Design Ingenuity: My wknd stay in Canadian public housing

Design Ingenuity is a series highlighting teachable examples of urban design. The first Design Ingenuity post highlighted US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, the second highlighted OKC’s citywide park redevelopment plan. The goal of Design Ingenuity is to understand the difference that good design makes in the lives of city residents.

1-year ago, after learning about development processes and policy mechanisms behind American public housing at an accelerated rate, I had a hair-brained whim to go explore the Canadian equivalent.

daniels-spectrumI particularly wanted to see Regent Park – Toronto’s “most notorious” public housing estate (for all the wrong reasons, if you could imagine such a thing in Canada) – which underwent an ambitious revitalization project in 2005. Regent Park’s Daniels Spectrum community centre (an art gallery I believe?) recently won the UK’s prestigious Civic Trust Award, along with a bevy of other awards. This is not your grandfather’s public housing, or even Drake’s – see MTV article likening a co-appearance with the Toronto-native rapper to “a passport out of Regent Park.” The NY Times has hailed Regent Park, once a “neighborhood in despair,” as an international “model for inclusion.”

In case it seems odd (or insensitive) to “vacation” in another nation’s public housing…

  • I am very interested in the culture of public housing, which is quite rich.
  • I am very interested in the design opportunities surrounding public housing, which are limitless.
  • I am very interested in the social and equity implications of redesigning public housing, which are a double-edged sword.

Regent Park was an amazing thing to check out for all those reasons and more. It turns out that, thanks to the mixed-income composition of the replacement housing, you can find AirBnB units within Regent Park itself. It might even be the best AirBnB location in Toronto, for someone on a budget who wants a sleek rental near downtown TO.

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I stayed in the extremely cool Paintbox building, which is a 26-story, 282-unit mixed-income housing tower designed to evoke its namesake. In the elevators you truly rub shoulders with people from all walks of life, and from the balcony, look down on the entirety of Toronto’s vast cityscape. You also look down on Regent Park’s namesake park itself, also redesigned as an excellent space. The view was highly instructive:

The park itself integrates all the amenities you would expect on-site for 1,800 public housing units, including an aquatic center (toward the right), greenspace programmed with active- and passive-recreation spaces, the Daniels Spectrum, and a church that was preserved. The most interesting thing in these photos are the older units, what remains of Regent Park (the next phase to be replaced), across the park.

The redevelopment is replacing roughly the same number of units – 2,083 units existed in 2005, and 1,800 will be rebuilt along with another 266 off-site (“nearby”) – while 5,400 market-rate units will be introduced on-site. Those market-rate units sell for around $400,000-$500,000 for a 2br, and around $200,000 for a studio. I have been told that they are completely indistinguishable from the public housing units, although I am not sure whether the unit I stayed in was public or market; I can attest that there are no separate entrances or “poor doors.”

All in all, Toronto Community Housing’s redevelopment will take 15-20 years to accomplish the following:

Y:2009 Projects916 Regent Park MP Phases 3-6Drawings00 Sit

  • Replaced RGI Rental Units: 2,083 (over 1800 in Regent Park and 266 in new buildings nearby)
  • New Affordable Rental Units: Over 210 in Regent Park and 100 in new buildings nearby by the end of Phase 2. Additional affordable rental units in future phases will be subject to funding availability.
  • Market Units: 5,400
  • Project Start Date: 2005
  • Anticipated Project Length: 15-20 years
  • Total Size: 69 acres
  • Amenities: New amenities include the Daniels Spectrum, the Regent Park Aquatic Centre, the new Regent Park, and the Regent Park Athletic Grounds
  • Retail Space: Freshco by Sobeys, Rogers, Tim Hortons, RBC and Main Drug Mart have moved into newly created retail space
  • Employment: 1,100

All of which looks good on paper, but looks even better in person – as it such amidst Toronto’s beautiful cityscape, replete with open modern design, green rooftops, and “red rockets” (Toronto streetcars).

Perhaps it is not only possible for public housing to raise people up, but to more importantly immerse people in an immersive community that naturally provides better social supports than a community action program ever could.

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Hardest Hit Fund Should Help the Hardest Hit

As the world’s focus is locked on Flint, where the a catastrophic chain of cause and effect has poisoned the city’s youth. Governor Snyder’s directive to obtain water from a lower-quality source led to corrosive water leaching lead out of the city’s outdated lead pipes. Without any of those elements – the water source or the outdated lead pipes – this doesn’t happen.

However, many larger cities are facing a similar outcome with a much larger impact. Lead paint in housing has a similar effect on children. Just as Flint’s older lead pipes primarily affected African American neighborhoods, the preponderance of lead paint (banned since 1978) is also in older, inner city, African American neighborhoods. Lead paint consumption, just like lead-contaminated water consumption, can be disastrous for younger children whose bodies are still developing.

The City of Cleveland and Senator Sherrod Brown are asking for the federal government’s help on abating this issue through an existing program that has been wrongly applied in some instances. The Treasury created the $7.6 billion Hardest Hit Fund in 2010 to provide assistance, mostly through homeowner counseling, housing mortgage modifications, and housing demolition, directly to the states most affected by the housing crash. This would be mostly big states such as Ohio, Michigan, Florida, California, etc. Each state’s HFA set the policy for spending all of the money in that state.

In Michigan this program is used almost exclusively for demolishing Detroit’s historic neighborhoods en masse. To expedite this mission, Snyder undercut his SHPO’s otherwise-sanctioned duty to conduct Section 106 review of HHF-funded projects. That could be a problem if your project is just demolishing what remains of Detroit. In Ohio – at least in Cleveland – the funds are similarly put to use.

The city’s spokesperson, Natoya Walker Brown, is calling for feds to allow the funding to go toward home rehabilitation instead. This would allow the funding to be directed specifically toward abating lead paint in older neighborhoods that are still occupied, but lack the financial resources to renovate their homes every 20 years like in some areas of the city. Historic preservation groups, including the Cleveland Restoration Society and the Legacy Cities conference we co-hosted with CSU, have long been calling for the Hardest Hit Fund to take a look at housing rehabilitation not just as well, but perhaps instead.

I understand the multi-faceted argument behind demolishing unused housing stock. It reduces overall vacancy, “right-sizes” cities for their new and likely long-term populations, makes remaining property in the city more valuable, and mitigates the “broken window” effect more locally. All of those are legitimate. However, an even bigger consideration that has been completely ignored is the impact of a newly rehabilitated home on its surrounding block. Especially of that home’s exterior has been professionally restored to its original luster. Donovan Rypkema’s economic impact report on historic preservation concluded that a rehabilitated home has greater impact on its surroundings than removing blight.

While winning the economic argument will always be important for historic preservation, the real argument to win is the impact on people’s lives. Rather than destroying history and removing future opportunities from a community, the Hardest Hit Fund could be used to rehabilitate homes in low-income communities, keeping them standing, and safer for the children that grow up in them. That’s what could be done if Treasury, HFA’s, historic preservationists, and public health officials partnered toward solving this issue.