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Poorest Neighbourhoods in Toronto

by Heather McDowell on 22 Sep 2022

Statistics Canada defines a low-income neighbourhood as one in which 30% or more persons had low incomes.

In the National Household Survey(NHS), 9% or 478 of all neighbourhoods were classified as low-income, based on the income people received in 2010.

Very low-income neighbourhoods are a subset of the low-income neighbourhoods and are defined as those in which 40% or more persons had low incomes.

Defining Terminology

With such a clinical definition, I find it helpful to wrap my head around how to define poor neighbourhoods or the poorest neighbourhoods by looking at the empirical definition produced by a government body like StatsCan.

However, this is not the only measure of how I would define "poor or poorest neighbourhood".

It's my belief that there's a socioeconomic element to it as well; Put another way, there's an intangible quality of life variable that is also an important measure in this.

Sharp Corners

Cornerstone issues of these communities tend to be affordable housing, social and human development, lack of ability to coordinate local services, and justice issues such as the underrepresentation of neighbourhood police officers and their need to tackle youth violence.

In a city sometimes referred to as a 'city of neighbourhoods', one way Mayor Rob Ford and community planning committees across the globe, for that matter, use to give priority neighbourhood status is through a tool called the Urban Heart Assessment Tool.

Exploring the Moss Park Neighbourhood

Moss Park, one of Toronto's poorest neighbourhoods is identified as Shuter Street is Moss Park's northerly border, Queen Street East is its southerly border and Jarvis Street and Parliament Street form its westerly and easterly perimeter, respectively; Although the boundaries are debated, most agree that it's 'Old Toronto'.

This downtown Toronto area, known as a common place where low-income residents live has gained popularity recently as one of the more famous neighbourhoods in Toronto due in large part to Kim's Convenience, of Netflix fame.

The Roots of Moss

The densely populated community which is comprised of almost exclusively rental properties and as such is densely populated, got its name from the abundant moss that grew on the original estate of the Allan family.

During the sixties, a large number of buildings were demolished to make way for the Moss Park Public Housing Project, a group of three large towers at Queen and Parliament streets (run by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, part of social planning Toronto).

Strong Neighbourhood Strategy

While we're talking about social planning, its incumbent upon us to touch upon Toronto City Hall's Strong Neighbourhood Strategy (TSNS).

The City council voted on Toronto’s priority neighbourhood strategy for building partnerships in the city's poorest communities so they can succeed and thrive.

The city programs support community infrastructure well-being by partnering with residents, community agencies and businesses to invest in people, services, programs and facilities in Neighbourhood Improvement Areas (NIAs).

The strategy strengthens the social, economic and physical conditions and delivers local impact for city-wide change.

The Ethos of NIAs

The ethos is that through local funding investments to support programs aligned with the community planning's local planning table, such as subsidized housing, and community gardens, will come the ability to develop neighbourhood action plans and other community building activities in the community groups labelled a 'poorest neighbourhood' in Toronto.

Differing Viewpoints Agree on Affordability

While sometimes the items that a local resident advisory council wants for their neighbourhoods in Toronto and the neighbourhood improvement area for which city jobs and city staff are responsible may differ, both agree on what needs to be the priority neighbourhood strategy launched: affordability in the communities deemed to be the poorest neighbourhood.

The Toronto Star Points North

Toronto Star article entitled, North Scarborough Getting Short Changed by City Despite High Need brings to light how the Toronto strong neighbourhood strategy which is meant to serve the entire city, entire megacity is under-serving north Scarborough's neediest communities.

The city council uses criteria to determine neighbourhood improvement areas (NIAs) which then opens up additional support for tackling justice issues and related crime statistics, issues related to poverty and social service gaps.

7 of 140

Seven of the 140 shelters are located in North Scarborough yet not one of those communities has received the NIA designation and subsequent additional support (to go to community programming in Scarborough's neediest communities, not shelter costs).

Second-Class Status

The Toronto Star article, including the comments by Agincourt rooming house resident, Bee Lee Soh has brought North Scarborough community organizations to the forefront.

Folks like United Way's Vice President praise this article for articulating the second-class status felt for years by citizens of the Agincourt South Malvern West area, West Hill or the Scarborough Rouge Valley Ward, to name but two when compared to those communities in the downtown core.

The Problem with NIA

Agincourt Community Services Association Executive Director, Lee Soda, echos the Agincourt rooming house resident, Ms. Soh's viewpoint when she calls out a disparity to the detriment of communities in North Scarborough noting that when the NIA model was adopted in 2015 it created an inherent inequity because "...it didn't factor in everything - particularly the housing piece."

Lack of Public Advocacy

Social Policy Expert, John Stapleton seconds the favour for the downtown core when he notes that Milliken, a once thriving middle class has now more people than in the past relying on their meagre Ontario Works benefits with less social programming due to "...the lack of public policy advocacy in North Scarborough is stunning."

Regent Park

Let's explore Regent Park. This neighbourhood is historically known for gang violence and as the largest high-rise community is bordered by Gerrard Street East to the North, Parliament Street to the west, River Street to the East and Queen Street East to the South.

Regent Park has always been a landing spot for new immigrants to Canada, however loosening of immigration policies in the sixties changed the demographic of this neighbourhood of apartment buildings again to include more people of the Caribbean and Asian history.

The Regent Park Revitalization

The Regent Park Revitalization goes beyond a desire to create community gardens; it showcases a collaboration,

"...between Toronto Community Housing Corporation, the City of Toronto, Regent Park tenants, their neighbours, our private sector development partners and community partners to transform ageing housing infrastructure into a successful, mixed-income, mixed-use neighbourhood, with rental buildings, market condominium buildings, townhomes, commercial spaces, community facilities, active parks and open spaces.", according to torontohousing.ca.

The scale of this project is just off the charts.

The Regent Park Revitalization goals are:

  • 2,083 replacement rent-geared-to-income (sometimes referred to as subsidized housing) units
  • 399 new affordable rental units
  • 5,400 new market condominium units
  • spanning 69 acres
  • and a whopping 25 years.

Are They or Aren't They?

There seems to be some debate on whether communities such as James Town and Flemingdon Park are low-income or middle-class communities.

This can fluctuate tremendously when looking at multiyear data sets as gentrification and urban movement takes hold.

Considering the Impact of COVID-19

An important consideration when assessing whether Flemingdon Park or James Town fits the bill, like virtually everything else, is what impact has COVID-19 and mass urban exodus had on the household incomes and socioeconomic status of these neighbourhoods.

Turning BoHo

A similar debate, although for different reasons, the Toronto Kensington Market area is considered 'poor'.

This bohemian old Toronto neighbourhood which is located on the west side of Chinatown has a high ratio of renters to owner-occupied homes than the Toronto average.

In recent years there have been calls for more neighbourhood police officers due to a perceived increase in crime rates.

Calling Out Elephants

We'd be remissed if we didn't address the elephant in the room; many subjective criteria folks use to assess the richness or poorness of a community is tied to ethnicity and perceptions of other cultured.

It's because of this uncertainty that we're going to leave this here for the moment and turn our minds to neighbourhoods in Toronto that more definitively fall within the realm of the poorest.

The Interesting Tale of East Chinatown

While we're on the topic of neighbourhoods and ethnicity, let's explore the interesting story that is East Chinatown. This neighbourhood is a Chinese neighbourhood located in the city of Toronto's east end in Riverdale and one of the city's several Chinatowns.

Expropriation of Chinatown

With the expropriation of the first of the downtown Chinatowns from the fifties to the sixties as well as the subsequent increase in property values in the Spadina Avenue West Chinatown, many Chinese Canadians migrated to the city's east end.

As with many Canadian Chinatowns, the demographics of East Chinatown have been changing with gentrification and immigration.

Educating Ourselves on York University Heights

The neighbourhood known as York University Heights sometimes called Northwood Park, is at the north end of Toronto and is bordered by Keele and Jane Streets and is along the Steeles Avenue border, extending south to Sheppard Avenue.

The reason behind at least one of its names is that it's in this neighbourhood that you'll find the main campus of York University.

Reaching York University Heights

York University Heights is a unique community in that demographically speaking, it's a blend of students and a multicultural residential population.

Many of the shops and restaurants cater to the tens of thousands of students who live here, resulting in lower shopping and food prices.

The Village at York University is one of the last major new-home developments within the City of Toronto including condo townhouses, semi-detached and detached properties and very little subsidized housing.

The West Hill Neighbourhood

West Hill has an extremely appropriate moniker since it is the high point surrounded by ravines. It is west of the hill you would have to climb to get through the eastern section of Highland Creek. Since it's largely surrounded by the ravines, maybe Central Hill or something would have been better.

Defining this community can be a bit tricky. Even the megacity doesn’t have a consistent definition. The western part of west hill, extending further west across Highland Creek, is considered the priority neighbourhood of Kingston-Galloway-Orton Park (KGO).

The West Hill Community is regarded as a community of extreme poverty. This is due in part to the average wages for this community being unable to support the cost of living. There is also a large ratio between rental occupied and owner-occupied property.

Even though West Hill is not on the subway line, it's still very accessible via public transit, whether it's taking a TTC bus, hopping on the bus to get to the Kennedy Subway Station, GO transition for relatively-localized intercity travel or for cross-province travel, the VIA rail is a lovely way to get you there.

Although drawing a direct correlation can be an oversimplification on the issues, it has a low educational rating, high crime rates including violent crimes and low job opportunities.

Some attribute the root cause to stigma, in which case it's the recommendation to combat that negative connotation by using or reviving neighbourhood names like Agincourt or West Hill.

Top 3

Okay, so while we know that Forest Hill South, well, any part of Forest Hill really, is one of the richest town's people when looking at their household income.

But what communities did make the list of the top three poorest neighbourhoods?

They are as follows:

  • West Hill
  • Malvern
  • Agincourt
  • Regent Park

Psst...we've given you four and two of them are located in Scarborough.

Toronto'S Ghetto Moves

An article in the Globe and Mail in 2004 entitled Toronto's ghettos move to the 'burbs reviews a report by the United Way of Greater Toronto entitled Poverty By Postal Code.

Even though this article is 8 years old, it's an important piece in the discussion around the intersection of poverty and geography in Toronto.

This article is the first one, as far as I know, that identifies a trend that has continued to this day.

Once upon a time, Toronto's ghettos were found almost exclusively in downtown Toronto. Now we find low-income communities (which can include but are not synonymous with subsidized housing) or Toronto's poorest neighbourhoods in North Toronto and beyond.

They have moved to the so-called inner suburbs, which are the mega-city's more suburban areas in an attempt to find the increasingly elusive affordable housing.

In Conclusion

As mentioned at the top end of this article, what determines the most impoverished neighbours is very subjective. Some may say it's the Lawrence Park area, the Finch area or perhaps even the Bathurst Street communities.

Armchair Experts abound; There's heavy criticism of Ford and the city council's initiatives regarding where they put the most support, or the NIA implementation, expropriations and the Regent Park Revitalization.

As variable as that may be I think we can all agree that there is a pretty clear correlation between housing affordability and the poorest neighbourhood in the city.



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