Three paths to more mixed-income neighbourhoods
Revitalized public housing, inclusionary policies and closing rent control loopholes could help Toronto keep and build economically diverse neighbourhoods.
Toronto Star
By: Marco Chown Oved—Staff Reporter
11 April 2015

‘Diversity is our strength’ may be emblazoned on official city documents, but the motto is becoming detached from reality as rich and poor live increasingly separated lives.

While owners and renters live side by side in virtually every part of the city, overall, research shows neighbourhoods are polarizing, with downtown growing wealthier and the inner suburbs becoming poorer.

Some politicians, planners and poverty activists all say for a city to be healthy, it must be made up of mixed-income neighbourhoods, which lead to better education results, more local commerce and jobs, lower crime and higher social mobility.

“There’s always danger in social engineering,” said former city councillor and Liberal MPP Peter Milczyn. “But the very notion that there should be access to good-quality housing in all parts of the city regardless of one’s income … is where (the ideal of mixed neighbourhoods) comes from.”

Skyrocketing housing prices are evidence that there is no shortage of wealthier buyers in Toronto, so creating mixed neighbourhoods really comes down to making space for lower income people — typically renters — Milczyn says, and saving those spaces we already have.

This can be done by edict, when entire neighbourhoods are built from scratch, or through zoning, which would require all new buildings to include social units. Mixed-income areas can also be preserved from rapid gentrification by closing loopholes in rent control.

The city will have to grapple with all three of these processes to ensure its future isn’t economically ghettoized.

Top-down planning
Back in the 1970s, when the city under then-mayor David Crombie redeveloped the St. Lawrence area along the Esplanade, the first purpose-built mixed-income neighbourhood was constructed with a mix of public and private buildings that included everything from co-ops to public housing to condos and apartment buildings with subsidized units.

To this day, the area around David Crombie Park is held up as the gold standard for mixed development. Replicating its success, however, will be impossible because it relied on a federal public housing fund that no longer exists.

Since then, responsibility for public housing has been passed like a hot potato from the federal to the provincial to the municipal government, and now sits at the level with the fewest resources available to invest in new construction. Indeed, the city is so overwhelmed by its inherited stock of public housing — 2,200 buildings, half of which are more than 50 years old — it will need $2.6 billion just for repairs over the next decade.

With the GTA’s population expected to balloon to 9.2 million in the next 25 years, there is simply no public money available to build new affordable housing to keep pace with growth.

In order to redevelop Regent Park and Lawrence Heights, planners have instead turned to a new model, which imitates the form of St. Lawrence but uses private funding to get the project off the ground.

“It’s a different take on gentrification,” said Milczyn. “We don’t push people out; we bring more people in. The people who already live there capture some of the benefit of the reinvestment.”

In Regent Park, 5,000 market-rate units will be built and sold, and the profits will be split between the developers and the city. The city is using its cut to rebuild the 2,000 units of public housing that were there before.

The idea is to replace a block of exclusively low-income housing with a mixed community that maintains that population and adds many of the things the neighbourhood was missing, such as a central park, swimming pool and sports field.

“It’s what I would call a regular city neighbourhood,” said TCHC’s acting CEO Greg Spearn. “I grew up in Don Mills and I walked past a couple of sites every day that were Toronto Community Housing, and I had no idea. And I really shouldn’t have any idea that they were; they were just part of the community. It’s a re-creation of what’s already evolved in our city.”

Piggybacking the condo boom
While the Canary District, the Eastern Waterfront and even the East Port Lands are giant swaths of undeveloped downtown land prime for mixed-income development, the condo boom provides an opportunity for new affordable housing all over the city that won’t cost the public a penny.

Housing activists say this could be achieved through “inclusionary zoning” — a law that would require developers to set aside a certain percentage of new buildings for affordable housing. The city has been negotiating with developers to include social housing units in individual projects for years, but a law would level the playing field and create a uniform policy for all new construction.

“They build a building, but there are no poorer people living there,” said Alejandra Ruiz Vargas, a community outreach worker who lives in a TCHC building in the city’s east end. “We are here and we need to live in Toronto.”

The idea of vertical diversity has been implemented in many U.S. cities, and NDP MPP Cheri di Novo has tabled private member’s bills for years at Queen’s Park to no avail. The province would have to pass a law to empower the city to make these kinds of rules, said Milczyn, who tabled an inclusionary zoning bill of his own last year.

“It’s a great solution,” said Ruis Vargas, a member of ACORN, a community organization for low- and moderate-income families that is hosting a forum on the idea next Tuesday.

The builders won’t lose money, she says, because they’ll be compensated by being allowed to build higher towers, and the plan could also provide lower income people with a path to ownership.

“It’s very important because it will give people hope to have a future. If you spend all your money on rent, it’s depressing,” she said. “But when somebody owns, people are proud.”

Controlling gentrification
“Where do low-income people live in an expensive city?” asked David Hulchanski, associate director of the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre and a professor of housing and community development. “A few rental units in some highrises is nice, but that’s not going to do it.”

Hulchanski, whose “Three Cities” research on growing inequality in Toronto has been used by cities around the world, says gentrification is eliminating affordable-rental units faster than they can be replaced. The process can be slowed, however, by closing two rent control loopholes that allow rents to increase rapidly.

One loophole exempts buildings constructed after 1991 from provincial rent increase guidelines and lets new condo owners jack up rent at will. The other, called vacancy decontrol, allows a landlord to charge any amount of rent to a new tenant.

Ontario used to control rent even when an apartment went vacant, but this was eliminated in 1998 under Premier Mike Harris, giving landlords a perverse incentive to push out low-income tenants.

“They have an incentive to get rid of people. And they have an incentive to not treat their tenants right and they have an incentive not to fix things up when something breaks,” Hulchanski said.

The low vacancy rate in Toronto — 1.5 per cent, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation — virtually guarantees a new tenant.

“Everybody can be happy in a gentrifying neighbourhood, as opposed to (what’s happening) now, where you have gradual and then rapid displacement of anybody who doesn’t have a lot of money,” he said.

All three planks — revitalization of public housing, inclusionary zoning laws and closing loopholes in rent control — are necessary for a mixed-income city, Hulchanski said. This way, aging public housing gets refreshed, new units are constructed and existing low-income neighbourhoods aren’t gentrified overnight.

“Any one of these ideas wouldn’t make a huge difference, but together they begin to make quite a difference,” he said.

Hulchanski’s vision for a future mixed-income Toronto harks back to the 19th century, where each neighbourhood had the necessities of life.

“The 19th century city was very organic. You actually had small factories side by side with houses,” he said.

Along with corner stores, arterial roads and small offices, there were small 20- to 30-unit walk-up apartment buildings, row houses and detached houses all within walking distance.

“That’s what Regent Park is going to look like — except for the factories.”

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