Berlin voted to confiscate the houses of large landowners. Should Toronto do the same to create cheaper housing?

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Have you ever seen a nice project in another city and asked yourself: Could we do this here? Should we? We have, and as part of an ongoing series, we’ll take ideas from around the world and take them through the lens of Toronto.

In videos posted on social media this fall, cheering Berliners sang and popped confetti cannons on the street.

That wasn’t a festival but a victory for those in favor of housing construction – because more than half of the voters supported a radical proposal to take over around 240,000 residential units from major Berlin landlords in a city-wide referendum.

While non-binding – the decision to act on the results is still in the hands of Berlin officials – the campaign has caught the attention of advocates and officials in cities like Toronto.

For some, it has fueled an ongoing debate over whether Toronto could use expropriation to help achieve its residential goals. The idea has been launched before, particularly with regards to a handful of neighboring lots near the corner of Sherbourne and Dundas Streets – currently home to a large patch of grass and an empty, sprawling brick house with spindly black gates.

“This square has been vacant for over a decade, with people sleeping on the sidewalk in front of it night after night, year after year,” said Tommy Taylor, manager of the Toronto Drop-in Network, which serves the homeless.

While the city keeps an eye on the real estate For years this spring, staff said the owners weren’t interested in selling to them.

The last directive of the council was to continue negotiating, but also to seek financing for the purchase or expropriation of the land. While some staff and officials have urged caution in pursuing expropriations, Taylor is among those asking the city to orient itself on the Berlin vote.

“Here comes Berlin and they say enough is enough,” he said, noting that proponents had planned to gather for a national housing construction day on Sherbourne properties later this month. “It has been the place of suffering for a long time, and it could be something else.”

The referendum in Berlin was forced by local apartment hunters who took advantage of a system that allows questions to be asked about the public vote if the activists collect enough signatures. Supporters pointed to rising rents in the German capital, while critics warned that taking over hundreds of thousands of apartments could cost the state billions from its budget.

Danielle Koyama, a frontline worker at the Regent Park Community Health Center in Toronto, stated that the Berlin proposal would not create new units, but would protect the affordability of those that already exist. If Toronto decides to use its own expropriation powers on the Sherbourne locations, she believes it can go a step further by creating an entirely new housing offering.

“There is more at stake for me,” said Koyama. “We are in such a dire situation in this area, and for some people at least there is this possible solution if the city would just accept it.”

Councilor Kristyn Wong-Tam supports the expropriation. Describing the site as a “visual pest,” she noted that it could be used to replenish Toronto’s scarce public housing stock.

But Toronto Housing Secretariat executive director Abi Bond said in March that staff believed that negotiating could get the Sherbourne properties faster and at a better price.

Speaking of expropriation, Coun. Ana Bailão – Mayor John Tory’s advocate for affordable housing – also warns that the city may be charging a steeper than expected bill. Nevertheless, she sees the tool as useful, for example when securing properties that are adjacent to properties owned by the city.

According to the Expropriation Act, the city can involuntarily take possession of private property if this property is used for a specific communal purpose – with examples such as road widening, parks or police stations.

The city still has to pay for the properties and the concern of Bailão and a few others is that after lengthy procedures such as appraisals, arbitration and mediation, the city may face a higher price than it could negotiate.

“There are times when it makes a lot of sense because you can get a much better public good,” she said.

With a view to Berlin, she said that the city should ask the same questions when living becomes a commodity, even if the solutions look different due to different laws.

A nudge from Coun last winter. Gord Perks for the federal or provincial government to help dispossess empty hotel rooms and apartments for the homeless did not find support from the council. Tory then expressed his lack of confidence in these governments.

“We’re just going to get caught up in a long, unsatisfactory, and unproductive debate about it,” Tory said, arguing that the city’s efforts would be better used to negotiate funding.

Among those who believe expropriation could be more used, Perks notes that years ago the city expropriated an abandoned building to create a supportive housing development called Edmond Place.

On Tuesday, the city announced a proposal from staff to expropriate another property in its community – a development they hope will include 109 new homes, half of which are said to be affordable. The application to initiate first-stage expropriation proceedings for the 1337 Queen St. W. site will be dealt with by the Executive Committee on December 7th.

“We opened up a new world of possibilities,” said Perks on Tuesday. “I think we are setting a precedent that other councilors and other neighborhoods could follow.”

Housing advocates like AJ Withers, meanwhile, hope that the ideas will migrate from Berlin.

“If that can happen there, hopefully that’s the first thing that could become dominoes.”

With files from Associated Press

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