Michael Webb is a lucky man. An architecture and design critic, he has lived for nearly 40 years in a modernist hilltop apartment in Los Angeles, the same development where Orson Welles used to live. It is “well-planned…with abundant natural light”, surrounded by trees that give shade and privacy, and has windows “that pull in breezes from the ocean”. Two of its previous owners, Charles and Ray Eames, loved living there so much that when they moved out they wrote to its architect, Richard Neutra, to thank him.
Unsurprisingly, Webb is a strong advocate for flat-dwelling. In the introduction to his new book, “Building Community: New Apartment Architecture”, published by Thames and Hudson, he speaks of an “urgent need to build many more apartments” to relieve housing shortages in our cities, to use land more economically and to avoid long commutes to suburbia – which he describes as a “wasteful delusion”. (You can’t imagine him being a fan of the British government’s proposed solution to the housing crisis, which is to build houses in new, commuter-friendly garden villages.)
Sadly, he explains, most modern apartments are terrible. Risk-averse, profit-hungry developers conspire to produce blocks and towers packed with “claustrophobic cells [that] open off double-loaded corridors. Light and air come from one side only, and balconies are usually vestigial.” A brief survey of the finest modernist and brutalist schemes – from the Isokon building in Hampstead to Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille – is a depressing reminder of our current paucity of imagination.
In an attempt to demonstrate the “unrealised potential” of the apartment building, Webb has gathered together 30 examples of recent developments from around the world. They range fom luxury flats to social housing; from low-rise buildings to high-rises. There aren’t as many photographs of the interiors as there might have been and while Webb has interviewed many of the architects you long to hear the voices of the residents (who are, after all, the ultimate judges of a building’s success). But it’s fascinating to see these creative responses to the deceptively simple challenge of fitting a lot of people into a small space.
CityLife, Milan, Zaha Hadid Architects (2004-14)
During the noughties, starchitects were falling over themselves to build apartments for the well-to-do. Zaha Hadid’s flats form part of the gated residential complex at CityLife, a 1km sq development in central Milan, which includes skyscrapers by Hadid, Daniel Libeskind (who also designed apartments) and Arata Isozaki, as well as a park and its own subway station. The streamlined curves of some 1930s flats (see the Isokon building) were a nod to the design of ocean-liners. Hadid’s apartments, with their rippling façade of cedar and white enamel, have all the subtlety of a mega-yacht. She wasn’t commissioned to design the apartment interiors (“probably just as well”, says Webb) but she did “shape the spaces”, adding even more curves for interior designers to contend with.
The Interlace, Singapore, OMA/Ole Scheeren (2007-13)
Imagine two giants playing Jenga and you have the Interlace, an apartment complex that is at once outrageous and awe-inspiring. Ole Scheeren, its architect, was so bored with the clusters of high-rises that were springing up all over Asia, that when he got a brief to fit 1,040 units over 20 acres, he decided to try a novel approach. The result is a kind of deconstructed high-rise – complete with Olympic-sized swimming pool and a thoughtful amount of greenery – that Scheeren believes is a prototype for affordable living. He is proud that the Interlace is 90% occupied, “unlike many upscale towers that have become ghost towns because apartments are bought for speculation and sit empty.”
25 Verde, Turin, Luciano Pia (2007-13)
If the Swiss Family Robinson moved to Turin they would feel right at home in this green-fingered fantasy. The block incorporates 150 trees, looked after by residents with help from gardeners, who also tend the building’s communal garden. It is part of a growing trend for architects to “build” live trees into their creations. As well as being pleasing aesthetically, trees muffle noise pollution and provide shade and privacy. The 63 apartments, which, says Webb, “have attracted a diversity of middle-income residents”, range in size from 480 to a generous 1,720 sq ft.
Sugar Hill, New York, Adjaye Associates (2012-14)
“We tried not to make something merely acceptable to the poor – I find that idea quite offensive…what excited me was to create a building that was not just about housing [but rather] a new urban experience.” It was precisely David Adjaye’s excitement that convinced Broadway Housing Communities, a non-profit organisation, to commission him to build this 13-storey, mixed-use development in Harlem.
Clad in dark concrete that has been ribbed to catch the light, it is dotted with square windows which playfully reference the local architecture (although some neighbouring residents have compared it to a prison). As well as 124 flats – 70% are for people earning less than half the average wage and 25 are for homeless people – the building contains a children’s education centre, a children’s museum and workshops where residents are encouraged to make their own art.
It’s disappointing that the flats don’t have balconies and that most are single-aspect, with windows at just one end. It’s also a shame – especially given the family-focussed public areas – that there are so few three-bedroom flats (each floor contains only one, compared with five studio apartments). But architects have to work within tight constraints, both financially and in terms of the units they are asked to provide.
V_Itaim, Sao Paulo, Studio MK27 (2011-14)
One of the biggest objections people have had to living in flats is the lack of privacy. This is even more of a problem now, with the ubiquitous floor-to-ceiling windows found in modern developments. The architects of this tower block in Sao Paulo have devised an ingenious, and beautiful, solution. Shutters made from perforated freijo wood can be slid and folded across the windows, shielding residents from nosy onlookers and providing shade, as well as adding an ever-changing pattern to the concrete façade. If only the developers of the London flats that are overlooked by the viewing gallery at Tate Modern’s new extension, the Switch House, had been so imaginative.
For years, no one quite knew what would become of the 200-acre historical agricultural property known as the Britannia Farm.
Now, it looks like plans to transform the property are closer to becoming reality.
City of Mississauga council approved changing the zoning of a 32 acre parcel of land located on Britannia Farm from institutional to mixed use. That means that the city and the Peel District School Board (which owns the farm) are now free to transform the parcel of land located on the northwest corner of Hurontario Street and Bristol and move forward with a proposal to have the land include a variety of housing types, including affordable housing.
The entirety of the Britannia Farm is currently zoned as institutional, with the exception of the Cooksville Creek.
This specific parcel on the Farm has been the subject of discussions for a number of years, as approval has been necessary for a variety of components to prepare the lands. Back in 2010, the Heritage Advisory Committee needed to give the PDSB approval to move three heritage properties from the 32 acre parcel to another area of the farm.
The historic properties on the site include the red brick Britannia Schoolhouse (c. 1870), Britannia Farmhouse (c. 1860 and 1870), two-storey Gardney-Dunton House (c. 1830) and Conniver Barn (c. 1880).
The purpose of moving the heritage buildings is to clear land in order to develop housing, as well as to move the properties to a section of the farm that will be used for educational purposes. The historical portion will also include an improved Farm lane, a historic corridor that links the various zones together and connects the Farm to Hurontario Street.
However, a report at the Heritage Advisory Committee on April 10 showcased images that suggested the heritage buildings could remain where they are. In these images, buildings were simply built around the heritage properties. Councillor Carolyn Parrish expressed displeasure with the idea of building around heritage buildings and said that it would be something that could be devastating to the significance of the properties.
Most community members who attended a public meeting back in October 2017 did approve of the idea of moving the heritage properties to another place on the farm. Parrish says that, at this point in time, approximately 99 per cent of the individuals within the community are convinced that this is a good project.
As for what will happen going forward, the PDSB will look at either selling the land to a developer or leasing the lands for continuous revenue streams. Once this happens, the city will receive studies and agreements for review. New housing is a possibility, as these may include a draft plan for subdivisions and/or condos and a site plan.
There will be other reports regarding stormwater management, a feasibility study and an environmental assessment among other documentation.
Phylis Hampshire, a resident that came forward during question period, asked if the citizens of Mississauga can somehow be assured that this will be the only proposed development on the land.
“It’s a very special piece of land in the middle of Mississauga, it would be nice if it could stay open,” says Hampshire.
“We adopted [the land] as a future outdoor education centre. The current Peel Board Chair has done everything in her power to keep that land the way it was intended by King William the Fourth, which was for the benefit of the children of Peel,” says Parrish. “As far as selling any more pieces of land off, it’s not going to happen. This piece at the front is just so they can finance 168 acres of outdoor education centre.”
Historical properties on the farm
The development of these lands is important, as they’re located near the future Hurontario LRT stop and the soon-to-be-reinvigorated Hurontario Street corridor. For that reason, the city says the parcel must be developed with attention to its surroundings. In short, it’s an attractive yet sensitive project. Since the parcel surrounds 170 acres of historic and cultural landscape and the connection to downtown, the development should include a number of criteria discussed in the Master Plan.
The Master Plan recommends student-focused environmental and agricultural programs, the establishment of landscape zones, a development parcel that will be 32 acres in size and phased public access in partnership with the city of Mississauga.
It is recommended that the proposed development include open spaces, parks, trees, and “a place to foster community.” For example, it is recommended that parking for any of the proposed developments be primarily underground and out of view from the public realm.
One issue that came to light was a part of the report that included development of a road within the park. Parrish cautioned staff at the city, saying “an area of caution I would give to [city staff], is when you talk about the potential opportunities for future road construction, it better not be on the 168 acres [of outdoor educational space].”
Since the Britannia Farm has just received approval for the mixed use zoning, the city has taken the first step in what could be a long process. In the future, there will be more discussion on the planning of the site with developers and potential for sale of the land.
It will be interesting to see what unfolds next.
“It’s a very proud day for me,” says Parrish who been on this project since she was a trustee on the school board with Councillor George Carlson.
Janet McDougall, chair of the public board, was acknowledged at the meeting for her significant contribution to the project over the years, and with McDougall retiring this year, it will be a legacy project for her as she enters retirement.
“Janet I want to congratulate you myself for all your years of service, thank you, and also for protecting this jewel that our residents are very protective of as well. It’s a piece of land that people don’t want to see altered in any way, you’ve respected that and we thank you for your plans,” says Mayor Bonnie Crombie.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story misidentified Janet McDougall as Janice Baker, Mississauga’s city manager. We regret the error.
On the opening day of sales for the glitzy new condo project in downtown Ajax, the lineup of hopeful buyers spilled out of the sales office onto the sidewalk, wrapped around the building and extended hundreds of metres.
Inside, the office was cramped like a concert venue. Sales agents struggled to find flat surfaces on which to sign contracts, as investors and first-time home buyers clamoured to get in on the ground floor of one of the region’s most anticipated new developments.
The frenzy continued for three straight weekends and Central Park Ajax was sold out in less than a month.
Two-and-a-half years later, ground has yet to be broken, the project is mired in litigation and frustrated purchasers are asking for their deposits back.
Central Park Ajax is not officially dead — a court decision expected sometime this fall could save it — but it is on life support. For now it seems destined to become the latest failed venture by the LeMine Investment Group, a company headed by Tong (Thomas) Liu, a developer who dreams big but can’t seem to get anything built.
Liu’s failure to deliver his ambitious projects has left hundreds of purchasers in the lurch. Meanwhile, the 35-year-old is embroiled in at least 14 lawsuits that allege, among other things, that he misrepresented himself, owes millions to investors and doesn’t pay his bills. Earlier this year a judge found that Liu engaged in self-dealing and acted in bad faith.
Liu admits his lack of experience has led to some mistakes, but he says his intentions were always noble.
“It was never the intention to hurt someone, to hurt investors or to hurt individuals who have worked with us before,” he said in an interview.
Among the sites of Liu’s good intentions is an overgrown, empty lot at 3070 Ellesmere Rd. That’s where he says he still intends to build The Academy, a 26-storey condo tower marketed to investors as providing much-needed rental housing to the growing student population at the nearby University of Toronto Scarborough. Presales for the project sold out in 2014, but construction has yet to begin and the project seems irretrievably stalled, although it is not yet canceled. “We’re stuck,” Liu said.
Leveraging slick marketing in a nearly insatiable real-estate market, Liu convinced investors, municipal officials and eager purchasers to buy into his plans, despite having no track record in development. He used industry accolades and photo-ops with politicians to project credibility, but there was little substance behind his self-promotional sheen. While he tied up valuable land and collected millions of dollars worth of deposits without ever breaking ground, purchasers watched their money lose value. Many are now priced out of the market. Investors, meanwhile, are turning to the courts to recover their losses as land that could have helped ease the region’s housing crunch remains unused.
Liu isn’t the only GTA developer to strand purchasers. Twelve condo projects have been canceled in the Torontoarea since the beginning of last year, according to market research company Urbanation. Two massive developments in Vaughan were recently canceled, leaving more than 2,000 buyers in their wake and leading to calls to increase protections for purchasers. With rising construction costs making it harder for developers to secure financing — or reap their desired profits — more cancellations could be on the way. Liu, who struggled to secure financing for his Ajax project and won’t say if he ran into a similar problem with The Academy, insists his projects are merely delayed.
The Star reviewed court records, documents obtained by Freedom of Information requests and interviewed more than 20 people with connections to Liu and his companies (former employees, partners and consultants, as well as industry executives who worked with LeMine), many of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared a lawsuit from Liu.
“His intentions were excellent,” said architect Clifford Korman, whom Liu describes as a mentor. “His experience and follow-through were not.”
“I didn’t trust him at all,” said Allan Duffy, the former mayor of Richmond Hill who said he was courted by Liu as a potential advisor. “I dropped him and told everybody I could to do the same.”
“I’ll be happy to get my money out and move on,” said Ayesha Karatella, one of the Central Park Ajax purchasers.
Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government said it is looking into increasing protections for consumers when developers don’t deliver.
In the meantime, Liu said he’s looking forward to his next project.
LeMine’s Richmond Hill office could be a metaphor for the company itself — impressive from a distance but mostly empty. Emblazoned with the company logo, it stands two storeys and stretches the length of half a city block, just west of Highway 404 on 16th Ave. LeMine has only a handful of employees, Liu said, but he rents the entire building — he wouldn’t say for how much — because he said he likes to be able to accommodate partners, investors and contractors. On a recent weekday afternoon the office was quiet. The front door was locked and there was no receptionist.
Outside of real estate, LeMine’s other undelivered promises include a billion-dollar trade deal to send Canadian canola to China and a commitment to invest in a private rail project in Ottawa. Neither materialized. Liu said the canola deal fell apart because the Canadian government did not get a required import certificate from China. The director of the Ottawa rail project said he and his staff declined to work with Liu after reviewing his company.
There is nothing tangible to which Liu can point that his company has successfully delivered. Asked to explain LeMine’s greatest achievement he mentioned the company’s investment philosophy and also a “flash mob” organized in Yonge-Dundas Square in 2014 to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Chinese independence. “We have over 50-million views on the Internet for a single event,” Liu said, adding that the video was shared widely on WeChat, a Chinese social media platform.
In a wood-paneled boardroom, Liu, who grew up in China’s Hunan province — “famous for spicy food and pretty girls” — said the purpose of his company is to “create a platform for Chinese capital.”
Liu first came to Canada when he was 18, completing his final year of high school at a private boarding school in Hamilton. He earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto Scarborough before opening a small immigration consultancy. When one of his Chinese clients asked him about development opportunities in Canada he realized there was an opportunity to connect Chinese investors with Canadian real-estate projects. He started LeMine in 2011.
In January 2014, he paid $1.9 million to buy the land at 3070 Ellesmere Rd., on which he planned to build The Academy. Liu hired Kirkor Architects, Korman’s firm, to design the tower, Devron Developments as project managers and the Milborne Group as sales agents.
Like Central Park Ajax, the project sold out quickly and was heralded for its sleek design. LeMine and its partners won the “People’s Choice Award” in an online vote by the Building Industry and Land Development (BILD) Association. Liu was named the Chinese Business Chamber of Canada’s “Person of the Year in Real Estate Development and International Business.”
Despite the accolades and rapid sales, Liu did not begin construction. He was backed by foreign investors but undercapitalized and he couldn’t secure sufficient financing, according to interviews with three people familiar with the project.
That didn’t stop him from simultaneously taking on another major project. In September 2014, he signed a deal with another developer to take over a multi-phase condo development on land owned, in part, by the Town of Ajax. That project would eventually become Central Park Ajax, envisioned as the first step in a long-term revitalization of the downtown area.
Rob Chaggares, who worked for LeMine as an accountant in 2015 and 2016, said Liu’s “downfall” was taking on too many projects at once. “I thought: What are you doing? Just focus on trying to figure out how to get a shovel in the ground.”
Liu saw himself and his company in grandiose terms, Chaggares said. “I remember one time he said, ‘Let’s not talk millions, let’s talk billions.’ ”
Liu is alleged to have mortgaged The Academy property to finance the Ajax development, according to a statement of claim filed by an investor named Xiangdon Zhao, who said he invested $2 million in The Academy and has not been paid promised dividends. He accused Liu of making “negligent misrepresentations” and leveraging the undeveloped property to fund other projects. Zhao declined to comment through his lawyer.
Liu, in his statement of defence, denied the allegations made by Zhao, whom he said is not currently entitled to any dividends. Liu also insisted The Academy project is still alive and that Zhao’s funds were used exclusively for its development.
Another group of investors in The Academy sued Liu saying he breached their contracts, cannot account for their money and won’t return their deposits. A default judgement, issued in May after Liu did not file a statement of defence, awarded the investors $541,275.
Before these troubles with The Academy emerged, Liu was building his relationship with the Town of Ajax.
In the fall of 2015, he arranged a two-week trip to China for Mayor Steve Parish and three other Ajax officials. There were business meetings, but also sightseeing trips to The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and other tourist spots. (The town covered the airfare and cost of visas for the mayor and staff, while LeMine covered all other expenses on the trip.)
LeMine’s design for the project — a 10-storey building comprised of two, six-storey residential condo towers on top of a four-storey podium — was fully approved by December 2015. As part of the agreement, LeMine was required to begin construction by July 15, 2017.
The Town of Ajax enthusiastically endorsed the project. They publicized it on their website, advertised it on municipal property and even had government officials appear in LeMine’s promotional videos.
Purchasers who spoke to the Star said the town’s official stamp of approval gave them confidence the project was secure. “The town so openly supporting it the way they did led us to believe that this was pretty much a surefire thing,” said Christopher Chong-St. Amant, who is among the purchasers awaiting the outcome of the court case before deciding whether to ask for their deposit back.
Before sales launched, 3,500 people had already registered on LeMine’s website, according to Liu.
Carl Hamilton, another Ajax purchaser, remembers the rush to buy when sales opened. “There wasn’t really time to second guess because there were droves of people behind you that were ready to sign.” Chong-St. Amant said the sales centre was “like a madhouse” on the opening weekend.
As with The Academy, Central Park Ajax was a marketing triumph and pre-construction sales of the 410-unit project sold out in a matter of weeks.
Problems arose almost immediately. Just weeks after selling out, Liu met with the mayor and said he wanted an additional five storeys — a 50-per-cent height increase.
“I indicated that this would not have my support,” Parish wrote in an internal email describing the conversation to his staff. Parish wrote that he told Liu adding the extra storeys after selling the presales would be “unfair to existing purchasers,” “contrary to our longstanding agreement” and “could cause political difficulties.” Liu “did not want to hear this,” Parish wrote. “(He) seems to think he can have whatever he wants.”
Korman, the designer on both projects, said he believes Liu once again “undersold the project versus the construction costs. … He got caught the same way in Ajax as he did on The Academy — without enough finances to carry the project through.” Liu said this is not true.
Liens started to appear on the property from unpaid tradespeople. Town officials grew increasingly concerned. In September 2016, lawyers for the town wrote LeMine a stern letter, saying they were spending too much time responding to “various lien claimants and their lawyers.”
In November, fewer than nine months before the deadline to begin construction, LeMine sought to amend the approved site plan by increasing the project from 10 to 12 storeys and from two to three levels of underground parking. (The town says in court filings they did not consider the material LeMine submitted to be a complete application because it was missing key elements.)
Meanwhile, LeMine’s sales centre was becoming a symbol for the project itself. Rain and wind had badly damaged the facade, while the company’s signage was torn and peeling. The place looked abandoned. If LeMine couldn’t spend “a couple grand” — as one town staffer put it — to clean up the sales centre, how would it build a multi-million-dollar condo?
Ajax’s chief administrative officer, Rob Ford, who has since retired, wrote Liu twice in the first four months of 2017 to request “urgent” meetings. Ford listed a litany of issues: LeMine still hadn’t fixed the sales centre; they were ignoring emails; liens had not been cleared and new ones were being added; and LeMine still hadn’t secured financing to begin construction.
Real estate agents who brokered sales began contacting the Town on behalf of their clients with concerns about the viability of the project. In one email a Royal Lepage agent whose name is redacted lists a number of questions for the Town, including: “Does the Town of Ajax regret doing business with LeMine Investment Group as much as my clients and I?”
Some skittish purchasers started asking for their deposits back.
Problems persisted throughout the summer of 2017 and when the July 15 deadline to start construction came and went without any progress, Ajax sent LeMine formal notice that it intended to invoke its right to repurchase the land. This triggered a 90-day grace period. There was nothing stopping Liu from beginning construction at this point, the Town’s lawyers would later argue in court. “LeMine had only to file for its building permit, but it did not do so.”
Even after the grace period elapsed, Ajax gave LeMine a new deadline of Dec. 8 to pay its creditors, bring its mortgages into good standing and secure construction financing. That deadline also came and went. On Jan. 11, 2018, the town publicly announced its plans to repurchase the land and formally end its partnership with LeMine.
Six days later, a frustrated Liu stormed into Ajax’s town hall and demanded to meet with Ford. Liu had been asked to leave the offices three months earlier because he had made staff “uncomfortable,” according to internal town emails. On this occasion he was escorted out, the emails said.
Speaking recently, Liu said there was “miscommunication” with town officials, but he wouldn’t elaborate. He said he did have concerns about the “economic feasibility” of the Ajax project last year, but it is “ready to go now” if the town was willing to work with him.
In March, Liu sued Ajax for $300 million for the “unlawful termination of a land development contract.” Liu said the town did not have the right to repurchase the property because they had not yet made a decision on his revised site plan application. The town said his application was incomplete. The trial was held this summer and a decision is expected before the end of the year.
“The town is blaming the developer, LeMine is blaming the town; I don’t really know where the blame lies,” said Karatella, one of the purchasers. “But I don’t care whose fault it is, someone should be accountable for the money I could have made on my investment.”
In an emailed statement to the Star, Parish, Ajax’s longtime mayor, said that when LeMine approached the Town “it presented a solid proposal which detailed a vision for the project, work being done in other jurisdictions, resources and a healthy financial picture.”
While Liu, the town and purchasers who haven’t yet pulled their deposits await the court’s decision, Liu is dealing with a slew of other legal problems.
Among the lawsuits filed against Liu are former consultants and contractors claiming he owes them money; investors who said he can’t account for their funds and won’t pay them back; and allegations that Liu misused investors’ money.
In one case, decided earlier this year, investor Valbonne-Canada won a judgment against Liu for more than $2.1 million. The case related to a proposed townhouse development in Thornhill, which was never built or pre-sold to the public. Liu later sold the undeveloped properties, but not before he “pilfered” the project funds for his own benefit, paid his own company $761,000 in dubious “project management fees” and “drained” the bank account that once held the investors’ money, according to Valbonne-Canada’s allegations.
In a scathing decision, Justice Thomas J. McEwen ruled against Liu and found him personally liable, saying he acted in bad faith, engaged in self-dealing, and showed “an utter disregard for the legal rights of the Applicants.”
The judgment included a “notice of garnishment” against Liu, but Liu said it is not being enforced and he is working on a settlement. Valbonne-Canada’s lawyer declined to comment.
In another case in which both Liu and his spouse, Yixuan Wang, are defendants, Toronto Capital Corp. and other creditors are seeking to take possession of Liu’s Willowdale home, which was cross-collateralized with the Ajax property, meaning a default on either mortgage would count against the other.
Liu and his wife allegedly defaulted on the Ajax mortgage in April 2017 and owe more than $2 million, according to court documents.
A default judgment was issued in February, but Liu said he didn’t lose his house and the lender was eventually paid. He said he didn’t default on the Ajax mortgage. He did not explain why the judgement said he did. “I consider this as one of the hard lessons we had to learn when dealing with Jewish people … Jewish lenders.” Asked to explain the comment, Liu said, “On the deals, they’re difficult. … Chinese (people) tend to believe people are good. Sometimes when we have that perspective we corner ourselves and they take advantage of our willingness.”
Liu declined to explain what happened or who specifically he was speaking about. Frank Mondelli, the principal broker of Toronto Capital Corp., declined to comment.
Another case alleged Liu and his staff told Chinese investor Miaogen Zhou that he could obtain permanent residency in Canada if he invested in The Academy. Zhou alleged he paid Liu $496,703, which he believed would be held in trust. Despite “repeated requests,” Zhou claimed Liu has “failed to provide a single piece of information … showing what happened to Zhou’s funds.” Liu has not filed a statement of defence, but he denied offering Zhou permanent residency in exchange for an investment.
Liu declined to discuss the lawsuits in detail but said he has never used investors’ money for other projects without their permission. He suggested litigation is simply the cost of doing business in the development industry. “I believe if you look at any of the big developers in Toronto you would find the same or even much more trouble than what we have now.”
Speaking generally, Liu admitted to making mistakes, attributing it in part to being a first-generation Canadian running a complex business. “Sometimes we learn in a hard way,” he said.
Others said Liu got in over his head. “His reach far exceeded his grasp,” said a former consultant to LeMine with extensive experience in the development industry. “But it wasn’t a minor gap — it was a big gap.”
In an overheated housing market, it’s often the purchaser who is most vulnerable when developers like Liu falter, said James McKellar, professor of real estate and infrastructure at York University’s Schulich School of Business. In the “race to sell out,” McKellar said, Liu probably set his prices too low and didn’t account for realistic construction costs.
But the cost to purchasers isn’t just financial, McKellar added. “If you buy something with the anticipation you’re going to get it in four years, you’re planning your family, etcetera. The interest rate is a very small part of it. It really sets you back.”
For Karatella, 29, the two-bedroom condo unit she purchased in Central Park Ajax was going to be her first home. She hasn’t asked for her deposit back yet, but if the project doesn’t go ahead she isn’t sure what she’s going to do. “To get something comparable to what I purchased is $100,000 more,” she said. “It’s totally ridiculous that my money is just sitting there and nobody’s accountable for it.”
McKellar said there should be penalties for developers who can’t deliver. “People are paying the price for this exuberant industry,” he said. “This is why governments have to step in.”
NDP housing critic Suze Morrison, who represents the provincial riding of Toronto-Centre, agreed there should be more protections for condo purchasers, but she didn’t think the solution was penalizing developers. Morrison said the NDP is looking into possible reforms to the Tarion Warranty Corporation, but did not provide specific details.
Progressive Conservative MPP Todd Smith, the minister of government and consumer services, said in an emailed statement that his government is looking into the issue “to determine how best to strengthen the protection of consumers.” Smith did not provide specifics, except to say that the government will work with “industry, stakeholders and consumers as we determine next steps.”
Liu’s court troubles persist.
In June, a numbered company which is Liu’s current partner in The Academy — his original partner cut all ties with the project in 2016 — got a court order to temporarily freeze the property after alleging Liu kept trying to borrow against it without the company’s consent, according to the judgement. Liu said the property at 3070 Ellesmere was not frozen. He did not explain why there are documents showing otherwise. Property records show there are three mortgages on the property totalling $13 million. Liu said the actual amount owing on the property is less than that.There is also a $3.95 million construction lien.
Sitting in his boardroom, Liu agreed his company is in trouble.
“Yes, I am,” he said. “(But) you say trouble, I say it’s difficult matters that we need to handle. We’re in business. Every business has difficulties and we need to manage them.”
Some of Liu’s former partners said his reputation within the industry is in tatters, but Korman said he would be willing to work with Liu again — as long as he’s paid upfront. “I’m not stupid.”
Liu said there are still lots of good things happening with his company. New investors are coming in every month, he said, and he’s working on launching a new project. He declined to discuss it.
Source: Toronto Star – By BRENDAN KENNEDY Investigative Reporter Thu., Sept. 27, 2018
In order to revitalize distressed neighborhoods in Maryland, councilmembers and local community advocates are pushing for a government program that would sell thousands of vacant buildings in Baltimore for $1 each. In turn, buyers would have to promise to refurbish and live in the properties for a certain period of time.
According to a bill adopted by the Baltimore City Council last month, the program would revitalize “marginal neighborhoods by matching construction ability at the grass roots of Baltimore to production of affordable housing for workers’ families and neighbors.” The idea is modeled after the 1973 “Dollar House” program, which sold rundown, city-owned houses for $1 and helped rebuild ravaged neighborhoods in the city throughout the 1980s. The original program also granted buyers low-interest loans to rehabilitate the properties as long as they lived in the homes for a certain amount of time.
Now, advocates want to restore the program to curb the city’s blight epidemic and prevent more homes from becoming vacant. The program would also create construction jobs, say advocates.
On the other hand, the housing commissioner argues that the program is outdated and that there is not enough government funding to address the estimated 16,000 to 46,000 vacant homes in Baltimore, reports The Baltimore Sun. That’s triple the amount in the ’80s. Plus, about 250,000 fewer people live in the city compared to when the program first started.
Nonetheless, real estate agent and affordable housing specialist Mable Ivory applauded the idea, arguing that city governments have implemented similar programs to revitalize distressed areas in Detroit and Harlem. “It has been proven that when home ownership increased among residents in neighborhoods like Harlem and Detroit, which were once plagued by urban blight and flight, crime declined and the communities became more beautiful as owners took pride in their neighborhoods and took better care of them,” she said in an email. “Baltimore seeks to mirror the success that has been experienced in Harlem and Detroit by creating a similar, discount homeownership program.”
Whether interested in buying a vacant property in Baltimore or purchasing an affordable home elsewhere, Ivory advises potential purchasers to “do their due diligence and research” before taking on the cost of homeownership. “If possible, before bidding on the properties, homeowners should do a property inspection with licensed professionals, such as contractors, architects, and engineers, to have a clear and full understanding of all the repairs needed to make the home inhabitable; the cost of the repairs; as well as the time it will take to complete the entire renovation. The good news is that there are mortgage loan programs available like the FHA 203(k) mortgage loan program, which provide financing for the total renovation of a home.”
by Selena Hill April 13, 2018 Editor’s Note: This post originally published on December 27, 2017
A woman walks by housing projects in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Convened to examine the causes of civil unrest in black communities, the presidential commission issued a 1968 report with a stark conclusion: America was moving toward two societies, “one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
Fifty years after the historic Kerner Commission identified “white racism” as the key cause of “pervasive discrimination in employment, education and housing,” there has been no progress in how African Americans fare in comparison to whites when it comes to homeownership, unemployment and incarceration, according to a report released Monday by the Economic Policy Institute.
In some cases, African Americans are worse off today than they were before the civil rights movement culminated in laws barring housing and voter discrimination, as well as racial segregation.
7.5 percent of African Americans were unemployed in 2017, compared with 6.7 percent in 1968 — still roughly twice the white unemployment rate.
The rate of homeownership, one of the most important ways for working- and middle-class families to build wealth, has remained virtually unchanged for African Americans in the past 50 years. Black homeownership remains just over 40 percent, trailing 30 points behind the rate for whites, who have seen modest gains during that time.
The share of incarcerated African Americans has nearly tripled between 1968 and 2016 — one of the largest and most depressing developments in the past 50 years, especially for black men, researchers said. African Americans are 6.4 times as likely than whites to be jailed or imprisoned, compared with 5.4 times as likely in 1968.
“We have not seen progress because we still have not addressed the issue of racial inequality in this country,” said John Schmitt, an economist and vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, citing the racial wealth gap and continuing racial discrimination in the labor and housing markets. “One of the key issues is the disadvantages so many African Americans face, right from the very beginning as children.”
The wealth gap between white and black Americans has more than tripled in the past 50 years, according to Federal Reserve data. The typical black family had zero wealth in 1968. Today the median net worth of white families — $171,000 — is 10 times that of black families.
The wealth black families have accumulated is negligible when it comes to the amount of money needed to meet basic needs during retirement, pay for children’s college education, put a down payment on a house, or cope with a job loss or medical crisis, Schmitt said.
The lack of economic progress is especially startling, given that black educational attainment has improved significantly in the past five decades, Schmitt said. African Americans are almost as likely as whites to have completed high school. In 1968, 54 percent of blacks graduated from high school, compared with 75 percent of whites. Today, more than 90 percent of African Americans have a high school diploma, 3.3 percentage points shy of the high school completion rate for whites.
The share of young African Americans with a college degree has more than doubled, to 23 percent, since 1968, although blacks are still half as likely as whites to have completed college.
Yet the hourly wage of a typical black worker grew by just 0.6 percent a year since 1968. African Americans make 82.5 cents of every dollar earned by the typical white worker, the report said. And the typical black household earns 61.6 percent of the annual income of white households, with black college graduates continuing to make less than white college graduates.
Despite the poverty rate dropping from more than a third of black households in 1968 to about a fifth of black households, African Americans are 2½ times as likely to be in poverty than whites.
“We would have expected to see much more of a narrowing of the gap, given the big increase in educational attainment among African Americans,” Schmitt said.
A book, “Healing Our Divided Society,” to be released Tuesday at a D.C. forum, also examines how little progress has been made in the past 50 years.
Housing and schools have become resegregated, “locking too many African Americans into slums and their children into inferior schools.” White supremacists have become emboldened. And there is too much excessive use of force — often deadly — by police, especially against African Americans, notes the book, co-edited by Fred Harris, a former U.S. senator and sole surviving member of the Kerner Commission.
“Whereas the Kerner Commission called for ‘massive and sustained’ investment in economic, employment and education initiatives, over the last 50 years America has pursued ‘massive and sustained’ incarceration framed as ‘law and order,’ ” the book says. “Mass incarceration has become a kind of housing policy for the poor.”
The 1968 Kerner Commission report ended on a note of deja vu, citing a witness who recalled similar analyses, recommendations and, ultimately, inaction following a government investigation nearly 50 years earlier after the 1919 Chicago riot.
“The destruction and the bitterness of racial disorder, the harsh polemics of black revolt and white repression have been seen and heard before in this country,” the report concluded.
Source: The Washington Post – By Tracy JanFebruary 26
A Category 5 hurricane churning in the mid-Atlantic suddenly veers northwest — and heads straight for New York City.
The good news is that, for now, experts agree a Cat 5-sized deluge appears to be a meteorological impossibility in the U.S. Northeast, given today’s sea temperatures and weather patterns.
The bad news: A storm doesn’t need to pack the wallop of a Harvey or an Irma to knock out the region. Superstorm Sandy, whose wind speed was a relatively tame 80 miles per hour when it reached New Jersey, did $70 billion of damage in October 2012. Irma made landfall in Puerto Rico at 185 mph.
But if there’s anything we know about climate change, it’s that the boundaries of what’s possible keep shifting. As yet another hurricane, Jose, grinds up the Eastern Seaboard, the black-swan scenarios offer alarming perspective. Imagine what the Great Hurricane of New York might look like:
Winds of 100 mph and 12 inches of rain at high tide push a 16-foot storm surge through the funnel-like entrance of New York Harbor. It wouldn’t take Irma’s killer gusts or Houston’s torrential 50 inches of rain to create a wall of water swamping 500 miles of New York City coastline. The Hudson and East rivers would cascade into Manhattan, overwhelming subways, sewers and roads. Corrosive seawater would fill the aging Lincoln and Holland tunnels to New Jersey, as well as the vulnerable railway tubes beneath the Hudson.
Crazy? Climate change means meteorologists and emergency managers must now consider scenarios they never confronted before. That’s especially true given the rising sea. The water level around New York is 1.1 feet higher today than in 1900 and could increase as much as 2 feet more by 2050.
“With global warming and sea-level rise, what we’re seeing is the effects of these storms amplified,” Ernest Moniz, energy secretary for President Barack Obama, told Bloomberg TV.
The potential risks, however remote for now, are enormous for the New York metro area. Sandy, which hit New Jersey as a “post-tropical” storm, flooded almost 90,000 buildings, with 443,000 New Yorkers living in inundated areas. In one part of Staten Island, floodwaters reached 14 feet. Bridges reopened quickly, but close to 2 million people lost power, and cell service for more than 1 million people was reduced or lost. Rebuilding is still going on five years later.
One of the legacies of Sandy was a change in the number of evacuation zones, which the city doubled to six. Roughly 3 million New Yorkers now live in one of those zones.
Megan Pribram, assistant commissioner for planning and preparedness at the city’s Office of Emergency Management, said for a storm on the scale of Harvey, the city would evacuate some low-lying coastal areas.
Harvey-sized rains would be unprecedented in the U.S. Northeast, according to Allan Frei, chairman of the geography department at Hunter College in Manhattan. The most serious flooding in the region was Hurricane Irene in 2011, when 15 or so inches of rain left parts of Vermont underwater.
A Category 3 hurricane — with winds up to 129 mph — hit the New York area in 1938, when “The Long Island Express” caused 18-foot surges. Another Cat 3, Hurricane Hazel, produced wind gusts of 113 mph in Battery Park in 1954, according to Nassau County’s Office of Emergency Management.
Still, Frei said climate change increases the odds that severe rainstorms like the one in Houston could strike New York City. And if New York ever got that much rain, “it would be absolutely devastating.”
“If a storm causes a big storm surge at the same time as it’s raining, and if it hits during high tide, that would be — I can’t even imagine,” Frei said. The sewer system would probably be blocked with debris, diminishing its capacity to drain the city, he said.
New York City is updating preparedness plans to incorporate the lessons of Harvey, said Daniel Zarrilli, senior director of climate policy and chief resilience officer for Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Part of that includes the tens of billions of dollars spent since Sandy.
Hospitals and public-housing complexes have been refitted to offer more flood protection at a U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency expense of more than $10 billion. Utility Consolidated Edison Inc. has spent $1 billion for upgrades to its underground steam, electric and gas infrastructure. A $340 million boardwalk in the Rockaways has been redesigned as a sea wall protecting beaches and homes. The city has planted trees and other vegetation in flood-prone neighborhoods to soak up runoff and ease the burden on the city’s sewer system.
The NY-NJ Metropolitan Storm Surge Working Group is pushing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to approve a $30 billion system of retractable sea barriers at the mouth of New York Harbor and in the Throgs Neck narrows north of the East River. Similar engineering projects now protect cities including New Orleans; Rotterdam, Holland, and St. Petersburg, Russia.
The system could protect about 800 miles of coast from Elizabeth, New Jersey, to the Bronx, and as much as $1 trillion in assets, said Robert Yaro, former executive director of the Regional Plan Association, a policy-research group.
“We in New York are far behind, and among the cities on Earth we have the most to lose,” Yaro said.
While various quarters have cited supply scarcity as a central driver in Toronto’s long-running housing affordability issues, latest census data actually belies that notion, according to a Bloomberg analyst duo.
In their latest piece, markets observers Erik Hertzberg and Theophilos Argitis argued that “the most important question remains the extent to which speculation is driving demand.”
“Ideally, fundamentals such as demographics and employment are at play, and the price gains reflect natural household growth getting ahead of supply. If that’s true, the market should eventually stabilize once new supply kicks in,” Hertzberg and Argitis wrote. “A situation where speculators are bidding up prices would be much more problematic.”
“Canada’s 2016 census, which the statistics agency is releasing piecemeal this year, is providing some insight into the debate. The results: supply may not be the big problem many people thought it was.”
The data revealed that between 2011 and 2016, the total number of Toronto households increased by 146,200 (up to 2.14 million). To compare, the number of newly completed homes stood at 175,825 projects.
“In other words, supply of new houses exceeded real household demand by almost 30,000 over those five years,” the duo stated. “That throws cold water on the argument — voiced particularly by the industry — that the city’s affordability crisis won’t be resolved unless the government introduces measures to help increase supply.”
More importantly, Toronto is rapidly running out of buildable space, “evident in census data that show its population density has surpassed 1,000 people per square kilometre for the first time ever, another factor that should continue supporting prices for detached homes.”