a passport or get a driver’s licence — the government is not exactly run like a well-oiled machine. Hinting at a cover-up won’t make one materialize.
She goes on to assert that many residents who moved out of Regent Park have since moved to new units 1.5 km away, to locations she insists are on “busy streets” (unlike, say, Dundas?) with no green space, banks or other amenities nearby. Those addresses include 501 Adelaide St. E., which is just west of Parliament and a stone’s throw from the Sun’s own building, which actually has a grocery store on-site (that does qualify as an amenity, no?). Then there’s 60 Richmond St. E., which is at the centre of a triangle with a green space at each angle — Nathan Phillips Square, Moss Park and St. James, all within a five-minute walk. The third is 92 Carlton St., which is right next to Allan Gardens. Those poor poor people.
There might be more, but I just couldn’t bring myself to turn the page.
So, let’s recap. A bunch of developers paid full price for condos in their own developments. A city councillor supported the revitalization of a neighbourhood that was perhaps Toronto’s most infamous, and then paid more than $400,000 to live there (with a balcony!). Mitchell Cohen does a lot of things for the community, and yet has the unmitigated gall to be wealthy. Derek Ballantyne lives with a woman who has the unmitigated gall to work for The Star. Real estate appreciates. And some people who couldn’t afford to buy condos before the development of these particular condos still can’t afford to buy condos.
Listen, I’m not naïve. I know big-business people do unscrupulous things sometimes. I know politicians can be crooked. And I do rich people often get more than their fair share. But if that’s going on here, there’s no evidence of it in Levy’s “story.” (Hey, if she can use ironic quotations marks, so can I.)
I get that the appearance of impropriety is problematic in a deal that even rubs up against public money. And I’m pretty sure a bunch of government money got wasted on the Regent Park revitalization, but only because I’m pretty sure the government can’t do anything without wasting at least some money. Which makes it all the more vital to have a savvy development partner who’s in business, not in government.
But this whole story just feels like Levy had her mind made up before she even started researching. Even for a columnist, who makes her living from having contentious opinions, that seems backwards.Google+