The Ups (and Downs) of Mixed-Income Transformation in Toronto

Posted by Mark L. Joseph on June 30, 2016

The author would like to acknowledge the research assistance of Biwen Liu and Emily Miller as instrumental in the writing of this blog post.

This past March on Rooflines, Alan Mallach’s piece, titled "Canada is Looking Better and Better (The Regent Park Story)", drew readers’ attention to the “remarkable” mixed-income transformation effort taking place north of the U.S. border. The timing of Alan’s blog was fortunate because I’d just visited Regent Park in February along with several members of our research team from the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities. It was great to read Alan’s take on Regent Park and like him, we came away deeply impressed by what we saw, and perhaps as importantly, by the people we met including resident leaders such as community weaver Sureya, the lead developer Mitchell Cohen and his team from The Daniels Corporation, and the team from the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) led on the ground by Julio Rigores and Abigail Moriah, who were our hosts for the Regent Park visit.

Alan highlights some of the most impressive features of Regent Park, including the attractive high-density design, the replacement of all subsidized units, the mixed-use environment with high quality amenities that draw visitors from all over the metro area, the creation of local jobs, and the sensitivity and responsiveness to the ethnically and culturally diverse community (he didn’t mention the retractable blinds at the aquatic center added post-construction to facilitate privacy for women-only swimming sessions to accommodate Muslim and other faith traditions for which this was imperative).

When the Regent Park revitalization is complete, there will be 2,083 social housing units and approximately 5,400 market condominium units. As of February 2016, 1,098 units had been completed, and 47 percent of the original TCHC households had been relocated back to the new Regent Park. Since the start of the project, more than 1,170 local jobs have been created, 375 of which are specific to trades connected to the revitalization and new business in the community, and over 770 through other employment initiatives facilitated by the City of Toronto’s Employment and Social Services office located in Regent Park.

To Alan’s list, we can add that Regent Park has developed an impressive community engagement plan that employs “community weavers” to connect with residents and includes a special focus on youth, involving them in the revitalization plan through a Youth Ambassador program.

Alan notes that not all facets of the Regent Park project have been successful and highlights challenges with relocation, particularly involuntary temporary relocation to other projects far from the area. We would add our dismay that despite 7,500 planned units in hundreds of buildings on almost 70 acres, there is not a single building planned in which subsidized units will be integrated with market-rate units. We were incredulous that such an innovative, forward-looking project, designed and implemented by such a strong public-private partnership with such attention to generating an inclusive environment for a diverse population of residents would stop short of including some resident integration within buildings. While we agree that such a design decision should be made on a building-by-building, neighborhood by neighborhood basis, it seems to us that Regent Park is falling short of its potential by not incorporating full integration into some buildings.

But what made our Toronto visit a truly powerful learning experience was our introduction to a second mixed-income development in the city, one that has received far less attention but is a critical part of the story of the city’s experience and learning about mixed-income redevelopment. During our visit to Regent Park, we met resident leaders from the Rivertowne development, including Jean King, who invited us to visit their development and hear about their experiences.

Rivertowne, a short walk from Regent Park, was previously the Don Mount Court public housing development. It re-opened in 2010 and includes 232 public housing rental units and 187 market-rate condominium units. As the first major mixed-income revitalization project in Toronto, Rivertowne experienced some serious challenges, and much was learned by TCHC about how to improve the redevelopment process. A research study by Dr. Martine August, which she described in her article, “Revitalisation Gone Wrong: Mixed-Income Public Housing Redevelopment in Toronto's Don Mount Court” found that residents were dissatisfied with the physical design, concerned about the quality of the housing and felt marginalized and stigmatized by the way the redevelopment process was conducted. The existing sense of community among residents was disrupted in the process of redevelopment and there was little done proactively to promote positive relations between subsidized residents and the incoming market-rate residents. The design of the new development physically segregates renters from owners. We heard resident perspectives on how they have worked with TCHC to improve social conditions in the development. To address the gap in service provision and attempt to reweave the social fabric, a group of women initiated the Safety 1st Program in 2012. Through mobilizing community resources to provide a breakfast program, a children's after-school program, an annual community BBQ event, and organizing community clean up, the Safety 1st group is trying to use their talents to facilitate connection and establish a sense of belonging in Rivertowne.

While the efforts in Regent Park are a model for innovative mixed-income revitalization partnerships, the collective “bottom-up” efforts of the Rivertowne residents demonstrate another path of long-term success in a mixed-income community: resident empowerment and cultivating a common aspiration to create a better home.

(Photo: The NIMC team with residents of Rivertowne, courtesy of Mark L. Joseph) 

About the author more »

Mark Joseph is an associate professor at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University and founding director of the National Initiative on Mixed-Income Communities.

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