Canada housing crisis hits home for artists: ‘Where do you go?’

Poverty and shelter beat royalty as the hot item as Canadian artists test out for a living when times get tough

With the media circus swirling around the Donald Trump presidency, a recession threatening a big slice of the Canadian economy and the income gap growing faster than anywhere else in the world, it’s no surprise that a housing crisis and a scarcity of affordable housing is hitting home.

Housing prices in Toronto and Vancouver have been booming and market analysts say rental rates are rising – with artists usually bearing the brunt of skyrocketing rents. Artists in Toronto and Vancouver are at the end of their rope.

“There’s nowhere to rent in Canada’s biggest cities. Last year, I had to beg for an unoccupied four-bedroom apartment in a far-flung suburb,” said Lina Schild, an artist who has been living and working in a string of homes in Toronto for three years.

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Ahead of an exhibition about homeless artists in Toronto, Schild said many artists had had to move back to their family homes and had even had to live on their own because there were no rentals in their price range.

Just five minutes from the Royal Ontario Museum in downtown Toronto, a spot will be on offer in the next couple of weeks in the new Dunlaw residence for artists.

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Located in the city’s Arts Works complex, the 60-month solo artist residence is currently accepting applications for artists. It’s the first time a city in North America has launched an entirely new building for artists since its inception.

A few blocks away in downtown Toronto, a rental house that was being refurbished is now up for sale with rooms available. Only 60 spaces are left in the whole building with all the studios and storage units being let. A fresh batch of artists will be living here this winter.

“It’s as frustrating as life ever gets. In short, where do you go?” said David Aisbett, a photographer who has been using the Dunlaw residence to work, adding that he was being driven out of his loft by a stalled development project.

“I’m sorry to say this, but the [art] world is passing us by. There is no affordable housing anymore for artists,” he said.

Aging public housing in the two major Canadian cities often sits empty as the status quo no longer works for artists. So artists – and artists’ only sure foot – to find a new home while they build a career.

“You should be moving when your phone starts ringing,” said Omer Farokhzad, the founder of Spaz Studios, a gallery in Toronto. Farokhzad, an artist, said he recently accepted a buyout from Public Library Services Ontario to move to Vancouver, where the rent was $1,000 a month less.

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Small-scale artists who are well established are sharing spaces to save rent but the need for housing for artists is massive. According to the Canadian Institute of Art and Design’s report Working with the Income Gap and the Future of Labor in Canada, 39% of Canadians in the labour force work in the arts.

“What we know is that the number of social housing units will continue to shrink. At the same time, Canadians are losing confidence in large companies because the evidence is that people are working less. So if you’re using 20% less time in 2014 than you did in 2006, you’re working shorter hours,” said Patrick Kennedy, the chair of the Institute for Public Policy.

“We’re probably doing damage to the economy by putting our foot on the gas pedal unnecessarily.”

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