Amid an urban affordability challenge, a model for inclusive housing grows in Toronto’s Regent Park
A Sidewalk Talk Q&A with University of Toronto urban studies scholar Shauna Brail.
It’s a familiar city story with a globally relevant twist. By the mid-1990s, the Regent Park neighborhood in Toronto’s urban core had become a place of deep decline and concentrated poverty. The community’s 2,083 rent-geared-to-income units needed significant maintenance and improvement, but there was little funding available for what Canada calls social housing. So a group of residents worked with local government to come up with a plan.
“Necessity is the mother of innovation,” says Shauna Brail, the University of Toronto urban studies scholar who has studied and worked closely with the neighborhood since 2006. “They didn’t have an option. There was no money.”
That plan grew into a five-phase, $1 billion revitalization project that represents a true local partnership of public agencies, community organizations, and a private developer. Some 5,400 new market-rate units will help pay for the redevelopment of 1,800 non-market units on-site and hundreds more nearby. The original residents of Regent Park retain the right to return to non-market units, an effort to avoid the social disruption that’s harmed other redevelopment efforts of this scale. The community will also feature new mixed-use space and amenities, such as the Regent Park Aquatic Centre. Though not without growing pains, Regent Park offers a striking model of inclusion at a moment when high-demand cities around the world are struggling to fund affordable housing and build market-rate development without displacing communities.
“I think it’s an example of success both from the perspective of rebuilding public housing, but even more so from the example of bringing a part of the city that was totally isolated and set apart and ignored and avoided into the core of the city,” says Brail. “You can’t have an inclusive, thriving city if you have neighborhoods you bypass. No one’s bypassing Regent Park anymore. People want to go there.”
With Phase Three of the development in full swing, Brail spoke to Sidewalk Talk about the example Regent Park sets for other cities and other Toronto neighborhoods — and the challenges that still remain.
You’ve written that Regent Park could influence city-building across Toronto. How often do people turn to it when looking into a mixed-income revitalization, given all the challenges facing both affordability and funding for social housing?
It’s a very ambitious model. I think it’s an example of something that sets Toronto apart in terms of taking a risk, both from the municipal government perspective and the housing agency perspective and also in terms of the project as an example of a public-private partnership. And for the most part, it is an enormous success. It’s a model that groups from around the world have come to examine to see whether there are parts of it that can be replicated in their own communities.
It also has local appeal. The majority of the public housing in Toronto is now managed by an agency called the Toronto Community Housing Corporation. They manage and own 58,000 residential units in the city, in 2,200 buildings in over 350 communities. In 2013, a member of TCH’s leadership group indicated that of 440 sites, 47 had redevelopment potential similar to the model for Regent Park. So it is an international model, but importantly, it’s also a local model.
The other thing about this model that made it quite different is that it was focused not just on the physical piece, but on the social impact. It’s a model that acknowledges the relationships, the people, the networks — the need to underscore that it’s not just about a place of shelter but also addressing a variety of needs.
A lot of communities suffer decline like Regent Park, but very few propose plans for their own revitalization. What led that charge in this case?
I think there were parallel processes taking place. Originally, the neighborhood and residents spent several years focused on rebuilding just a small portion of the site. This was around 1996, in concert with the continued devolution of authority from the federal government to the provincial government and to the municipal government for managing and supporting public housing. As the residents are starting to say, “This neighborhood isn’t really working very well, and we need to think about new models,” the funds are being pulled away.
I think it was a collective decision, looking at the budget of Toronto Community Housing and trying to understand how with a very fixed set of revenues, they could figure out how to think about refreshing and renewing housing stock for people who could not afford to pay any more money and had severe affordability challenges.
So it was a combination of policies through different levels of government, the community needs growing and changing over time, and the rising desirability of downtown Toronto as a residential location. That’s one of the greatest assets Regent Park has going for it — its proximity to the central business district. It’s 2–3 kilometers from the waterfront. It’s a couple of kilometers away from two big universities, Ryerson and the University of Toronto. It’s on two different streetcar lines that both lead to the subway. That location, plus the rising increase in land values around it, and a growing population — all these things were happening in concert to produce this opportunity.
Your research described community engagement for Regent Park as a learning process. How has that engagement adapted over time?
One of the criticisms of building a mixed-income community is the idea that you have to move some or most people out of that community to create a mix. In Regent Park, that was not the approach. The approach was that all the non-market units would be replaced and there would be a significant addition of market units.
One challenge was around disrupting social networks, with the way the housing authority organized the system of moving people to enable the construction to occur. A benefit of having a two-decade time frame of redevelopment is, if you’re a good innovative organization and you’re listening, then you’re going to make changes as you go along that will make improvements to the process and improvements to people’s lives. One of those improvements was the change of moving families with school-age children—changing the timing so none of those moves happened during the school year, and instead all happened during the summer months.
The other key thing about the redevelopment process was that at the very beginning everybody had to move out of the older buildings that were being demolished in order to construct the new buildings. Now there are increasingly people who are able to move straight from an old Regent Park unit to a new Regent Park unit. In fact, there’s another big redevelopment of public housing in Toronto in a neighborhood called Lawrence Heights. In that redevelopment, nobody is required to move off-site and residents can go straight from older housing to newly built housing.
What are the biggest insights in terms of how that community engagement was designed?
There are two parts of the community engagement process. One is the formal engagement process. That was led and designed by the city of Toronto, in partnership with Toronto Community Housing. Very formal meetings with presentations and Q&As. And before the redevelopment there were kitchen-table conversations, small groups convening in individual homes to talk about what people wanted and needed, and there were a series of design charrettes in community centers. There were about 2,000 people consulted prior to the 2006 redevelopment.
There were also a series of formal Toronto Community Housing initiatives aimed at encouraging engagement. One was a community animator’s program, where they hired community residents and trained them to provide information about the redevelopment, and encouraged them to use their language skills — there are 50-plus languages spoken in Regent Park — to encourage people to meet with members of their own communities and to share this information and to again collect feedback and bring it back to the housing authority.
Then in Regent Park there exists a strong network of non-profit and community organizations. Some are faith-based, some are education-based, some serve vulnerable populations. All these agencies provided a richness of place for people to both convene and learn about the advocacy process. So the formal city process was really just one piece of it. It’s partly through these informal processes that much of the engagement, collaboration, and leadership skill has been acquired.
Is there an example of how these formal and informal parties worked together to influence the development?
There was an aquatic facility, a pool, built by the city of Toronto, I think in the second phase of the development. To sign up for swim lessons you had to know how to use the city of Toronto recreational sign-up system, which meant you needed to wake up early to get through via telephone or have fast internet access at home to sign up online. The neighborhood residents were lining up outside the door on the day of sign-up, and by the time the office opened the swim lessons would be full, because other people knew they needed to be online at 6 am or call 300 times.
What the community leaders did is they advocated for a certain number of spots in those swim lessons to be dedicated to the residents of Regent Park. The second thing they did is that there was a large group of Muslim women who wouldn’t go swimming during mixed-gender swim time. They advocated for women’s only swim lessons and requested that a curtain be installed over the windows so there was modesty when they swam.
This was a tremendous opportunity for community leaders — such as those trained through programs run at the Regent Park Centre of Learning, of which U of T is a partner — to exercise what they’d learned as advocates and community leaders and to make sure the redevelopment benefited them. It’s not just that it’s an aquatic center for the rest of the city. It’s also the aquatic center for Regent Park residents.
The study of the benefits of mixed-income communities is ongoing and not totally conclusive. Is it fair to say there’s enough evidence in favor of mixed-income communities to outweigh potential downsides?
At the end of the day, there was no money dedicated to refurbishing, renovating, rebuilding public housing. These units were in dire straits. So the only way to address this challenge, absent funding from any level of government, was to leverage the land value. That’s a really key point. If there had been other opportunities, they might have been explored in different ways. There’s not universal agreement here, but there is some suggestion and evidence that, in fact, building mixed-income communities actually can provide new and better and improved opportunities — not just for low-income residents but for all residents. When they’re designed in a way to benefit all residents, that’s where you get the real value.
The finances worked in Toronto because downtown rents didn’t fall during the crisis. Is this a model that can only work in high-demand downtowns? Or is it the type of model you can think about adapting to a smaller city?
It’s important to highlight that the model relies on capturing land rents for subsidizing development. That’s an underlying feature of this model, and without that it’s hard to replicate. However, it’s also a model of redevelopment that keeps public housing residents in their neighborhood. That’s an important piece that can be replicated.
It’s also a model where, if you don’t have high land rents to subsidize rebuilding, can you think of other policy levers to consider options for how to rebuild and how to create a mixed-income neighborhood? How do we think about increasing density, whether it’s large cities or smaller cities, to address all kinds of other urban sustainability issues, create vibrant districts, etc? There’s also a piece around addressing both the physical rebuild as well as the social infrastructure, and acknowledging that without that you don’t have a community.
So thinking about whether this could work in other places where you can’t bank on the land value — there’s lots of pieces of it that could work.
If you had to narrow in on the biggest insight you’d draw for other cities looking at Regent Park for a model, what’s the lesson you see?
I’d say that partnerships really matter. Working together, listening to one another, engaging the community, government, local agencies, developers, local firms and organizations, and having a social and civic conscience has made a tremendous contribution to the success of Regent Park. Without those partnerships, without that joint input, the redevelopment would be far less successful than it is. Universities play a part in there, too. There’s a healthcare facility that’s part of a University of Toronto-affiliated hospital. There’s a fashion incubator on-site that’s part of George Brown College. It can’t just be the local council or planning department or housing agency. It needs to be this much broader partnership.
Are there some inflection points coming up that Regent Park must face to continue its success?
In terms of both presenting a design and implementation of a model that can work, it’s a success. I think in terms of starting to weave back together new threads of a community in Regent Park, it’s an early success. And I think in terms of challenges to whether it can be a continued success, a lot of that relates to the funding model for ongoing support. So we created the funds to rebuild Regent Park. What we are lacking currently in the Toronto housing agency’s toolkit are sufficient funds for maintenance. That’s something all three levels of government can and should contribute to. But that’s the biggest challenge.
This Sidewalk Talk Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
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