When it comes to politics in most condo buildings, vampire rules are in effect: no politician can cross the threshold unless invited in, and best that they come after dark. While hundreds of thousands of voters in the GTA live in condominiums, their voices are rarely heard in elections, and few of their elected representatives live like they do. That’s, in part, because many condo owners and renters are apathetic towards all things political. But that might be about to change, and this election might be the first one in which the block of voters takes its rightful place in the sunlight.
“The voice of the condominium is beginning to be heard,” says councillor Adam Vaughan, who is seeking reelection in the multi-dwelling riding of Trinity-Spadina. Vaughan, the de facto voice of the condo owner at City Hall, says that owners are now realizing that politics—be it local, provincial, or federal—have a bearing on their downtown lifestyle.
“The longer you are there, the more you are aware,” Vaughan continued, speaking of the way civic engagement works amongst those who live in condos. “And, at the same time, the older the building is, the stronger the condominium corporation”—the building’s ratepayers association. “In the first few years there are the growing pains of the building that the corporation deals with. As the building stabilizes, they start to look outside the building and begin to deal with other issues. For example, in my area, it’s ‘how close are the nightclubs?’ ‘What can be done about the noise?'”
Zipcar parking. One-way streets. Bike lanes for car-free condo owners. Even the noise of late-night garbage collection. All are issues that candidates are being asked about now by the condo-ites.
Vaughan has been working the condos this fall. He lives in a house, but he’s been speaking about high-density living issues long enough that condo associations are inviting him in to buildings to knock on doors and speak to voters.
Permission for access to buildings is a difficult task for anyone running. The halls of a condo are private property, private security often controls access to buildings, and jaded suite owners are more likely to ask their corporation to keep canvassing candidates out rather than ask them in. Most condos don’t allow signs in the windows or flyers at the doorstep, either.
Getting permission to get into a condo building during election time, Vaughan explains, is “significant, especially when you are a new candidate.” Being “known,” as Vaughan is, “makes it easier to interact with condo owners.”
By contrast, Trinity-Spadina MPP Rosario Marchese explains, “getting into rental buildings is easy. As a candidate you have rights and you can walk the halls and knock on doors.” Marchese is working with city politicians, condo corporation presidents, unit owners, a fledgling association of Ontario condo corporations, and fellow NDP MPPs to pass a private member’s bill that would modernize provincial laws governing condominium ownership.
“There are currently no politicians in the House that I know of who have been elected while living in a condo,” Marchese says. “I’d wager a bet and say 99% of them are homeowners. The same holds true at City Hall…how many live in condos? There is Kyle Rae and not many after that.”
“We have some big issues. There are over a million condo owners who can cast a ballot [in provincial civic elections]. That is a powerful block of power…if they decide to actually vote.”
“It is my belief that we are seeing a community arising out of condominium living. I believe it is emerging, where they are beginning to exert themselves and creating an identity,” explains Marchese. “They didn’t have one before….So whatever issues are happening, let us say, in the Queen’s Quay district, people are beginning to talk to each other. People are beginning to respond to things because this affects my condominium community, and me, which is what my Condo Association Bill is all about. This community has not been able to influence governments in the past. I believe that they will begin to do so.”
Mississauga condos. Photo by Stephen Weir.
Two of the three remaining major mayoral candidates, meanwhile, live in houses. George Smitherman has lived in a number of condos, and Joe Pantalone has part ownership in a Bathurst and Bloor area condominium.
“The growth of this kind of housing—efficient urban housing—is very important to the health of the city,” says Pantalone. “By-laws, zoning, and an understanding of the condo lifestyle have to keep pace with this [condo boom].”
“Civic engagement [with condo owners] is a serious issue, and here in Toronto there is a real problem,” Pantalone continues. He feels that the lack of communication between the city and the condo keeps tower-dwellers out of the political milieu.
Privacy concerns at times trump City efforts to keep condo owners informed. Pantalone points out that owners of low-rise housing receive notices of all proposed rezoning matters in their neighbourhood. “In the towers, the only name we have is the condo corporation board, not the individual owners. The condo board know what is happening but the individual owners may not.”
There are over two thousand condo buildings in Toronto; some have over five hundred individual owners. Each condo corporation may not know who owns the suites in their buildings. Plus, towers in the downtown core have significant numbers of units rented out by absentee owners, as some don’t even live in the country.
“Historically, condo owners in my riding don’t vote. Simple as that,” says veteran St. Paul’s councillor Joe Mihevc. “They have not engaged themselves politically to the same extent as house dwellers. I believe it is a lifestyle thing.”
“People choose a condo lifestyle to make living in Toronto easy. They focus very much on their personal life, whether it is extra-curricular activity, or maybe their profession. They have very much a more simplified life,” says Linda Pinizzotto.
Pinizzotto is the founder and the Political Action Chair for the new Condo Owners Association Ontario (COA), and the owner of several condos in downtown Toronto. COA launched in April 2009; the association draws its membership from individual condominium corporations in the province. By mid-summer there were about a dozen buildings involved.
Pinizzotto’s association wants to create a unified voice on behalf of the condo corporations, and represent them to all levels of government. Warranty issues, the impact of HST on condo fees, the Condo Act, and city standards for buildings yet to be built—all are part of their mandate. COA wants to get condo owners involved in the political process.
So why are there no sitting members at Queen’s Park and few City Hall–ers who have been elected while living in a condo? “It is a matter of timing,” she continues. “The new wave of condo owners could move towards that direction. You see, the condominium didn’t really take off until 1999, and most of the people that are in politics are beyond the age of the ’99 condo lift.”
“The age of most condo owners tends to be between 25 and 35″—younger than most elected officials. “That is a very strong age limit. Some people stay in condos, depending on what their desires are. But a lot start to have children and then move out to a single-family house.”
Trish Mason owns a co-op suite on Lonsdale Avenue, steps from Spadina. In the past, she’s sat on the building’s board and says she took an active interest in politics. But now she’s off the board, and her interest in civic politics has waned. She says that it’s a lifestyle thing for many people in her building—many have simply opted out.
“Not sure if I am going to vote. I have made my place a refuge away from the city,” she says. “I happen to be at the top at the back of an old building. It is an illusion, I know, but I feel so lucky that I feel away from it all. I don’t mind buzzing in a politician, but on the other hand I don’t want one sitting on my couch for half an hour!”
For Mason, her building has issues with the City that the high-end Forest Hill homes in her riding don’t. “It is all about garbage. Our building was built before recycling and so we have to use big bins that are easily accessible from the street. Sometimes they fill up quickly, and the garbage ends up out in the open. Strangers go through our recycle bins, I don’t mind homeless people harvesting liquor bottles, but they do it loudly at night on what is supposed to be private property—who is going to police our blue bins?”
“I do vote when there’s a candidate that I want to vote for…otherwise I don’t bother,” says condo owner Laurie Sakamoto, who lives at Queen’s Quay near Spadina. “If the voting station is in an inconvenient location, I don’t vote. Last election I didn’t vote because they told me to leave Yas”—Sakamoto’s small dog—”outside, which I refused to do since someone would probably have stolen her.”
“I just don’t want the [Island] airport to get any bigger. I love the fact that I can walk there and that it’s small with short wait times,” she continued. “The only thing that really bothers me about Queen’s Quay is if they decide to close it for events and charity walks I can’t use my car. I wish the new mayor would stop closing automobile lanes for bike lanes. He should also make cyclists abide by the same rules as motorists … no drinking and riding, no going through red lights, no cutting off motorists. We all have to get along.” And maybe, just maybe, vote.
Stephen Weir is a Toronto-based communicator. His articles appear regularly in Diver Magazine and the Toronto Star condo section.
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