Community for all in housing developments

  • January 10, 2008

{mosimage}For many people in the earthly city, the first of January marked the end of the gift-giving season. The exchange of holiday presents was over, and the last chance to make a charitable donation for 2007 had passed.

But for Catholics who take their religion seriously, the awareness of need is a year-round concern. And there are no places in Toronto where the need for the basics of human existence is more obvious than in the city’s public housing projects. Many of the city’s poorest citizens live in these large developments scattered throughout the city. Many of these people, especially the children, require food and clothing and educational opportunities they can’t afford. But they also need living quarters better than the soulless barracks that have too long typified social housing.

The problem is not new. Public housing has traditionally been dull, uncomfortable and oppressive, like a jail, meant to encourage tenants to move on as quickly as possible. As a result of this notion, well-designed dwellings and housing complexes for low-income people have been almost non-existent.

One public agency that has decided to change all that is Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC).

With 58,000 units of housing under its management — making the corporation one of North America’s biggest residential landlords — the TCHC is forging ahead to provide well-made, well-serviced housing for Toronto’s poor. The $1-billion redevelopment of the Regent Park social housing complex is speeding forward. Plans are afoot to perform the same kind of sweeping revamp on the Lawrence Heights project, which straddles the W.R. Allen Expressway near the Yorkdale shopping plaza. And between 15,000 and 20,000 new units are proposed or on the drawing board for sites across Toronto.

“It’s partly due to a perfect storm of personalities,” TCHC development head Mark Guslits told me recently. “We happen to have people here at the corporation who really, really like good architecture, so we just decided we would push architectural excellence.” (Guslits is himself an architect.)

This “perfect storm” has come as the TCHC is taking a hard look at its options.

“The typical project in our portfolio, built in the 1950s or 1960s, has used up its life as a useful building, and the repairs are starting to cost more than the opportunities for renovation or redevelopment. We have 13 communities right now that could bear redevelopment. They are low-density, there are social problems galore. A lot of the public violence that’s happening in the city is happening in these communities, which are almost uniformly low-income. So we have wondered if there’s an opportunity here for new architecture, new community development, new houses, new schools, new banks. By improving them, we can be catalysts for new communities — something we believe is already happening in Regent Park.”

Guslits is a devout believer in mixed-income, mixed-use — mixed-everything — initiatives in the public housing field. He is also a believer in beauty. In Regent Park, the corporation’s flagship experiment in this kind of development, a line-up of well-known local architectural firms has been brought on board. The list includes architects Alliance, Diamond + Schmitt, Kearns Mancini and core. The buildings they are fashioning will contain a grocery store, a coffee shop and other amenities that people down on their luck need in their neighbourhoods as much as the well-off.

We’ll be watching the TCHC schemes, as they roll out over the next years, with much interest. They are compassionate initiatives that address the basic problem of housing the poor while paying much-needed new attention to the human needs for community and beauty.

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