Posts tagged ‘Urban’

October 13, 2016

Toronto’s Urban Diversity

European cities are struggling with the increasing diversity of their populations, places which historically grew out of national and ethno-cultural identities.

Divercities is a European Union funded project what is looking at how governance and civic structures can create “social cohesion, social mobility and economic performance in today’s hyper-diversified cities.” They hosted a conference in September at the University of Antwerp  with practitioners, policy-makers and academics.

Over the few days of discussion and debate, they asked some of us about what diversity looks like in our cities. Here below is what I said about Toronto, a place that people held as an ideal when we compared notes. I should have added “There is still work to be done!”

In February there will a larger concluding conference to present the wider findings.

December 14, 2012

Research fatigue and other lessons from Toronto’s Regent Park.

“Research Park – er, I mean Regent Park…”

It was a telling slip in one resident’s lament about the degree of academic surveillance taking place in Regent Park, the low-income Toronto neighbourhood where public housing has been torn down and is being rebuilt as a mixed income community. Thousands of new condo and townhouse owners will be living alongside the original low-income tenants in the next decade.

It is a living lab, a natural social experiment that is too tempting for a city with three universities and several more within driving distance of it.

Professors, grad students and undergrad class projects have taken their toll on Regent Park residents, creating a research fatigue, just as the second and largest phase of the redevelopment at Regent Park is underway.

(See More below to see a short list of the research projects I know.)

“If another researcher knocks on my door again, I won’t be very polite when I answer it,” declared one resident.

Another long-time resident was puzzled by the attention, saying

Our neighbourhood is just like every other one. There are all kinds of people. It’s not related to income or our location. It’s just that we’re living in a fish bowl.”

However, a recent panel at University Toronto drew a packed house of academics, residents, community service providers and advocates. The interest in undeniable. Even the residents in attendance at Regent Park Research Panel: New Findings from the Field were active in the debate afterwards. The speakers, all graduate students, have spent long stretches in the community and so spoke with an authenticity generally welcomed by the audience.

Each spoke in turn on their area of study.

Ryan James, York University

Youth, Stigma, and Security in 1970s Regent Park

James, an Anthropology doctoral student with ties to the community, described a history of Childhood in Regent Park. One of the powerful points in his narrative was the vulnerability of local children and youth.

One young women explained, “Being poor almost meant that you have a target on your back for sexual predators.”

Gordon Stuckless of Maple Leaf Gardens notoriety was remembered in the community.

When the community rose up in defence of its children, a vein of  “virulent homophobia” also erupted. This died down though, James explained, when gay rights activists held counter-demonstrations protesting that homosexuality did not equal pedophilia.

Sharon Kelly, University of Toronto

Navigating the road back home: The return of Regent Park Phase I residents

The next speaker, Sharon Kelly, also a doctoral student in Anthropology, embedded herself within the project unit which managed the moves required by residents as the redevelopment occurred.

“It was a place of hope,” she explained, decorated in bright colours and with fresh flowers, where residents, assigned by random draw, pored over floor plans to choose their new units. Higher floor or lower? North, south, east or west? Early project phase or later? In Regent Park or nearby? They lingered, ranking their first, second and third choices.

However, Kelly explained the site office was also a place of distrust, where residents worried about favouritism or grew weary of delays or frustrated their choices were not available. Some of the tensions were very real. Long-time residents were upset that a random draw meant that their length of tenure was not recognized. Or families and seniors, who were not able to meet shorter moving times, sometimes lost out to others who were more nimble.

Staff were sympathetic, but argued that the lottery system ensured impartiality, especially given the difficulty of evaluating and comparing competing needs. It was emotionally draining work, Kelly explained, and staff were forced to make decisions fast in order to keep up with the construction schedule.

A swap board was created so that tenants could negotiate changes among themselves. While well-intentioned but, Kelly did not hear of any viable trades made this way. What it did offer however was a sense of control that tenants welcomed.

When asked what some of the challenges, Kelly explained the biggest issue regarding complex work of resident relocation was the deceptively simple issue of communication.  Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) was cognizant of this, she said, and, for instance, when they needed to contact residents, they knocked on doors instead of mailing letters.

The work goes on, as three more phases have to be completed.

Martine August, Planning, University of Toronto

From isolation to inclusion? Tenant experiences in Regent Park’s Phase II

The final speaker was Martine August, a doctoral student in Planning, working with Alan Walks to take a critical look at gentrification and mixed income neighbourhoods.

August began with a brief description of the development plans for Regent Park. Begun in 2002, the revitalization of the neighbourhood was set to happen in five phases through a Public Private partnership. Capital would be raised through the sale of private market, newly-built housing stock.

The first phase is now completed, and residents have returned to new homes. Once complete, only 19-20% of the housing will be Rent Geared to Income (RGI), down significantly from the original neighbourhood. While the overall number of low-income residents will stay approximately the same, as higher income people move in, their density will be decreased.

Arguments for why this is good, August explained, is that there is “presumed need to deconcentrate poor people” because they are isolated from good role models. The concentration of need, the argument goes, leads to negative outcomes; Cause and effect are being mixed, she argues. (Professor Jim Dunn’s work, see below, is also finding that the “role model” argument is based on weak evidence.)

In the public’s mind, mixed income neighbourhoods have emerged as an ideal without the supporting evidence.

At best, these arguments are offensive, August explains. At worst, it is used to justify gentrification, leading to the removal of homeless and other marginalized people. This framing re-stigmatizes poor people (in a similar way to how public housing was originally and purposefully built to be unattractive).

Discussions of renewal and mixed neighbourhoods “use the language of balance in service of exclusion,” August argues. It is an academic argument she wants to test.

To explore this further, August interviewed 32 households before they moved out (pre-phase 2) and 50 households who have moved back from phase 1.

Residents were enthusiastic about several things in Regent Park: central location, availability of services, walkablility, easy access to public transit, number of local ethnic grocery stores, parks, and places of worship.  Residents described the benefits of living downtown and the vibrancy of the neighbourhood (all themes which are part of the marketing campaign for the new condos).

Residents also described the strong social ties and community connections they had with other tenants. “This doesn’t match the story of social isolation which is told about poor neighbourhoods,” August explained. Newcomers found each other, people borrowed from each other,  kept care of each other’s children, celebrated together, were there for crisis support. Community members also were proud of their political activism, describing Regent Park as a place which hit above its weight because of the concentration of people together.

So, contrary to stereotypes, Regent Park is well-located, well-connected, well-served.

“Not that weren’t real problems,” August said. “First, being the state of repairs and maintenance of the buildings, pests, broken appliances, plaster crumbling, and poor common areas. And it’s not clear that redevelopment will improve this. Already residents are telling of problems in their units, falling glass, broken shelves, buckling floor boards. TCHC has a $6m cut to their repair budget”.

Drug activity is still reported, according to August, but the tenants tend to take the attitude that “but if you don’t bother them, then they won’t bother you.” Tenants also recognize that solving this issue is not simply a matter of getting “the bad guys out.”  Brothers and sons are swept up in the crackdown, and the problem usually just shifts to a new location.

New design and new condos haven’t stopped these old problems.

Residents also report that stigma still an issue. although many resist the stereotypes. Something as simple as clothing reinforces class divisions within the new community.

Each new condo tower has achieved higher prices than one before.

August argues that if the purpose is to solve social problems, a market driven approach may not be the best way to address the issues.

English: As part of the redevelopment of Regen...

As part of the redevelopment of Regent Park from a social housing development to mixed-income neighbourhood, four of the five apartment towers designed by Peter Dickinson are being demolished (one will be preserved for historical reasons). Constructed in 1958, the collection of Regent Park towers won a Silver Medal by the Massey Medals for Architecture in 1961. This is an image of the second tower being demolished. Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However the market forces are pressing forward. The number of condos have now gone from around 3000 to 5400 without much discussion.

This will have impact on many levels, including the political presence of tenants as gentrification shifts to the local demographics to more middle-class concerns. At this point, residents associations, like RPNI (see below), represent tenants. Condo associations are also emerging. There may be opportunities to bridge among these associations.When asked, August recounted a telling story from the Don Mount (now Rivertowne) re-development across the river from Regent Park. That smaller community has also undergone a “renewal” that mixes income groups into a single housing project. Low-income tenants there report that people in market-rent housing have been really dominating community meetings, focusing on issues such as safety and policing, noise and garbage collection. Tenants feel targeted in their own neighbourhood.

When Regent Park condo owners heard about local youth being targeted by police, they organized an information session for youth, to learn their rights. This “rights-based” approach, in contrast to “keep-your-head-down” approach, highlights the very different frame of experience that middle-income and low-income people use.

The evening ended with the promise to continue the discussion, finding opportunities to bring these findings to the people of Regent Park.

“Good people live there,” one tenant said in conclusion.

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December 2, 2012

The function and art of underground entrances: Metros, subways and the tube

Entrance to Old Street Underground station, London, England

Entrance to Old Street Underground station, London, England

On a trip through Europe, I once took a picture of some cows. “Why!?!” I wondered when I got home. “They’re cows.” My more creative sister did a bit better, producing a series on the various toilets we encountered through our travels.

My eye has sharpened just a bit now, I hope, and on my recent trip to London, England, in part for the First International Convention of Neighbourhood Bloggers, I focused on built form and urban space.

The accessibility of this subway entrance, near my hotel in the east end, caught my eye: stairs for when I was in a hurry, and a gently sloped ramp for when I was dragging my luggage. Wheeled conveyances welcome. (With over eight exits onto the Old Street roundabout, however, I did get lost.)

To confirm this strange new obsession, today’s U.K. Telegraph Travel section has published a photo series of the “most impressive underground subway stations” which looks at the artistic side of the transportation hubs.

The Moscow stations are baroque in their style, the London Underground industrial, the Scandinavian countries organic. The Italians are almost ready to unveil a subway entrance in Naples which could be described, in polite company, as a pair of lips.

Among the most playful example in the Telegraph series was this entrance to the Bockenheimer Warte metro station in Frankfurt:

Bockenheimer Warte U-Bahn
Everywhere, though, commuters look very work-a-day, bored as they make their way through these incredible spaces.

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November 23, 2012

A tree grows in the road

A regal tree in the middle of a square, traffic flowing around it? Sure. (See the beauty I found in Bath, England.)

But, on a recent visit to Athens, I found a tree growing straight out of the pavement, guarded by one warning sign so that vehicles had to swerve around it. Motorcycles, cars and buses all bent around it on the narrow, one-way street.

The Lorax would have been pleased to see this tree, so respected in the Athenian suburb of Kifissia. I visited it twice in my four days there.

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Coincidentally, days after my return news from Quebec on a hydro pole in the middle of a highway. Not nearly as poetic, I suppose.

October 9, 2012

Neighbourhood centres: From the history of social justice among settlement houses to community hubs’ modern place-based approach

Photograph of early settlement house, Toynbee Hall circa 1902.

Toronto’s University Settlement House, by the Grange, recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.

St. Chris House, in the west end, has also reached the century mark. Not far away, Central Neighbourhood House, founded by students from University of Toronto, has also celebrated 100. Also, in the downtown core, Dixon Hall is eighty and St. Stephen‘s is fifty. Reputedly named after Reverend Wood and Reverend Green, WoodGreen, where I work in the east end, has just turned 75 years old.

Each of these neighbourhood centres cluster in the centre of city, reflecting the downtown area’s history as a place where new immigrants and low-income lived. As demographics have shifted and need has spread, other neighbourhood centres – and community hubs – have emerged across the city.

Over these decades, these centres opened their doors, drawing on a model from 19th century Great Britain called a Settlement House. More than charitable service organizations that focus on individual needs, settlement houses emerged from wider ideals of social justice. Settlement referred not to, in the modern sense, of working with immigrants, but rather to a call to university-educated young people to settle in poor neighbourhoods, bring their talents to bear on local problems.

In a sense, settlement houses worked to ensure the intellectual and social capital of a neighbourhood were not stripped away. They also preserved the idea of social contract between rich and poor. Most settlement houses enjoyed the patronage of wealthy donors.

The tradition of Settlement House offer a few key touchstones to modern-day hubs and centres:

Wrap-around services: As multi-service organizations, neighbourhood centres are able to address the various needs clients have. Need a job? food? compantionship? housing? They have it all. Dixon Hall, for instance, defines itself by its multi-service approach.

On-the-ground knowledge: Neighbourhood houses have also acted as early warning systems. Some of urbanist Jane Jacob’s critique of the “towers in the park” emerged  from New York contemporary and settlement house social worker Ellen Lurie, who tracked what happened to her clients who were being moved into this newer form of public housing from their old neighbourhoods. Even now, seeing the changes in its neighbourhood, St Chris House sparked the research into how gentrification was changing their downtown neighbourhood, leading eventually to the Three Cities report by David Hulchanski. After hearing more and more stories from the sector, WoodGreen supported a fight for permanent funding to control bed bugs.

Commitment to creating opportunity at the individual and system level: Recognizing that charity work and case management would not create the systemic change needed to end poverty, advocacy and community development became a core part of centres’ work. Childcare, youth programs, and adult literacy programs were all staples of early programming. University Settlement House’s Music and Art program was established in 1921. Later decades would see these social programs adopted and funded by governments at all levels. In more recent times, St. Chris House led the cross-sectoral policy table, MISWAA, which examined income supports for working age adults. In short, it’s about social justice.

Innovation: Because they are alert to changes and are able to bring a wide set of services to any social problems, neighbourhood centres also act as incubators, creating solutions to complex problems. WoodGreen, for instance, partnered with the Toronto District School Board to create the first seamless, full-day kindergarten class at Bruce Public School.

Community building: Early neighbourhood centres were the original community hubs creating links across difference, strengthening local community. St. Stephen’s Resolution program actively in neighbourhood disputes, and has trained hundreds to do dispute resolution. Multiple ages walk through their doors and learn about each other. Free, non-commercial space is increasingly precious. The community hubs springing up across the city are based on these same community development principles. Place-based approaches to problems sometimes work better than those which work with only specific client populations.

Settlement houses, neighbourhood centres, community hubs — whatever you call them — seem a tradition worth celebrating.

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April 20, 2012

Gentrification signifiers: A story of one neighbourhood

When two grandmothers stopped on my street recently to tell me their adult children had bought a nearby house, I didn’t tell them why the young family who lived there was moving out. They had moved in with high hopes to this freshly-painted and pot-lighted house, ignoring the “as is” in the stipulations. The house had undergone a quick flip from a man who bought it after a house fire burned out the tenants who lived there. The house attached to them had also suffered fire damage, but those tenants, renting rooms, stayed on in a more deteriorated house.

And then last summer, it got bad. A man with a violent criminal history moved in — and took over. We neighbours sat on our porches and watched the drug deals and solicitation. It had happened before on the street. The normal knock-and-run behaviour of drug buyers played out on the sidewalks where kids pedaled past on their bikes, part of the ballet that Jane Jacobs described. But this time was scarier.

Physical fights became the norm, and the local men became protective, taking to long smokes on the ends of their porches. The police raided the house almost weekly through those hot months. By-law officers arrived and three days carting refuse away. The landlord, a former neighbour, was rumoured to be incapacitated, unable to intervene or maintain control. Then, too late, a woman died of an overdose. The house was padlocked and put up for sale.

I couldn’t tell this to the cheery women I met. But I recognized their story — their children had got “such a good deal”! But I did recognize this stage of gentrification – the grown children had moved eastward, having rented in Kensington Market – and had  been not able to afford a home closer to the downtown core.

When neighbourhoods shift from working class neighbourhoods to higher income ones, several signs and stages are notable.

Neighbourhood Market

Neighbourhood Market (Photo credit: omegaforest)

First arrivals were people like me, my partner and new baby. We had some family connections to the community, but while comfortable here, we were no longer working class. Higher education had boosted out prospects. But our arrival acted as a signal, that the neighbourhood was “safe.”

Others like us soon came, and the occupations of my neighbours switched from taxi drivers, mill workers, and train conductors, to book editors, teachers, and non-profit workers. Single women thronged to the neighbourhood’s small houses, and young families used the low housing prices as a launching pad until they could afford a larger place. Homes which had housed multiple children (and sometimes a couple of families) were converted to single households. Population density dropped, and racial diversity paled. As housing prices rose, residents told each other this neighbourhood was “arriving.” (One elderly neighbour, disbelieving the rising house prices, chortled to me, “Diane, we’re quarter millionaires,” as housing prices rose over $200,000 for a 12.5 feet wide lots.)

Next come the speculators. Housing flips are common in the neighbourhood now. Another couple, lured by granite counter tops and a street-front entrance, all at the price of a condo, has moved in across from us, but lawsuits have ensued as the rotted timber by the new drywall been discovered. Our neighbourhood had become a bit of a destination point.

As a critical mass of newcomers builds, another sign emerges: residents’ associations. Their focus is often on remnant parts of the neighbourhood: ‘common’ concerns such as traffic flow, garbage, run-down properties (like the ones up above), and most often the desire to “clean up” the neighbourhood. Every couple of years, these small citizen efforts have emerged. GECO (eerily echoing Michael “Greed is Good” Douglas’ character in Wall Street) is the most recent incarnation, springing out of some of the sentiments expressed in the comments section of BlogTO’s recent article, What ails Little India?.

One of GECO’s members explained to me she thought it was important to have “more diversity” in the neighbourhood commercial strip, that there are “too many sari shops.” Toronto Life described this more diplomatically as “new businesses…revitalizing a dreary stretch of empty storefronts, noodle houses, laundro­mats and hair salons.” Others explain they hope for a Starbucks or “nice” set of restaurants like nearby (upper-income) neighbourhoods have. After all, they say to me, they have paid a lot of money for their homes and they want the neighbourhood to look good. A neighbourhood blog cooed “A few more cool shops on gerrard (sic) and even the Queen Street hipsters will allow us Northerners to be part of Leslieville.” Academics have described this as commercial gentrification. In fact, some have described how Toronto’s “ethnic neighbourhoods” can act as a branding mechanism, in the same way artists do, attracting others and driving up housing prices. It’s a familiar process to those who know Little Italy or Greektown, where many of the original ethnic stores are closing and residents have moved on.

But tolerance for social difference is limited. Another long-time resident, one of the original working-class residents who’d watched these changes with more good humour than me, reported one of new neighbours were discomfited to learn a gay (!) couple lived next door. So he explained to the new couple that good people lived up and down our street. But the revanchist sentiment has grown.

The final stage of gentrification is when the higher income folk arrive, when the place has been made “clean” and “safe.” Cleanliness is defined by such amenities as granite rocks and Japanese maples in the front garden and new windows adorning the home. Safety is not the definition of old, of neighbours knowing when a new neighbourhood child has gotten a tooth or who can be depended upon to hold a spare key for nearby neighbours. Safety is more about beaming spotlights and alarm codes. This final stage concentrates wealth to the point that some researchers call it super-gentrification.

More and more of the neighbourhoods in the old City of Toronto are undergoing this transition. Affordable housing stock is disappearing. The latest move by Toronto Community Housing to sell off single family units means the touted of ideal of mixed-income neighbourhoods will be further away. New developments aggravate the problem, filled with homes all in the same high price range, inclusive zoning not yet a practice. Driven by individual choice, we are losing a common good.

As income inequality is carved into our housing structures, our neighbourhoods suffer. Those who work in neighbourhood shops, filling our coffee orders, or the education assistant in our children’s grade school, won’t live in our neighbourhood, won’t be our neighbours. Our children won’t know difference. This is not Toronto, our motto “Diversity, our strength.”

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December 28, 2011

Power and privilege in Saskatoon and Toronto: Recognition of racism as foundational element of social determinants of health

Speaking recently at an event hosted by the Wellesley Institute, Dr. Cory Neudorf  leans forward in his seat when asked a question related to the social determinants of health (SDOH) of people of colour and Aboriginal peoples. It’s not what you expect from a public servant, and his answer shows the commitment he has to making real changes to the health of all city residents and the depth needed to accomplish that.

As Chief Medical Health Officer for  Saskatoon Health Region, Neudorf has steered the prairie city to a broad public buy-in for attacking poverty. He has moved the discussion of public health from personal behaviours towards a recognition of the systemic and policy barriers which can keep groups of  the region’s residents in poverty.

Early analysis showed the three drivers for poor health outcomes in Saskatoon, when Aboriginal Status is controlled for, are income inequality, education, and age. So how, then, I ask, does race play into a public health agenda?

Neudorf response is nuanced. Admittedly, these discussions are controversial, he said, because if other factors account for poor health outcomes, then some will argue there is no need to focus on Aboriginal status or Race (or other social demographics) as a factor for consideration.

In contrast Neudorf argues these social demographics are foundational elements that run across all the other determinants of health, so that our conversations about policy and program interventions have to be re-framed to build on them. Far more than simply naming them, Neudorf says, we have to talk about how racism is systemic and institutionalized, and why, simply, there are different prospects for people, not because of their race, but because of racism.

Neudorf explains the discussion has only started as te Saskatoon community has done some qualitative work to explore how racism impacts social determinants of health. They hope to determine when targeted responses are appropriate compared to broader population-based responses (or when both are in order).

Neudorf also explained the equity audits the regions health systems were undergoing. An important equity test for the system is to look not at the health pathways for a “typical” patient, but instead at the flow-through of all patients.

In sum, he says, these conversations are about inclusion.

Toronto’s Chief Medical Officer David McKeown, also in attendance, agreed with Neudorf and elaborated, focusing on the position of Toronto immigrants. Racism, McKeown explained, has to be named as an important confounder of health patterns. During earlier comments, McKeown also pointed to need to examine the various dimensions of inequity that make specifically tailored responses important.

These comments, by their admission, were not new points — activists and some academics have been making these points for years (eg. Colour of Poverty/Colour of Change campaign and their call for disaggregated data). What has shifted, though, is that those, closer to power, are now saying the same things too. It’s an optimistic turn.

(For more information about the session, see another post I wrote on the Wellesley Institute website. Neudorf’s presentation is also available there in video format. For more on what others have said on the topic, see below in More.)

on the topic

September 26, 2011

A critical look at international city rankings

“Well, big deal,” the Montreal Gazette sneered in Montreal and its place in the world, its editorial response to a recent international survey on urban quality-of-life. Montreal was behind Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary. As a native Montrealer, I have to concur with the Gazette’s summary:

…rankings tend to favour an ideal, cleanly scrubbed and tidily tended city – which is essentially a suburb.

The editorial consoled readers, throwing in that New York City came 56th on the list.

So how accurate is the measuring stick for the wide range of surveys which rank cities?

This is the question that Toronto’s Intergovernmental Committee on Economic and Labour Force Development (ICE Committee) asked when it commissioned a review of the various urban ranking surveys last year.

As expected, the final report found methodological weaknesses in the comparisons and poor interpretations of the findings by the media and public creates more confusion than clarity when it came to grading the world’s cities. The report author reviewed forty-four rankings and identified seven key lessons:

  • Audience and purpose matter
  • Beware of over-simplification
  • Look at the scores, not the rankings
  • Be wary of data that has been overly manipulated and processed.
  • Longitudinal data are more useful than one-off “snapshot” studied, but watch out for iterative studied that change the rules as they go.
  • Stale source data may leave a false impression.
  • Make sure that apples are being compared to apples.
Probably the fairest explanation for why these studies continue to pop up in the media is attributed to Joel Garreau:
 “These lists are journalistic catnip. Fun to read and look at the pictures but I find the liveable cities lists intellectually on a par with People magazine’s ‘sexiest people’ lists.”

(Still, if you lean towards parochialism, patriotism, or partisan, if you believe Toronto is the centre of the world, you will be glad to know that Toronto generally does well on these international scorecards.)

July 27, 2011

The complex origins of vacant and abandoned homes in a neighbourhood

Recent lessons from the housing crash in the United States described families simply walking away from their homes, leaving their front doors unlocked, because they couldn’t afford to carry their mortgages anymore. Financial abandonment is one of the starkest reasons residences are left untended.

However, like most things, it’s always more complicated. Just how empty and derelict does a building have to be to be abandoned? The octogenarian who lives only in two rooms of her house, having sealed off the rest, still holds domain over it all. But what if she was hospitalized? And then sent to long-term care? And then failed to pay her taxes?

In my neighbourhood, I can think of eight homes that, depending on the definition used, are vacant or abandoned. None of them, that I know of, are haunted or marijuana grow-ops:

  • After a fire started by a basement tenant put one family out of their new and hard-earned home, their re-building was abandoned because of lack of funds and the complexity of (re-)building without a contractor.  That’s been about ten years now since they lost their dream.
  • Another house on the same street also suffered a fire. The house attached to it also suffered damage. Neither household had insurance to re-build. It took two or three years for the first home to be sold to a speculator, who hired cheaply, and then sold it with fresh paint and pot lights “as is.” The family moved out of the attached house, and the landlord rented to a poorer tenants less able to complain.
  • There are three other homes in the neighbourhood where elderly residents have moved to homes for the aged, none of them interested in selling. One of these homes has been empty for over twenty years, the other fledges various young family members every few years, and the third has rats for inhabitants.
  • Another family home in the neighbourhood was sold to the owner’s brother who had no interest in living in it nor in renting it out. It has sat, preserving the family capital, for a quarter century.
  • Another home was bought by a resident in the adjoining house, so as he could enjoy some peace, but the cost of re-zoning the properties to make them a single home is too prohibitive. So, officially, that home is empty.
  • A final house in my neighbourhood acts as a storage locker for a couple who live across the street from it. Vans are unloaded into and out of the house but no one lives there. Census-takers knock futilely every five years. (Another neighbour tells me of a similar house a few streets away which someone else uses to keep their cats and dogs housed – and yes, it smells.)
When this was a working-class neighbourhood, houses were cheap, and few took note of these alternate uses. This was long before housing prices climbed, when only affordable housing activists and a few academics saw such rough, unused gems as valuable housing stock.
In 2008, the Parkdale Activity Recreation Centre (PARC), an activist group called Abandonment Issues and York University’s City Centre partnered to look at cycles of reinvestment and disinvestment in the Toronto area. They explored the housing cycles that happen as neighbourhoods are abandoned and then “discovered” again, creating a small building boon of condos and flow of capital. Some good pressure was raised over the issue but not much changed on the legislative front.
Nowadays neighbours are more likely to talk about the property values of these half million dollars homes left derelict or vacant.
In response to the idea of impact on local property values and the loss of additional housing stock as shortages grow, some other municipalities have adopted “Use it or Lose it” laws.
The City of Toronto’s Affordable Housing Office may, too, be exploring the issues these vacant and abandoned homes create. That’s good news if it doesn’t just provide new fodder for housing speculators.

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June 29, 2011

Wellbeing Toronto

Long awaited, Wellbeing Toronto is launching this morning through the City of Toronto website.

Keep hitting refresh! It will be here soon.

The Toronto Star has given a sneak peek in today’s edition. The site lets users select and map , across the City’s 140 social planning neighbourhoods, from a menu of indicators, ranging from one of Toronto’s top ten languages, applications to universities, or robberies. It also maps locations of various civic sites, community hubs, rate payers associations and other neighbourhood features.

While it’s bound to have some bugs as it launches (I couldn’t see a legend), this is a significant contribution to the civic dialogue of the city – as long as more than real estate agents use it! (My conflict-of-interest? I sat in on two advisory panels during its development.)

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