Rundown cabin is not just for anyone

Rundown cabin is not just for anyone

While housing prices have taken a recent tumble, an old wooden cabin going for $22,900 on the Toronto Island on Lake Ontario still seems like an absolute steal.

The chocolate-brown house on Ward’s Island is one of just 262 in North America’s largest car-free community, just a 10-minute ferry ride away from the heart of downtown, with a stunning view of the skyline.

But No. 12 Second Street isn’t on any real estate listings, and not just anyone can put in an offer. The price is fixed (and doesn’t include $48,825 for the lease), and you have to be on a special “purchasers list” to qualify as a potential buyer.

Even still, the cabin is a definite teardown, with a rodent-sized hole chewed through a front-facing log, piles of dead leaves on the deck, cobwebs around the window screens and a contented community of raccoons living at the back.

“It’s totally unrealistic to think you can get a livable house for $22,900,” said Pam Mazza, a long-time Island resident. “What you’re really buying is an opportunity to live on the Island, to live on a land trust and to be serviced by a boat.”

The Island offers a unique blend of urban and country living. Blustery in the winter, it is an idyllic spot in summer with clean beaches and bike trails that run its entire length. It maintains a rare sense of neighbourliness, and is at once safe, tranquil and spirited, attracting artists, writers, professors and teachers.

The Island, which used to be municipal land, was transferred to the province through a land swap in 1993 to resolve a long-standing dispute between Island residents and Metropolitan Toronto, which wanted to turn their homes into parkland. The Toronto Islands Residential Community Trust Corporation was created.

Whenever a house comes up for sale, it is offered to the first 100 people on a list of 500 potential purchasers. Openings on the list are filled through a lottery system.

The Trust board, composed of two island residents and four provincial bureaucrats, acts as the intermediary between buyer and seller. Once the sale offers go out, potential buyers are given several weeks to respond, and the sale is awarded to the person who holds the lowest number on the list.

There is no negotiation about the price, which is based on the replacement cost, and determined by a set formula. “When you have a trust, you don’t participate in market real estate forces and there are no windfall profits,” Trust chairwoman Ellen Allen said.

Yesterday, a man who is No. 64 on the list came by to look at the most recent listing, which sits on a 40-foot-by-50-foot lot. “He’s been on the list for 14 years,” said Ruth Howard, who lives across the street.

Even though renovation costs are 30 to 40 per cent higher than in the city, because of the logistical difficulties of bringing in construction materials, turnover of residents is very low. “Living here isn’t necessarily a good financial deal,” Ms. Howard said. “It is the lifestyle.”

A retail-free zone, there are no shops, dry cleaners or grocery stores here, although there is a primary school. Residents get around by bike and haul their groceries in wagons from the city.

Originally, the Island was a sandy, marshy peninsula. However, in 1858 a major storm cut through the narrow eastern neck and created an island. It was first populated by fishermen, but soon cottages were built and by the turn of the century the summer population had reached between 1,000 and 3,000, and included prominent Toronto families such as the Masseys and the Gooderhams, according to The Essential Toronto Island Guide, by long-time residents Linda Rosenbaum and Peter Dean.

In the 1950s, the Metro government wanted to turn the entire island into a park, and bulldozed 750 homes at Hanlan’s Point. The remaining islanders put up a fight to save their community, a battle that wasn’t settled until the land swap in 1993. The Island remains a very popular place to live.

“We can’t guarantee there will even be a house sold every year,” said Ms. Mazza. “If you’re in the first 100 on the list, you’ll likely get a chance to put in an offer. But you won’t get the house unless the other 99 people ahead of you don’t want it.”


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