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Addressing income and wealth inequality at the local level

Mowat Centre highlights the importance of institutions that serve as anchors for communities

The University of Toronto Scarborough, which helped host the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games, is an example of an anchor institution that's “already doing great things when it comes to ensuring the surrounding community benefits from projects.” says

Construction skills programs for at-risk youth. Small-business snack shops. The collaborative development of the Eglinton Crosstown Light Rail project. 

Community-centred projects such as these – anchored by institutions including U of T – can catalyze local economies, says new research from The Mowat Centre. The independent think tank recently released two reports detailing new strategies in building community wealth across Ontario. 

The reports, done in conjunction with the Atkinson Foundation, focus on the emergence of Community Benefits Agreements (CBAs) and how “Anchor Institutions” – which include the University of Toronto – can play a “significant role in building local assets and leveraging them to create a greater supply of decent work and other economic opportunities.”

Nevena Dragicevic, a policy associate at the Mowat Centre, said in an interview with U of T News that “the most interesting thing about these community wealth-building strategies is that they amplify existing public and private investments, which in a time of shrinking budgets and cuts to services is really important.” The Mowat Centre is an independent public think tank located at the School of Public Policy & Governance at U of T. Dragicevic worked on both reports.

The Ontario government has pledged to spend $130 billion over the next 10 years in public infrastructure plus the millions it will spend on goods and services. In a foreword in the CBA report, the Atkinson Foundation’s Colette Murphy writes that “it’s time to use this considerable economic power even more deliberately and strategically to address income and wealth inequality.”

Murphy wrote that “there’s a growing movement of people – inside and outside government – who aren’t content to watch fissures open up and leave our province deeply divided along race, gender and income lines.” This includes not just anti-poverty activists but managers of public institutions such as universities, hospitals and colleges, as well as some in the private sector.

Other cities, such as Glasgow and Cleveland, have negotiated CBAs with developers to develop better procurement strategies, workforce development hubs and collaborations with organizations that engage, train and support workers in low-income communities. 

Dragicevic said that the Eglinton Crosstown Light Rail Transit project in Toronto is being used as a “test case” for a local CBA. The new line crosses through or near five neighbourhoods identified by Toronto as “neighbourhood improvement areas.” Metrolinx signed a CBA with the Toronto Community Benefits Network in 2014 aimed at ensuring the $5.3 billion infrastructure project creates economic opportunities for residents in those areas as well as for low-income Torontonians across the city.

Projects such as the Eglinton LRT “take so long to come to fruition” Dragicevic said, so it is vital that coalitions between government, developers and community leaders are maintained, and promises kept. 

She said the role of anchor institutions in building community wealth “is just coming into public consciousness, although some of them have behaved in that way by using their purchasing power or intellectual resources to invest in the community.”

Dragicevic pointed to U of T Scarborough as one of the anchor institutions “already doing great things when it comes to ensuring the surrounding community benefits from projects.”

The anchor institution report said U of T Scarborough’s Master Plan Infrastructure Initiative is projected to create 2,500 full-time equivalent jobs from 2012 to 2019. 

The anchor strategies include a “hammerheads” program that gives at-risk youths a 16-week intensive experience in construction and trades with a guaranteed job placement after graduation. UTSC is exploring having the program become a contractual requirement for all future construction projects. 

The initiative also provides that in new buildings, not subject to existing contracts with food service providers, smaller vendors are offered a chance to set up shop. The vendors then hire from the local community and student body.

UTSC is also partnered with the East Scarborough Storefront, a community organization, to develop a workforce program that will connect local residents with skills and interest in construction, with job opportunities at UTSC.

Read more about UTSC's collaboration with East Scarborough Storefront