Canada is Looking Better and Better (The Regent Park Story)

Posted by Alan Mallach on March 24, 2016

High-density public housing may seem like an idea whose time has come and gone, buried along with the ruins of notorious projects like St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe and Chicago’s Cabrini-Green. Since the 1990s, HUD’s Hope VI program has demolished hundreds of public housing projects, usually replacing them with lower-density developments that house far fewer people. But is the issue really about density? A remarkable project currently underway in Toronto suggests that sometimes higher, rather than lower, density may be the best way to go.

By the 1990s, Regent Park, a public housing project built in Toronto in the late 1940s, was showing many of the same problems that had prompted the Hope VI program in the United States. With over 2,000 housing units on 69 acres, located less than a mile from booming downtown Toronto, Regent Park had become Canada’s own poster child for distressed public housing.

In 2005, Toronto Community Housing, a city-owned nonprofit social housing provider, partnered with local developer, The Daniels Corporation, to execute a revitalization plan for the entire complex. Although far from complete, Regent Park’s transformation is well underway, and was recently featured in The New York Times.

Although the appetite for large-scale revitalization seems to be modest in the United States these days, looking at how Toronto is rebuilding Regent Park offers some intriguing lessons for the federal government, as well as for states and cities that are grappling with the challenges of remaking distressed public housing projects.

Don’t be afraid of density. When it’s completed, the new Regent Park will contain over 7,500 housing units—more than 100 units per acre. The site also includes extensive commercial space, public open space and community facilities. The increase in density means that the new community is walkable and compact, and that it can support major stores like supermarkets, along with restaurants and smaller stores, as well as actively use the recreational space provided. It also means that a source of internal subsidy is created—Toronto’s hot housing market helps–to underwrite much of the cost of the affordable housing. Most Hope VI projects, by contrast, keep the same or lower density; many end up with semi-suburban landscapes that, for all their New Urbanist rhetoric, are neither particularly walkable nor urban.

Replace the low-income units. All of them. When it’s completed, the new Regent Park will contain more affordable housing units–with rent geared to income, as the Canadians say–than were there before. Not only are all of the former public housing tenants given the right to return to the development, but lower income earning families are given an opportunity to become homeowners in Regent Park through a program that covers 35 percent of the purchase price, as long as they can afford to carry a mortgage on the remaining 65 percent. By comparison, most Hope VI projects replace only a limited number of low income units; most former tenants receive Section 8 vouchers so they can move elsewhere.

Create high quality amenities. Regent Park offers some of the best recreational amenities available in Toronto. The development includes a six acre park; nearly three acres of athletic grounds with a hockey rink, basketball court, soccer/cricket pitch and a running track; the Daniels Spectrum, an arts and cultural center with event, performance and exhibition spaces; and the Regent Park Aquatic Center, a multi-purpose swimming pool complex in an architecturally spectacular facility that the project architects describe as capturing “a feeling of transparency and connection to the outdoors.”

These facilities not only meet the recreational needs of the residents, but do two additional things: they draw people to Regent Park from outside the area, and they provide a common ground where people from the various backgrounds and income levels represented in the community can mix and meet.

 

Be responsive to the community. Toronto is one of the world’s most ethnically and culturally diverse communities, and Regent Park is a microcosm of that diversity. According to one source, 57 different languages are spoken in the neighborhood. The planners of the new Regent Park have engaged the community in the planning from day one, and made a real effort to be responsive to this diverse community, particularly in meeting the cultural and religious needs of the area’s large Muslim community. The sensitivity of the planners to the needs of immigrant communities reflects a strong Canadian ethos, which is currently being seen in the country’s welcome for Syrian refugees. Canada, with 10 percent of the population of the US, has already admitted over 25,000 Syrian refugees, a number that is likely to double over the course of 2016. The Regent Park project includes a variety of educational youth programs and activities, as well as a large number of job-generating businesses, projected to create 1,100 new jobs, with neighborhood residents given priority for the jobs being created. Few Hope VI projects contain much if anything in the way of job-generating facilities, although to be fair, few are even close to the scale of Regent Park.

The program has not been without its problems, particularly with respect to relocation. With most of the city’s public housing stock located in outlying parts of the city, many residents have been forced to move–even if temporarily–to unfamiliar areas where they may feel isolated and uncomfortable. It’s not clear how many of the displaced tenants will in the end move back to Regent Park after being relocated. Still, even though it is still a long way from completion, it is an amazing achievement; and perhaps most important is the prediction of University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski, dean of Canadian housing scholars: “as time passes, people won’t know where Regent Park begins and ends.”

Readers interested in learning more about urban policy (and more) in Canada, and how the US can learn from the Canadian experience can look up Alan's new book with Canadian planner Ray Tomalty, America’s Urban Future: Lessons from North of the Border, published by Island Press.

(Photo credits: 1-New development in Regent Park, Toronto, author image via Google Earth; 2-Old Regent Park Housing Development, author image via Google Earth; 3-Regent Park Aquatic Center by MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects, photo by Shai Gil)

About the author more »

Alan Mallach, senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, is the author of many works on housing and planning, including Bringing Buildings Back, A Decent Home, and Inclusionary Housing in International Perspective. He has served as director of housing and economic development for Trenton, N.J. from 1990 to 1999, and teaches in the City and Regional Planning program at Pratt Institute. He is also a fellow at the National Housing Institute.

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COMMENTS

Miriam Axel-Lute
25 Mar 16, 11:06 am

Alan—Can you give us any examples of the kinds of design or other decisions that resulted from “in meeting the cultural and religious needs of the area’s large Muslim community”? Curious what that looked like.

Casey Sien
30 Mar 16, 9:46 am

I have came to know you while you was a Director of Housing in Trenton. I have work in Trenton for many years and was involved with many Hope VI projects in Newark and Trenton. I was wondering why they did not rehab the high-rise like you mentioned in this article. I also like your previous article regarding the LIHTC.

Herb Fisher
30 Mar 16, 10:42 am

Examples of original HUD financed high rises that failed as rentals but were saved by conversion to housing cooperatives exist in Chicago, Illinois starting with Gill Park Cooperative since 1970s recently refinanced with around a $17 million dollar rehab loan.  Lafayette Plaza Housing Cooperative since 1980s and United Winthrop Tower Cooperative since 1990s also refinanced a few years ago with a $10 million rehab loan.  All with 100% section 8 contracts.  Further proof of the sustainability of affordable housing cooperatives.  All tributes to the organizing ability of the late Ida Curtis Fisher.  Herb Fisher

Daniel Lauber
30 Mar 16, 12:47 pm

Pay attention to what Herb Fisher wrote. Low-equity cooperatives have long been the most effective and successful housing “program” in U.S. history. They offer a far more rational and responsible form of homeownership than subsidizing conventional homeownership. Mr. Fisher knows whereof he speaks.

As for high rises and density of public or assisted housing….
If I recall correctly, the degrees of racial and economic segregation are not nearly as apartheid-like in Canada as they have been in the U.S.; and the problems with high rise public housing not as intense either. I’ve got a healthy skepticism whether a return to high density, high rise public housing is a sound idea in the U.S., given how such housing adds even more obstacles to parents being able to monitor and control their children’s behavior, not to mention the inherent dangers in high rise housing in high crime areas. All in all, while Mr. Mallach raises some interesting points, I doubt if much of what he describes is transferable to the U.S. and I very much doubt the viability of high density high rise assisted or public housing in the U.S.

Abbott Gorin
31 Mar 16, 8:05 am

One has only to listen to the theme of the 1970’s hit show “Good Times” in realizing that high rise, high density housing does not fail to provide a better life for low income tenants.  The show, which was ostensibly set in Chicago’s Cabrini Greene houses, has as its theme not the buildings themselves but the economic powerlessness that affects its residents.  Given a sound blue collar job much would have improved life for its residents.  There was nothing wrong with the buildings.

It was often the motto for the CHA “up and out.”  This was to say that these apartments could be the launching point for a family’s future.  If parents had solid jobs available to them and children were well schooled then their future was no longer predestined to be limited or desperate.

The cutting edge design and dedication to building affordable housing was perhaps best captured by former legal services attorney Devereaux Bowly in his pictorial essay, “The Poorhouse: Subsidized Housing in Chicago 1895-1976. Deveraux tells us that for a long time in America it was public housing authorities that did cutting edge work.  After all Frank Lloyd Wright’s first commissioned work was for the CHA. It was the CHA who brought over from Europe the concept of upper level open galleries where all residents could enjoy a high rise view with their neighbors.  Because of the Pruit-Igoe destruction which was caused by the failed economics of the St. Louis area that decimated these designs.  It wasn’t the designs themselves.

Daniel Lauber
31 Mar 16, 10:30 am

For heaven’s sake, “Good Times” was not a documentary. High rise assisted or public housing also has a nasty tendency to intensify racial and economic segregation to which, frankly, there is no upside.

Alan Mallach
1 Apr 16, 3:33 pm

One point I’d like to clarify, which perhaps was not made clearly enough in my piece, is that the rebuilt Regent Park is NOT high-rise public housing. It is a high-density mixed-income, mixed-use community, which includes both high-rise and low-rise housing, within which about 30% of the units are subsidized housing. I share much of the skepticism about high-rise public housing, which tends to turn into untenable poverty concentrations. My point was, however, when creating mixed-income, mixed-use communities, density is not necessarily the enemy - it may even be an asset.

Daniel Lauber
1 Apr 16, 4:19 pm

Thanks for clarifying that.

Herb Fisher
5 Apr 16, 4:21 pm

Of course density, or racial or economic segregation, in public or investment rental housing, is not the enemy when all minority impoverished communities are so composed. At least the density provides shelter. The Chicago high rise public housing was well built and became the victim of planned obsolescence to make room for new higher income occupied housing in prime areas without enough sustainable replacement housing. The key ingredient to all low and modest income occupied housing is giving the occupants enough controlling interest in their homes to create a sense of responsibility as demonstrated by the thousands of housing cooperative successfully surviving now for 40 or more years. 

Bear in mind that low- and modest-income cannot survive today without government subsidy, most of all of which is being devoted today on the theory that the subsidy will promote sustainable affordable housing. This is not happening as did the subsidies that went into the creation affordable housing housing in the 60s and early 70s, which included housing cooperatives.

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