Adjust the text

Study: Seniors Meet Gentrification in Toronto’s Little Portugal


Toronto’s Little Portugal is a neighbourhood in transition, and not everyone’s happy.

Located in the downtown west end of Toronto, Little Portugal is home to the largest concentration of Portuguese in Canada. Over the past two decades, large numbers of urban professionals have moved into the neighbourhood, attracted by its downtown location and large stock of Victorian housing.

Cafés, restaurants and new businesses have followed.

Many Portuguese homeowners in their 40s and 50s have sold their homes and moved to single detached houses in Mississauga and Brampton. Well-off older Portuguese have also moved to the suburbs to be close to their adult children.

Immigrant seniors on fixed incomes have been hardest hit by this gentrification of the neighbourhood, says Carlos Teixeira, an associate professor of geography at the University of British Columbia.

"Most . . . are first generation, born in Portugal, blue collar workers with low levels of education and little knowledge of the English language."

Teixeira’s study was published in Diversity and Aging Among Immigrant Seniors in Canada (Detselig Enterprises Ltd).

A neighbourhood in transition

Sixty-five per cent of respondents reported steadily rising property taxes and high maintenance costs had become major concerns for low-income people in the past few years, including older Portuguese on fixed incomes.

"Some Portuguese seniors have problems maintaining their houses," one respondent said. "If they are on a fixed income – a pension of $1,000 – it’s not going very far. How can they pay for repairs?"

As a result, some older residents have sold their homes and moved to the suburbs. Many still return to Little Portugal to do business and to participate in the cultural and religious life of the community.

"My bank (Portuguese-owned) decided to open on Saturdays because we have clients that come from Mississauga, Brampton Kitchener, Cambridge …," one Portuguese bank manager said.

We won’t go

Teixeira also found older Portuguese determined to stay in the community.

This group bought their homes in the 1950s and 1960s, when housing was inexpensive. For these older adults, proximity to Portuguese cultural and religious institutions and businesses trumps everything else.

As one respondent put it, "What’s the point to sell for good bucks, cash some money and go to the suburbs far away from the Portuguese community? That’s not what they want."

Faced with increasing costs, many cope by renting out part of their homes. Most renters are Portuguese-speaking immigrants who make informal arrangements with homeowners without written leases and contracts.

Even so, many older residents have difficulty making ends meet.

One respondent, who worked as an aide to a provincial member of parliament explained:

Everyday, my number one job is dealing with people complaining to me because they are seniors and they can’t afford their hydro. They can’t afford to pay for the water; they cannot afford to pay their property taxes. They are all Portuguese. That’s why they all come to my office, because I speak Portuguese, and that’s the number one issue we are dealing with now . . .

Respondents also expressed concern about the community’s aging population: "The major challenge now is how to accommodate our seniors in terms of housing in a cultural place where they feel at home."

Downtown living for the wealthy

The study concludes that the exodus to the suburbs by many Portuguese and the disappearance of affordable housing threatens the long-term viability of Little Portugal and its cultural and business institutions.

And they are not the only ones under pressure. Alan Walks and Richard Maaranen of the University of Toronto have found that gentrification in Montreal and Vancouver had similar effects. Researchers warn if the trend continues, Canada’s metropolitan areas will become the preserves of elites, creating segregated and fragmented communities rather than inclusive ones.