Penny Fisher wasn’t finished packing yet, but the movers were already ferrying bins and boxes through her garden to the U-Hauls parked out front, their hard hats a reminder of the danger lurking inside her townhouse.
This had been her home for more than a decade: the place where she and her family had hung clocks and curiosities on the walls, painted their living room a deep shade of red and tended to the lush garden now surrounded by cardboard boxes. Two months ago, she couldn’t imagine leaving. Now she had no choice.
The move had to happen today — not just because the heavy concrete panels in her ceiling were liable to collapse at any moment, but also because hundreds of other people had to move out of her west-end complex.
Still, Fisher paused amid the packing. “I didn’t think it’d feel like home,” she said quietly. But little by little, the public housing unit, where her family had planted currant, rhubarb and blueberry bushes out front, had come to feel like hers.
Now, at 58, she would be starting over in an apartment on the other side of the city, with an untouched patch of grass outside. She didn’t know if she’d be allowed to turn over the soil and bring it to life.
Maybe one day, she thought, she could return to Swansea Mews, the complex thrown into turmoil by a disaster in May. But she predicted that repairing Swansea — which had been crumbling for years — would prove too difficult, and that new buildings would take its place. She pointed to subtle signs of disrepair, drawing a nail along a bedroom wall to show how the paint peeled away.
“Normally, I wouldn’t do that,” Fisher said. “But this is all going to be destroyed.”
The exodus from Swansea Mews began in the early hours of May 27, when a heavy slab of concrete broke loose from the ceiling of a townhouse. It landed on and seriously injured a resident, who was taken to hospital. Word of the disaster spread fast, as neighbours gathered and Toronto Community Housing Corp. staff went door to door.
Further collapses across the complex couldn’t be ruled out; in the ensuing weeks, two more ceilings failed under testing by engineers. Everyone in Swansea should leave, TCHC said, but with the order lacking legal authority, many chose to stay, unable to accept temporary accommodations or pack up on short notice.
The city issued an emergency order, warning that it could apply to courts for permission to remove residents by force if necessary. While tenants were initially told they’d have to leave for two weeks, the evacuation soon became indefinite.
Swansea Mews, a winding maze of townhomes just west of High Park, quickly became a picture of mass disruption: a community of some 400 people suddenly uprooted and scattered across the city. In the span of a few weeks, some were forced to move repeatedly — to motels, college dormitories, Regent Park apartments that were once slated for demolition — while waiting for a new home.
The long-term relocation process began, via a video link, one June evening. Candy-coloured plastic eggs were placed in a bingo spinner and then plucked out, one by one. Each egg contained a unit number at Swansea, and the order in which they were drawn determined which households would get first pick of available units elsewhere.
As that process unfolded, the Star has followed Penny Fisher and several of her neighbours in Swansea Mews. While each of their stories is unique, they are bound by a shared sense of confusion, anxiety and loss. Residents say they are being forced to leave not only their condemned units, but a community with a shared history. Their current limbo has felt, to many, like yet another symptom of the broken housing their families have dealt with for years.
At a June 23 meeting with city building officials who issued the emergency evacuation order, tenants pleaded for a clearer plan. Fisher sat with a clipboard in the front row.
For her family, leaving immediately felt impossible, because any of the short-term alternatives came with a hitch. All the pet-friendly options she was given at the time — her family has four cats — were in other cities. But family members with complex health needs had to stay near their medical supports in Toronto.
So, they waited in Swansea Mews for the longer-term solutions — despite the roof over their heads being declared unsafe.
“Who is going to give us the answers? We’ve been talking about this for four weeks now,” one woman cried out at the meeting. City officials replied repeatedly that they couldn’t answer questions about the relocation process, only about their own emergency order to evacuate.
“Everyone has understood from day one that the place was unsafe. That’s not why the majority of Swansea residents that are here are still here. Most have been trying to leave,” said Marcell Wilson, a community advocate and former resident who was aiding the tenants.
“What they’d like is to be moved in a humane fashion.”
After the meeting, TCHC staff handed out brown envelopes with lists of potential longer-term units. Tenants were to rank those choices, then the public housing agency would give them offers based on the order established in the lottery draw.
Fisher tore open her envelope and thumbed through the pages. The first potential address wasn’t bad, but she wrinkled her nose at others, which seemed either too far away or too unsafe.
Ewa Gojzewa, Fisher’s next-door neighbour, had lived in her Swansea Mews home for 25 years. She’d always assumed she and her husband could stay there until they needed seniors housing.
“My daughter is still with us — she’s in university,” Gojzewa told the Star, proudly adding she was training to be a nurse. “For her, for us, it’s terrible. It’s ruining our life.”
In a York University dormitory the next day, Charlene Ramos tried to shield her six-year-old daughter from the stress of losing their home, by framing the temporary stay as a vacation.
It seemed to be working. On a patch of grass outside, her daughter spun in circles as butterfly-shaped beads spilled from the pockets of her backpack. Inside, the girl showed off her “office” — a small table with colouring books and a fire-engine-red chair.
But there were cracks in the facade. The move reminded Ramos of having to hurriedly leave what she said was an unhealthy living situation years ago. “It reminds me of those bad memories,” she said, her voice breaking before she steadied herself.
“Why is Mama crying?” her daughter asked. “My tummy hurts,” Ramos assured her.
While Ramos had wanted to leave Swansea Mews soon after the ceiling fell, worried for the safety of her little girl and 17-year-old son, their exit had been tumultuous. The family was offered a hotel room but arrived, in the early morning hours, to find just one bed.
They went back to Swansea, and she checked in with TCHC staff, sharing text messages with the Star that reveal an anxious wait. Finally, they were offered a pair of dorm rooms: one for Ramos and her daughter, another for her son.
Her daughter packed a kite and a hardcover book about a crocodile and an alligator, as Ramos gathered their essentials. They spent the first night without warm blankets, with the air conditioning on full blast, until Ramos finally taped over the vents to stop the chill.
She commuted back to the Swansea area each day for work, preparing food at a secondary school for students with intellectual disabilities. What was once a 15-minute commute had more than doubled. That day, she rose before 6 a.m. to get ready, climbing into her car around 6:45.
Her family would be displaced again: their lease at the York dormitory expired before TCHC found them a long-term spot. Like many of their Swansea neighbours, they moved in July to a Regent Park apartment that had previously been marked for demolition.
Also among the Regent Park transplants were Nasra Ahmed and her kids, who had already been shuffled from a Jane and Finch motel to a Humber College dormitory. Regent Park was better than the earlier spots, Ahmed said — at least there, they lived in a proper unit. It felt less temporary.
Still, losing their home cut deep. “I’m overwhelmed,” Ahmed said before moving to Regent Park. “It’s just the displacement of it … the unknown of how long I’m going to be homeless.”
Tammy Whipe and her two teenagers were in Regent Park, too, having come from the York dorms like Ramos. “It’s been a complete mess,” she said one afternoon, while waiting for an update on a long-term lease in north Scarborough. The process felt slower than it should, and she had questions that weren’t being answered.
The Regent Park unit was fairly clean, Whipe acknowledged. But after what happened in Swansea, she found herself noticing small problems more acutely.
She wasn’t the only one. In her York dorm room, Ramos had been staring at part of the ceiling that seemed to bulge out. “Is that a crack?”
Engineers who inspected Swansea Mews after the May 27 collapse said the fault in the ceiling had likely been present since the complex was built nearly 50 years ago.
The ceilings that failed appeared to have been poured as two separate layers of concrete, with an adhesive between them, instead of the single layer engineers expected to find. When that adhesive failed, the bottom layer broke clean away.
The city and TCHC both say they were unaware of the fault until disaster struck. But it’s unquestionable that Swansea Mews, which dates from the early 1970s, had been in a broken state for years. Fragments of brick had tumbled from above residents’ front doors, leading TCHC to put metal scaffolding outside numerous units. Other metal supports propped up the ceiling of the parking garage, where water gushed from a pipe.
Some tenants took matters into their own hands. One described jamming a scouring pad into a hole in the wall, then filling the cracks with silicone to keep out mice.
A ceiling had previously collapsed, too, according to TCHC — though that time, it was drywall, not concrete, that fell. (Staff believe the incident was caused by a leaking pipe.) In other extreme cases, Swansea tenants had already been forced to evacuate damaged homes.
Ayan Kailie’s unit flooded, and the lingering dampness turned to mould. She and her kids had been promised a hotel room while the issue was rectified. They ended up moving shortly after the ceiling collapse.
A fire forced Ramat Ronke Alli to leave Swansea earlier this year. Her kids had just fallen into bed after a birthday party when she discovered their fridge engulfed in flames. TCHC labelled it an electrical fire from a faulty compressor switch.
Though TCHC said fire investigators believed the fridge incident couldn’t have been prevented by regular maintenance, the agency has known for years that Swansea Mews was generally in bad shape. An internal database in 2017 showed repairing Swansea would cost 42 per cent of what it would cost to replace the complex — one of the worst ratios across hundreds of TCHC communities.
Officials with the housing agency blamed a lack of money for its deteriorating complexes. The federal and provincial governments had downloaded responsibility for community housing onto the city decades earlier, leaving those homes underfunded. Some crumbled so badly that the city decided to close them.
In 2019, federal officials answered TCHC’s long-standing plea for financial help, promising $1.3 billion for repairs across all buildings. But digging out of the backlog has been a gradual process. Last year, Swansea Mews was still labelled as being in critical disrepair.
Fixes have been promised before. In 2015, Swansea was picked by TCHC as a pilot site for a project that would involve repairing buildings as well as adding new services and programs for residents. The project was later scrapped for lack of funding.
Officials say they were working on a fresh plan before the ceiling collapse, which would involve tenants moving to new units starting in 2023 while their townhomes were internally gutted and rebuilt. But many residents were surprised to hear about that plan for the first time after the collapse.
By the first Sunday in July, Fisher felt the pressure to leave her home was just too high. The city was going to court the next day to ask for the power to enforce its emergency order.
She was still waiting to sign a new lease. But she now had permission to bring her cats to the York dormitory, a temporary solution.
“I just had to finally bite the bullet,” she said.
The next morning, in a downtown courtroom, lawyers for the city and TCHC made their case to force out the last remaining tenants — with the help of sheriffs, Toronto police and animal services, if needed. The ceiling panels weighed around 800 pounds, city counsel Naomi Brown said; if another one fell, it could kill someone. “I can tell you we’ve all lost sleep over this, but we’re talking about saving lives,” she said.
Two Swansea residents pushed back, asking Superior Court Justice P. Tamara Sugunasiri to consider the distressing situation they faced. “I am willing to move. That’s not the problem. I just want to move to a safe and adequate long-term home, or have a reasonable plan put in place for short-term accommodation for my family and I,” one woman said.
“TCHC thinks it can do whatever to us because we are powerless to stop them.”
By the afternoon, Sugunasiri had agreed to grant enforcement powers, telling tenants she faced a narrow question: not whether TCHC had an adequate relocation plan, but simply whether Swansea was unsafe.
Still, she offered a warning: “When some parts of our community are in peril, we are all in peril,” Sugunasiri said, urging staff to treat tenants with dignity and respect.
“Understand that families are being disrupted in the most fundamental way possible, through no fault of their own, that families who are upending their lives may be frustrated, stressed, worried, scared and angry,” she continued.
“I remind all TCHC staff that this order takes away people’s autonomy over their own lives.”
Sheriffs and cops never descended on Swansea Mews. With the court order hanging over their heads, the last tenants packed their things and left in mid-July. Some went directly to their longer-term relocations, while others moved through the web of temporary spaces.
All residents have been promised a right to return once their units are safe — but when that will happen is unclear. Revitalizing a community is a lengthy process, TCHC has said, let alone demolishing and rebuilding it, as some engineers have proposed.
“It’s absolutely going to be years. What I can’t tell you is exactly how long,” said Jag Sharma, the CEO of Toronto Community Housing Corp. The Swansea relocation was unprecedented, he said, and he’s seen his staff close to burnout from the speed of it — but he knows the response has still fallen short. “Nothing we’ve done is fast enough.”
If a crisis hadn’t forced the relocation, he said, the agency would have spent months in advance trying to set aside “good” vacant units in nearby neighbourhoods to ease the process. Instead, they were left offering whatever spaces happened to be empty, anywhere in the city.
“These aren’t necessarily units that align with the families’ needs,” Sharma said, pointing to factors from location to physical accessibility. Meanwhile, setting aside available units for Swansea tenants had an impact on those waiting for subsidized housing in Toronto — a list that, as of March, numbered nearly 80,000 households.
Beyond the speed of the process, Sharma knows there have been faults in communication.
After months of turmoil, he said he wanted to apologize to Swansea’s residents. “I am so sorry for the experience they’re going through, but I would really want them to know how deeply the staff who have been involved with the incident care about their future,” he said.
Broader work is still underway, with TCHC promising to examine other housing complexes of a similar age and construction style as Swansea. Based on an initial review, Sharma said, no buildings with a similar design from the same era had been found.
As of Tuesday, fewer than half of Swansea Mews households — 42 out of more than 100 — had signed long-term leases. Ten more had accepted offers, but hadn’t done the paperwork. Of those who signed, 24 had moved in — including Fisher, who was settling into a new home in the east end. The rest remained in flux.
Ramos was among them, waiting in Regent Park. She had rejected one unit in York Mills because, despite checking other boxes, it didn’t have parking, and she faces a commute across the city when school starts in the fall. She’d since been offered another unit that wasn’t quite ready, near Don Mills and Eglinton, which seemed promising.
In a Mississauga hotel, several other tenants broke into tears as they described a process that seemed endless.
Naiome Galit and her four kids were staying in one room with a king-size bed and a pullout couch. “Nobody from TCH wants to hear us,” said Galit, a 17-year Swansea resident, in late July. “I feel like they’re disregarding us because who are we, really? We’re nobody.”
She and her neighbours worried about the safety of some of the available relocation units, saying inter-community conflicts could put their kids in danger in certain neighbourhoods. Marcell Wilson, the community advocate, works with at-risk youth and had raised the same concern to TCHC. (Sharma said that was one of many factors complicating some relocations.)
Galit had learned that one of her children was being bullied over what happened at Swansea — a realization that pained her. “They’re calling her homeless,” she said. She and other parents lamented feeling that they’d been unable to give their kids a safe home. “I said to them, as long as you do good at school, I’ll provide the roof and the food for you. Even that, I failed.”
The wider aftershocks of the Swansea crisis are still being felt. Residents are concerned that the stress of recent months could damage their mental health and that of their kids. Sharon Smith, another resident staying at the Mississauga hotel, feared she won’t have a choice but to move to Regent Park. “Pretty soon, I know they’re going to try to muscle me,” Smith said.
Once the relocation is over, each former tenant will have to adjust to a new life — new schools, different commutes and unfamiliar walls around them.
For Fisher, one moment symbolized that break from her old life in Swansea Mews.
“It’s still my home until I give the key back,” she said, looking around on moving day as her boxes were sealed and carried out the door. “I’ll be giving the key back last.”
Victoria Gibson is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering affordable housing. Reach her via email: email@example.com