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Mixed-income housing one answer for out-of-control home prices

housing in toronto

Ronny Yaron was one of the first residents to move into the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood in Toronto 37 years ago. A single mother of two, Yaron was tired of moving house and was seeking a sense of community. She knew, going in, that she was taking part in what she describes as “a big experiment, a unique project” that’s “one of a kind.”

St. Lawrence was Canada’s first attempt to develop a deliberately mixed-use, mixed-income neighbourhood, one that integrated market-priced housing with public, non-profit and co-op residences and provided all the services necessary to build a true community — schools, daycare facilities, supermarkets and retail shops. Now, almost 40 years later, St. Lawrence serves as a model for new neighbourhood developments.

“It’s a real mix,” says Yaron, now 72 years old. “A lot of single people, a lot of children, a lot of dogs — and it does work. There’s a real neighbourhood feeling when you go along the Esplanade. Children know each other, there are places where community happens, people organize events. It’s wonderful.”

Ronny Yaron has lived in the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood for almost 40 years. (THOMAS BOLLMANN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The idea of mixed-use communities is not a new one. It’s been the reality for hundreds of years, in towns and villages where people lived, worked, shopped, educated their children, cared for their elders, indulged in cultural activities — all within easy reach of residents.

But history and technology are dynamic. Things change. “Since the Second World War, a lot of neighbourhood planning has really been about separation of uses,” says Graeme Stewart, a principal at ERA Architects Inc., in Toronto. “Until the 1990s, that was the orthodoxy. It was all based on the car. ”

It’s an orthodoxy that is shifting. Today’s city planners are moving away from suburban sprawl and — its converse — large public-housing developments.

“In the 1970s, it was recognized that building large communities and filling them with 100-per-cent low-income people didn’t create a ‘normal’ neighbourhood,” University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski says wryly. “They said, ‘Can we do better?’ ”

The answer was St. Lawrence and the concept of mixed housing.  In Vancouver, False Creek Neighbourhood sprang up around the same time, along similar lines.

David Hulchanski, who holds the Dr. Chow Yei Ching Chair in Housing at U of T’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, has done extensive research on urban development, including his eye-opening 2010 report titled “The Three Cities Within Toronto: Income Polarization Among Toronto’s Neighbourhoods, 1970-2005.”

“The concept of mixed-use housing is now widespread, at least in theory,” he says. “But most countries operate with the realities of the housing market, and the more you rely on the market, the more you’re going to have the segregation of rich, [middle-income] and poor.”

Prof. Hulchanski says that in recent years, Toronto ‘s residential developments — largely condos — have been almost exclusively aimed at the affluent end of the spectrum, with only 5 per cent of housing being non-market (affordable rentals for the lowest 30 per cent of household income distribution).

By contrast, many countries in northern and western Europe have used stringent planning and zoning rules to create a measure of equity in the housing market. “They renew their public housing estates,” he explains. “They manage to provide good-quality housing for virtually everybody. The majority of German, Swiss and Danish households are renters. When people have a high quality of rental stock and security of tenure, ownership is not such a big deal.”

Inadequate urban planning and zoning can lead to big problems, as evidenced in the peripheral housing projects surrounding Paris, which have become hotbeds of social unrest.

Prof. Hulchanski wants to see a return of federal and provincial funding for affordable housing, rental regulations that discourage rampant neighbourhood gentrification, and “inclusionary zoning” policies that oblige developers to dedicate a certain percentage of their projects to mixed-income residents. “Right now, all the gains are on [the developers’] side,” he says. “The rules are all skewed. If they were more balanced, we’d have a more balanced city, a more balanced society.”

Montreal moved in that direction in 2005 with its Inclusionary Housing Strategy. The city’s Master Plan has established an important benchmark of 30-per-cent-affordable units in any development of 200-plus units that needs zoning amendments or publicly funded infrastructure. However, this is a guideline rather than a requirement, since implementation is actually dependent on the city’s separate boroughs. 

The proposal for a 12-storey tower in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside includes a mix of retail, market-rate and public housing. (COURTESY ENDALL ELLIOT ASSOCIATES)

Meanwhile, in Vancouver — where mixed-income housing is coming to condo tower developments, including one that’s unexpected, a condominium in the city’s notorious Downtown Eastside — the controversial issue of “poor doors” (separate entrances for social-housing residents) has reared its head. And the question is starting to be raised in Toronto as well, at a new mixed-income development proposed for the waterfront.

Prof. Hulchanski is adamantly opposed to poor doors. “When St Lawrence and False Creek were built in the late ’70s, they wanted a social mix,” he recalls. “But what was the social mix? There is no right or wrong social mix. My only definition is that having no mix is not good. In the long run, it’s not good for society. We’re always going to have rich and poor, but we should not be walled off and separate from each other. Kids growing up knowing only their own kind isn’t healthy.”

(Research suggests Prof. Hulchanski is right. According to a University of British Columbia study in 2009 of 38,000 young children in 400 neighbourhoods across B.C., those in relatively evenly mixed communities scored best on a test indicating readiness for school.)

The revitalization of the Regent Park area includes new public housing, storefronts and retail space that prioritizes social enterprises. (FRED LUM/ THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

New projects in Toronto — such as the revitalized Regent Park, Canada’s first public housing project, originally built under a federal government program in 1949; the West Donlands; and future re-developments like Lawrence Heights — are aspiring to the St. Lawrence ideal, incorporating a mix of market-priced housing with subsidized and non-profit housing. Regent Park will offer 2,200 public housing units paid for by approximately 5,000 market-priced units. They will be in separate buildings, but the important thing, Prof. Hulchanski notes, is that “from the outside, you won’t know which is which.”

Design is an important element in this type of project, he adds. Old-style public housing tended to be a cluster of tall towers built on a patch of ill-tended grass that’s unpatrolled and “indefensible,” inasmuch as no one owned or felt responsible for it. Closed off from the public roadways, these “wasted open spaces,” he says, were magnets for criminal activity.

“It’s now recognized that the safest and best thing is to have houses and buildings on a sidewalk, near a street,” he says. “St. Lawrence was the first neighbourhood not to have any wasted open space. The open space is either a public park [which police can patrol], or little front- and backyards.”

Ronny Yaron has been a beneficiary of the mixed-use housing in her neighbourhood. (THOMAS BOLLMANN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

And, as St. Lawrence longtime resident Ronny Yaron notes, the local police report that her community is one of Toronto’s lowest-crime neighbourhoods. “You can go out at night and not worry.”

There are other variations on the theme of mixed-use housing. As Canada’s big cities grow vertically, the concept is increasingly applied to high rises, reports ERA’s Graeme Stewart, who is involved in the Tower Neighbourhood Renewal program sponsored by United Way.

“We’re starting to see much more interesting approaches to mixed-use,” says Stewart, referring to the shift from the traditional hodgepodge of retail stores at ground level. “[For example, a] north Toronto school has condos above [it], and universities like OCAD are locating in the base of downtown condominiums. And some developers are starting to curate their retail to the community. You need to have a thoughtfulness, an intentionality. It’s about time and efficiency and quality of life.” 

The mixed-use approach, à la the European model, is an inevitability, Stewart predicts. “The social mix does work,” he says emphatically. “That’s not in issue. It’s more an issue of how we find it, how we make it happen. Because it has to happen.”