The unaffordable city: how did Toronto get so !@#$%&* expensive—and is it worth it?

Middle-class life isn’t what it used to be. Thanks to a heated real estate market, a strong dollar, new taxes and stagnating incomes, Toronto has become, improbably, one of the world’s most expensive cities. Is it worth it?

(Illustration by Julien Pacaud; skyline photo by Brian Summers)

Today, an average Saturday, I spent the following: $6 on a round-trip TTC ride; about $17 on groceries from the Wychwood Barns farmers’ market (organic Crispin apples, an olive boule and free-range eggs); $34 on two bottles of wine (one decent, one plonk); almost $20 on the recent Superchunk CD and $11 on toiletries. Lunch was cheap and simple: a peanut butter sandwich, an apple and a few spoonfuls of raspberry yogurt. Dinner was free: homemade rice-and-bean burritos at a friend’s house. On the way home from that modest dinner party, waiting forever for the Dufferin bus, I almost splurged on a cab, but it seemed wasteful. Then I got home and booked a flight to New York on Porter for a friend’s 40th birthday: another $326. There’s also what I spend on my mortgage, property taxes, insurance, utilities, cellphone, Internet, YMCA membership, charitable donations and credit card debt. All of that adds up to roughly $65 a day. So, as a childless, home-owning, not-terribly-extravagant-but-not-entirely-miserly-either Torontonian, this one day at the tail end of 2010 cost me—not counting the airfare, which, for argument’s sake, I’m setting aside as an exceptional expense—about $153.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s about $20 more than what I make every day, after taxes. And it leaves nothing, obviously, for home repairs, clothing, vet bills, investments, medical expenses, birthday presents, savings, recreational drugs, holidays or the kid that Liz, my fiancée, and I have been talking about having this year but which, if things continue in this fashion, we’ll have to postpone having until we get jobs that net us more than $50,000 each a year.

Toronto Life is paying me $6,500 to write this article, which is a good chunk of change, sure, especially given how much less other magazines and newspapers are coughing up these days. But it’s also about the same amount I would have been paid if I had written the same article in 1995. And in 1995, the $420,000 that Liz and I paid last summer for a little three-bedroom semi on a somewhat glum, treeless street at Dufferin and Davenport would have bought us an enormous detached home in Trinity-Bellwoods. We would likely have a car or two and a couple of kids; our kids might even have their own cars. We wouldn’t have cared so much that our food was locally or sustainably grown, but we would also have paid less for it and been able to eat in restaurants more than, say, once a month—even if the restaurants we could choose from would be fewer and not nearly as good.

We would have grudgingly become used to paying GST, but we wouldn’t have been paying HST or two land-transfer taxes or five cents for every plastic bag, not that I’m against that particular idea. We wouldn’t have to pay anything to use public swimming pools or put out our garbage. A TTC ticket was $1.30. At bars, you could buy smuggled American cigarettes, $3 a pack, from a greasy guy who carried them around in a duffle bag. Mike Harris would have just been elected. Toronto was just Toronto, and North York was North York; Etobicoke, Etobicoke. Whenever I used an ATM, I would take out $20 at a time, instead of the $100 I take out now, and the cash would go almost as far.

In 1995, whenever I used an ATM, I took out $20 at a time, instead of the $100 I take out now, and the cash would go almost as far

But nothing goes very far now. Enough, it seems, is never enough. This isn’t exactly news. Businesses fail; money moves. Habits change; appetites evolve. What was once a movie theatre becomes a dollar store. Toronto is today coping with an unforgiving drumbeat of financial strain: a still-booming real estate market, new taxes, perilous debt, stubbornly high unemployment and the possibility of stagflation. The city, in many ways and for many more people, is much more expensive than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Growing income polarization has made the middle class a minority where once it was the majority. We’re in no danger of becoming a hollowed-out Buffalo or Detroit; in fact, we are moving in the opposite direction—our downtown increasingly resembles New York City, for better and worse. If Manhattan long ago became a playground for the rich, Toronto is becoming something like a jungle gym; plutocrats purchase $11-million penthouse suites at the new Ritz-Carlton while the rest of us nervously ponder the nutritional value of a Roasted Vegetable Ritz cracker. Smug self-congratulation has characterized our two-steps-forward-one-step-back journey through the recession—Our banks are the best! Our real estate rocks!—but now that we’ve supposedly come out the other side, unless you are a Stronach or a Rogers, things still look scary. Everyday life now means living beyond our means.