Inheritances help many people afford to live in Toronto. Including me

By: Renee Sylvestre-Williams on February 27, 2020
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My stomach ties itself into knots every time I see an envelope from my property management company. How much of an increase will it be this time around? Will we have another special assessment? 

Then I inevitably start to wonder whether it’s time to ditch the condo. Is this the year I sell my Toronto place and move back in with my parents despite being in my 40s? 

On paper I look like the creative worker’s dream: I make a living freelancing, I pay taxes and I own property in Toronto, which I bought right between the 2008 financial crisis and the start of skyrocketing Toronto real estate in the early 2010s. 

But that means I’m constantly marketing myself to get more work at rates that make it worthwhile to do the work, pay my bills and try to put something into a retirement fund. While I enjoy it, it can be stressful and I often wonder if I should just pack it all in and get a full-time job. 

Even then, a steady job is not a guarantee. I worked in journalism and have been through enough layoffs that not only did I start to take it personally, I have an employment lawyer on speed-dial. Toronto is getting more expensive and wages have not been keeping up with inflation, unless you’re very, very rich. So when my parents offered to gift me money to put towards my mortgage, I paused. Then I said yes. 

“Can you afford it?” I asked. “I don’t want you to be scrunting.” (This works if you read it in a Trinidadian accent.) 

“Yes,” my mother said. “This is money from your grandmother. We’re fine.” Quite frankly I don't know how to feel about her offer, because it makes me one of those people you read about all the time these days: the freelancer who owns a place that's mostly paid off because she got help from her parents.

But getting this inheritance has made my condo more affordable and lessened the anxiety of condo fee increases. I never expected to get money from my parents for several reasons. My parents immigrated to Canada with me and my two siblings, and even though they went to college in this country, it took a while to establish themselves, having to start over in their 40s with three teenagers.

They also didn’t raise us to expect an inheritance. My mother always said that the only inheritance we would get would be a good education. And as far as my siblings and I were concerned, the money my parents made was their money. They made it, and they can spend it how they want. 

It’s the money passed down between generations that lets you put a down payment on a house, or cut years off a mortgage.

It has to be said, though, that inheritances are the secret behind many residents who buy property and live in Toronto. It’s not bootstrapping, it’s not working hard, it’s not good timing, and it’s not having a good job and a great real estate agent. It’s the money passed down between generations that lets you put a down payment on a house, or cut years off a mortgage. 

I definitely agonized over whether to take my parent’s money. But after speaking to a friend, I decided to accept it. “Take it as the gift it is,” that friend told me. “It’s as if she’s investing in you.” 

I accepted the money with thanks and a promise that it would be used exactly as they intended it to be. I also decided I was going to be transparent about this: I’m able to live in Toronto because of money my parents gave me. Money they inherited from my grandmother. Money that I, barring unforeseen circumstances, will leave to the children in my life, so they can start adult life ahead of others in a city they were born and raised in.

I don’t know how to feel about that. Fortunate, responsible, and very grateful to my grandmother and parents. But still weird.

I’m lucky. I work hard, but I’ve also gotten help that no amount of hard work could have achieved. Not everyone has family who can or who want to help them out. And for Toronto to be livable, we need to make sure it’s a city that isn’t just reserved for those who can count on inheritance money from their parents or grandparents. 

Really, Toronto city council, as well as the provincial and federal governments, need to get off their collective ass and get serious about providing affordable housing so people can stay in cities that they love, live, and work in. Cities that cater to the privileged often wind up pushing out professionals and creatives who can’t afford basic life expenses. I find these cities to beinsular, homogenous, a creative ghost town apart from tech conferences and, quite frankly, boring. 

A report from LowestRates.ca this year found that you need to make about $55,000 a year just to afford rent in Toronto now — where does that leave coffee shop workers and house cleaners and kids who are just starting out in their careers? For 10 years, Toronto has been cutting services while rents get higher and higher. It’s not sustainable. It has to change. 

I feel fortunate that I was able to get an inheritance to help me out. But I wonder how things would be different if I hadn’t. I could make some more money and figure it out but not everyone has that opportunity and I worry for those who can’t count on familial money to give them a leg up.