Dea Sagnella (seated) and her partner Moria Devereaux went out of their way to landscape the front and back of their home (with help from a cooperative landlord), going a long way to winning friends in the house-proud neighbourhood.
November 05, 2010
Special to the Star
In the late 18th century, at the end of the American Revolutionary War, many British loyalists fled to Canada, among them George Playter of Pennsylvania who settled on a tract of land east of the Don River. Today, Playter Estates is an exclusive leafy handful of streets lying north of The Danforth and lined with large, mainly Edwardian homes. Sometimes called “Rosedale East,” average house prices are in the $700,000-plus range with the most elegant hitting as high as $2 million.
On Playter Blvd, among the most exclusive of these streets, sits one of the few rental homes in the neighbourhood, although you wouldn’t be able to distinguish it from all the others. And, occupying a $1,500-a-month, 850-square-foot two-bedroom on the second floor, live a couple who, like Playter, long ago left America for its northern neighbour.
Mo Devereaux, a 47-year-old physical therapist and research assistant to an orthopaedic surgeon, and 42-year-old Dea Sagnella, a corporate trainer making a transition into the sustainable agriculture sector, are former homeowners and renters by choice.
“It’s the flexibility,” says Devereaux, adding that she and Sagnella might decide to move overseas, or maybe to Nova Scotia, a hotbed of the sustainable agriculture movement.
“I’m making a career change,” says Sagnella, “so my income isn’t consistent right now. I quit my job to pursue my passion and I never could have done that if I owned a house.”
Originally from Rhode Island, Sagnella moved to Toronto in the mid-’70s when her father did his doctorate at the University of Toronto. After pursuing arts and humanities at university, her first job was with a small company specializing in experiential training and employee satisfaction. Later she became a director at AchieveGlobal Canada, a corporate performance and leadership consultancy. Today she does some part-time consulting while creating a strategy to combine her leadership skills with her passion for organic farming and sustainable agriculture.
Devereaux, raised in Ohio, bought her first house in San Francisco while she was working in the financial services industry. Tiring of the corporate world after 9/11, she co-founded a bicycle touring business in New Zealand with a friend and moved to the North Island to consider her future.
Realizing her true calling, she decided to get her Masters degree in physical therapy. A friend told her the U of T was highly regarded and the certification would allow her to work in both the U.S. and Canada. (Given the strength of the U.S. dollar at that time, attending U of T, even as an international student, was cheaper than the American universities she’d put on her short list.)
So she rented a condo at King and Parliament and, later, in Liberty Village, while doing her grad work. She already knew the Playter neighbourhood from visiting a friend there and when that friend announced that she was moving out of her apartment, Devereaux moved in.
Meanwhile, Sagnella and her former spouse had bought a country home in Stouffville and, later, in Uxbridge on the Oak Ridges Moraine. When that relationship ended, Sagnella briefly rented in Uxbridge but soon met Devereaux and moved into the Playter Blvd apartment in 2007.
When real estate broker Jim Rowlandson bought the house in 1978, it was one of many multi-unit homes on Playter Blvd. Over time, the majority of them were sold, renovated and turned into single family homes. Rowlandson lived in the house himself for several years but today – divided into first and second floor two-bedrooms, a loft-style bachelor on the third floor and a large one-bedroom in the basement – it represents his only income property.
Rowlandson wants his property to look good, like those of the rest of the street’s house-proud homeowners, but he never had time to do more than keep up the maintenance and cut the lawn.
With funding and encouragement from Rowlandson, Sagnella and Devereaux, sometimes assisted by fellow tenants, have done the landscaping and laid flagstones in the backyard, just because they like to do it. Neighbours on Playter, as well as friends of Sagnella’s in Uxbridge, often donate flowers. “I feel blessed with these tenants,” says Rowlandson. “They all seem to meld with the neighbourhood. Like a little family.”
Sitting with Sagnella and Devereaux in their cozy living room, I mentioned that homeowning is sometimes described as a kind of “enforced retirement savings.” It’s true, but unlike many renters, Sagnella and Devereaux never lacked the self-discipline to save. “My father taught me to invest,” says Devereaux. “I’ve always put some aside for retirement.” Nodding, Sagnella adds: “We’re similar that way. Ever since I was 25 I’ve saved a portion of my income.”
The other North American stereotype about renters is that they’re less successful than homeowners. Sometimes even less responsible or respectable. That’s not the way the majority of the neighbours on Playter Blvd. feel about Sagnella and Devereaux or the other tenants in Rowlandson’s house, although Sagnella once remembers meeting a woman at a neighbourhood party and mentioning where she lived. “Oh,” the woman sniffed. “The rental house.”
They both laugh at that memory. “Out there in the world, in general, there is an attitude about renters, I’m afraid,” says Devereaux. “But if you care about where you live, you’ll take care of it and as you get to know your neighbours that kind of attitude goes away.”