How to Buy a House on the Toronto Islands
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How to Buy a House on the Toronto Islands

Want to pack it all in and move to the islands? Someone’s written about that already. Want to pack it all in and move to the Toronto Islands? We can write about that. All you need is luck, patience, and money.

Thanks to a 1993 provincial statute that ended a bitter and lengthy land dispute, strict rules overseen by the Toronto Islands Residential Community Trust govern transfers of the 262 residential properties on Ward’s Island and Algonquin Island in the eastern end of the archipelago.

When a property becomes available, it can’t be put on the free market. Rather, it’s offered for a fixed price to the first hundred people on a five-hundred-person waiting list. The list is ranked, so if there are multiple interested buyers, the property goes to the person closest to the top of the list. If none of the first hundred people are interested, the property is offered to people further down on the list, but this is rare. Forty-seven properties have been sold since the system began in 1994.

(Technical aside: you can’t buy land on the Islands. Rather, you assume a long-term lease to a plot of land and buy the building sitting on it. For our purposes, though, we’ll stick with the non-technical shorthand of “buying” and “selling” property.)

Your first task is to join the list. As the list is capped at five hundred, you have to wait for existing people to drop off. About three people get properties each year, and about 15 to 20 leave for other reasons. After a critical mass of vacancies accumulates, a call for applications is announced, and vacancies are filled by a lottery run by the Trust’s auditors.

The last call occurred in November 2007, with 375 applicants for 47 spots. The next call, for 30 spots, occurs in November 2009. Keep an eye on the website, apply at the appropriate time, and cross your fingers.

If you get on the list, you’ll have to wait. And wait. For how long? As the Trust declines to make predictions, Torontoist will engage in a bout of speculation.

You’ll start at the back of the queue (#471 to #500). Under a best-case scenario in which 20 people ahead of you drop out each and every year, you’re looking at around twenty years before cracking the top 100 and up to five more years before getting to the front of the list.

However, not every single vacancy will arise ahead of you. The Trust hasn’t yet compiled data about the ranks of the people who drop out, but it seems reasonable to assume that, as the years go by, a growing percentage of vacancies will arise behind you. And these vacancies don’t help: if you’re #300, you don’t move up if #400 drops out. Plus, the further you advance, the more hardcore the people on the list become, such that—other than actually getting a house—death or infirmity might be the only reasons for them to drop off.

Let’s assume a deceleration of your pace over time:

  • In the first decade, nearly all of the vacancies are ahead of you (eighteen to twenty per year);
  • In the second decade, about two-thirds of the vacancies are ahead of you (twelve to fourteen per year);
  • In the third decade, about half of the vacancies are ahead of you (nine to eleven per year).

After 30 years, you may climb about 420 spots, meaning a rank of #51 to #80. Possibly good enough, but only if a property comes up that no one ahead of you wants. If you wait five more years, you may be looking at a number in the #20s or #30s, which should be good for something if you aren’t too fussy. Wait another five years, and you may crack the top ten.

Torontoist’s best guess of an average wait for people joining the list in 2009 to buy on the Islands? Thirty-five years. Hey, it could be worse—you could be waiting for a Stanley Cup.

As for money, it costs $110 to apply to join the list, though you get $100 back if you don’t get a spot. Once on the list, you pay an annual fee of $35 to keep your place. The properties themselves range anywhere from $75,000 to $450,000.

If this all seems too much, there are unconventional ways to move to the Islands. As sales to spouses or children are exempt from the above rules, consider honing your gold-digging skills or wide-eyed orphan look (or both). Proposals have been made to increase the number of properties—the Toronto Island Housing Initiative is pushing for co-operative housing, and one author has mused about converting the airport lands into housing—so you can support them or start your own effort. There are also rumblings of a land claim by the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, which could theoretically lead to an entirely new property regime.

If you’re not looking at a permanent move, there are other options for long stays. You can rent from an existing owner (tenancies are legal for up to three years), sublet a place like this studio for the winter, help the Shaw House project to increase the availability of seniors’ housing, befriend the right people and land a housesitting gig, or become an artist or writer and get chosen to stay at Artscape Lodge. Good luck!
Hat tip to reader Lee Chapman, who got us thinking about this issue.

CORRECTION: AUGUST 6, 2009 A photo originally mistakenly used in this article was of a house in Cabbagetown, rather than one on the Islands—a result of our misreading the photo’s description and tags.