A ceiling collapsed at a Toronto housing complex. Now residents could be waiting years to return home

Sharon Smith has been through a lot since having to leave her home of 21 years earlier this summer.

She is one of many residents forced to leave Swansea Mews, a community housing complex just west of High Park on Windermere Avenue near the Queensway, after a ceiling collapsed and injured a woman on May 27.

Since leaving, Toronto Community Housing (TCHC) has temporarily put Smith up at a hotel in Mississauga.

While grateful for somewhere to stay, the hotel’s location makes going about her daily life much more difficult, she told CBC Toronto. 

“The location is the worst,” she said. “There are no grocery stores around here. The only place that we could get something to eat is at McDonald’s and it takes about 25 minutes to walk there.”

Smith has weekly doctor appointments near her old home. She travels an hour and half both ways and has to pay both Mississauga and Toronto transit fares to get there.

“It takes a toll on me,” she said. 

Access has been restricted to Swansea Mews, a Toronto Community Housing complex in the city’s west-end. Residents were forced to leave earlier this summer after a ceiling collapsed on May 27 injuring a woman. (Paul Borkwood / CBC News)

After the ceiling collapse in May, some Swansea Mews residents were told they may have to leave their units for a few weeks. But in mid-June, TCHC received an order to begin vacating all buildings in the complex after structural engineers deemed them unsafe. Since then, residents have been scattered to various temporary accommodations all over the GTA. 

A total of 114 units needed to be evacuated at the west-end complex, TCHC told CBC Toronto. As of Aug. 10, 52 of the displaced households have matched with new long-term residences. Of those, 44 have signed leases and 35 have already moved in. The new lease agreements include the right to return to Swansea Mews as soon as it’s safe to do so.   

‘We don’t have a plan yet’

TCHC spokesperson Robin Smith (no relation) said that’s not likely to be any time soon. 

“The short answer on the future of Swansea is we don’t have a plan yet,” he told CBC Toronto. “I think we can confidently say that it will be a number of years before people can return.” 

TCHC is working closely with a number of different engineering consultants to figure out how best to move forward. Tenant safety is their top priority, he said. 

Robin Smith, a spokesperson for Toronto Community Housing, says it will likely be years before Swansea Mews residents can return to their homes. (Paul Borkwood / CBC News)

But residents like Sharon Smith aren’t satisfied with TCHC’s handling of the situation.

Communication with the agency has caused more confusion than clarity, she said.

“They gave us a hotline number to call [but you] never get them,” Smith said. “You would leave a message and you would be lucky if they get back to you in two days.”

A TCHC employee is present at hotel she’s living at, but Smith said they often can’t answer her questions.

Residents staying in short-term accommodations arranged by TCHC have been told they need to accept new long-term arrangements sooner rather than later. 

Those staying in college or university dorms need to move out to make room for students in the fall. And those staying in hotels have been given until the end of the month to accept a new long-term residence— an extension from a previous date of Aug. 11.

The problem is, Smith said, there’s not a lot of choice to be had.

“Looking at the places that they gave us to choose from … they need a lot of fixing,” she said.

One of those places is another TCHC complex located in Regent Park that was recently set to be demolished.

‘They lied to all of us’

Andrea McInnis, another Swansea Mews resident, told CBC Toronto she doesn’t trust that a building previously set for demolition is safe to live in, despite TCHC’s assurances.

McInnis said she doesn’t trust TCHC at all anymore.

“They lied to all of us,” she said. ” I’m very upset. They just don’t listen. They don’t care.”

When TCHC representatives met with Swansea Mews residents at Humber College in June, McInnis said they promised to provide things like meal plans and taxi chits for people to make their medical appointments.

All of that has stopped, she said.

McInnis has secured a new long-term residence with TCHC, but she has yet to sign a lease and doesn’t know when she’ll be able to move in.

“I’m just tired. Just, like the fight. … I just can’t anymore,” she said.

Kate Hoffmann is the local director of the Stone Soup Network, a charity that has raised just under $70,500 for displaced Swansea Mews residents. (Paul Borkwood / CBC News)

Kate Hoffmann is the local director of Stone Soup Network, a charity that has been raising funds for dislocated Swansea Mews residents.

“Their whole lives have been torn out from under them,” she told CBC Toronto. “Whatever childcare arrangements they had, whatever senior care arrangements they had, whatever systems they had for getting their kids to school and getting themselves to work, everything has been taken from them.”

Hoffmann described this situation as “a slow-moving silent disaster” that hasn’t received the same response that a natural disaster would have.

Stone Soup’s fundraising campaign ended on Aug. 11 and raised about $70,500. 

As for Smith, she’s happy to have recently secured a new long-term residence and will be moving soon.

But she’s still frustrated about everything that’s happened to her and the other residents she’s become close with.

This disaster has brought the former residents closer together, Smith said, and she plans to keep fighting for them.

“Even though I got a place, I will not give up on my family, my Swansea family.”

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