Joy Connelly on ‘Subsidizing dwellings’ — Redeeming strategic lunacy

Jane Jacobs put it at the top of her list of “strategic lunacies” – the kind that government is so well suited to delivering.

We are talking about social housing.

Back in 1961 when Jacobs was writing, social housing meant one thing: the mega-projects that cleared entire neighbourhoods, plunked down intentionally sub-standard housing and filled it with low-income people.

In Canada, no-one has built a project like that for over 30 years. In 1973 a Liberal minority government changed Canada’s National Housing Act to allow for a new sort of social housing — much like the housing Jacobs recommends: small-scale, integrated, with modest rules. Most of these buildings are run as co-ops or small non-profit corporations. Some were created by municipalities. But always, the aim was mixed-income, integrated neighbourhoods — the kind anyone would want to live in, and just about anyone did.

These buildings were financed in much the same way as Jacobs proposed. The federal government either guaranteed conventional mortgages or lent the money itself.  Rents were set to cover the costs of the mortgage, taxes and all other expenses. Subsidies enabled those who could not afford the rent to live there.

Thirty or so years ago I managed one of these co-ops, and I recall the absolute freedom they represented. You could build or buy any property you liked as long as you kept your costs under a “maximum unit price.” In our case we bought fifty houses, duplexes and triplexes in Toronto’s east end, for the most part renovated by people who lived in the co-op.

There were no fussy rules either, with the “gratuitous snooping and talebearing” Jacobs describes. Our accountability was to our residents, not government.

This is the housing that doesn’t get written up in the papers, and many people don’t even know exists. In my Toronto neighbourhood it looks like this:

Innstead Co-op
Riverdale Co-op
Riverdale Co-op
Cityhome (now TCHC)

Here’s the problem.

In social housing we may learn from our mistakes. The problem is that mistakes are literally cast in cement.

In Toronto we have 28,500 households who live in old-style public housing. Another 28,000 households live in housing built under “new social housing rules” by the former City of Toronto and Metro Housing.

But in 2002 this housing was amalgamated into one mega-corporation — Canada’s largest housing landlord — and now suffers from some of the same problems as the old-style public housing.

Some of these buildings are badly located, some cumbersome to maintain. As Jacobs (hilariously) notes, “public housing tenants buy with their rent money more mimeograph paper, more conference time, and more combaters of vandalism than any renters since the world began.” And now these 40+ year old buildings are falling apart.

What to do?

Should we just blow up these old buildings, hand everyone a rent voucher, and send them off to private landlords? That’s been a US solution, and one that Jacobs might have endorsed. It’s simple and integrated; no-one knows who has a rent subsidy and who doesn’t. It’s also a way to inject much-need investment into the private rental sector with aging buildings of its own.

But when the rental markets is tight, as it is in Toronto, most landlords don’t want to play ball. Who would spend even five minutes on government paperwork when they can easily find other tenants? Often it’s the landlords with buildings so badly maintained, or badly located, that they can’t find other tenants to fill their buildings.

Should we redevelop? That’s Toronto’s “Regent Park solution,” where over 2000 units of old-style public housing is being replaced by a mix of privately and publicly owned condos and rental apartments. It’s been a brilliant way to harness private investment to replace crumbling buildings and re-connect this once-isolated neighbourhood to the rest of the city.

But massive relocation efforts also have their downsides. As Jacobs, citing New York Regional Plan Association planner Stanley Tankel, cautions:

“. . . we are now so prone to confuse big building projects with big social achievements. . . We must learn to cherish the communities we have; they are hard to come by. ‘Fix the buildings but leave the people.’”

Should we get the government out of the housing business, and let the buildings be managed by smaller non-profit and co-op organizations? Are there ways to revitalize communities without moving tenants out? Is the answer neighbourhood investment, as Jacobs suggests: “public parks instead of hostile project Turfs, police instead of [housing authority] police, building violation inspectors instead of authority maintenance checkers.”

As I write this blogpost, Toronto’s City Council is voting on a motion to appoint a Task Force to examine how to maintain the social housing it owns. It’s starting with a single focus — how to keep the buildings in good repair.

But my guess is that we need to look deeper. As Jacobs says, “We need new tactics for subsidized dwellings, but hardly because the existing tactics need fiddling and diddling with. We need them because we require different aims of city building.”

Jacobs was right in 1961. Fifty years a later, it’s time once again for a new look.

Note: You can read more about Toronto Community Housing on my social housing blog, Opening the Window.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Bradley Wentworth says:

    I live right across from the Oak St co-op, and have been watching the Regent Park revitalization with great interest. While there has been great upheaval due to construction and temporary resident displacement, it looks like the end results are so far worth it. I especially like that through-streets will be revived (including Oak St itself!) The six-phase, drawn-out construction should hopefully allow for at least some gradualism and learning from mistakes.

    Another unsung housing solution is the humble basement apartment. The City of Toronto proper allows detached and semi-detached homeowners to have a basement apartment as long as it has a kitchen area, a bathroom, and a separate entrance. The surrounding suburbs do not allow them. They make great accommodation for students, young professionals, etc. in desirable neighbourhoods and dampen the need for 50-storey glass condo towers with 600 boxes-in-the-sky – though there are plenty of those too.

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