Toronto's Regent Park a bold experiment to solve housing crisis

Toronto hopes C$2b public-private experiment will be a shining example for cities struggling to offer affordable homes as property prices soar

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 3:12am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 3:12am

It's the dank, stinking stairwells of Toronto's Regent Park housing project that for residents like Ines Garcia represent the failures of the past, and now, as they're being demolished, hope for the future.

Garcia, a 48-year-old single mother of four, has been forced to shield her children from strangers shooting up heroin on the urine-soaked steps. The Ecuadorean immigrant once mustered the courage to tell a man smoking crack to do it elsewhere. He replied: "Bitch, you wanna die?" Garcia's eyes teared up at the memory.

If all goes to plan, Garcia, who makes less than US$10,000 a year juggling two jobs, soon won't have to climb the stairs to her subsidised apartment. She'll have elevators in a new unit in a new Regent Park, part of North America's largest social-housing redevelopment.

As its population swells to 17,000 from 7,500, the new Regent Park will mix renters in subsidised apartments with owners of market-priced condominiums and integrate the area into the city. The project is a public-private experiment in housing that will provide a test case for cities from New York to San Francisco struggling to offer affordable homes as property prices soar.

Toronto's average home price hit C$547,786 (HK$3.9 million) in March, up 79 per cent from a decade ago. The city of 2.8 million is tied with New York as the 14th least affordable of 85 major housing markets ranked by researcher Demographia, with Hong Kong at No 1. There are about 168,000 people waiting for subsidised housing in the city, where Toronto Community Housing (TCH) is the second-largest social-housing landlord after New York.

Built in the 1940s to house war veterans and immigrants, Regent Park was laid out as a so-called garden city - an enclosed neighbourhood with no major through-streets and plenty of parks.

The design was supposed to make the streets safer for pedestrians. Instead, it cut the area off from the city. As the area deteriorated, businesses fled and drug dealers, prostitutes, and gangs moved in.

"The ideal is you won't be able to tell where Regent Park was - it will simply blend in," said Ken Greenberg, the lead urban planner on Regent Park's revitalisation. "It's important to work on housing, but not in isolation. If you just rebuild, you're going to get a more genteel form of ghettoisation, the same social isolation, the same lack of employment, the same lack of education opportunities."

Greenberg said he was already sharing lessons learned in Regent Park with other projects he's consulting on.

But there are sceptics.

Bringing together lower-income and middle-class residents "reduces acute crime in the short-term but in the longer term it depends on how well it's managed," said Susan Popkin, a senior fellow at The Urban Institute, an economic and social policy organisation. "The question is, can you keep those higher-income residents there?"

With construction starting in 2005 and now about one-third complete, a new neighbourhood of glass towers, brick townhouses and neatly laid out parks and streets is taking shape.

Eight condo towers are up so far, with five under construction and 22 planned. About 15 of these, or 1,848 units, plus an additional three towers TCH built nearby, will be for the original residents of Regent Park, who pay rents based on their income.

The rest, 5,250 units and 20 towers, will be for buyers in an area that's never had market-priced condominiums before. The development also includes about 27 blocks of townhouses for sale and rental.

Oh my God! It's beautiful! There's so much light. There's so much life there
Ines Garcia

The neighbourhood's amenities, designed to keep kids busy and off the streets, include an aquatic centre, a 60,000 sq ft cultural centre, and a bistro.

Covering 28 hectares in central Toronto and with a planned 7,500 units when it's completed in 2025, the stakes are high and everyone from the private developer, to the city, to the residents is greeting it with a mixture of anxiety and hope.

"When I first drove through the new Regent Park, I didn't even know it was social housing," said Eugene Jones, 58, former chief executive officer of TCH.

"I thought, 'Damn. This is the most amazing thing - it's not being done anywhere in the world like this'."

It was a far cry from the 1980s when crack began to infiltrate the neighbourhood, said Diane MacLean, a community activist who raised three children in Regent Park.

"People would shoot up in the stairwell," she said. "It changed the community in terms of crime rates, guns, homicides, assaults, drug addiction - all that skyrocketed."

The transition to a new community hasn't been easy. While every current resident is guaranteed a replacement TCH unit, it may not be in Regent Park. Residents, many of whom have children in local schools and work nearby, may also be relocated kilometres away until their new apartments are ready.

The ideal is you won't be able to tell where Regent Park was - it will simply blend in
Ken Greenberg

TCH says it's learned from mistakes made in the first phase when residents, many of whom didn't speak English, weren't clear on the process and sometimes signed away their right to return. The agency is now sending in more staff to explain the procedure.

In the first and second phases of the project, the city helped fund the construction of market units and received a premium from sales, which they reinvested in the community and other units in its portfolio. In the third phase, which started construction this spring, TCH is selling the land to Daniels Corp, reducing its exposure to the housing market, but also giving up prime downtown property.

"There needs to be employment opportunities at the root of this," Daniels president Mitchell Cohen said. "For many, many decades there was no grocery store, no coffee shop, no bank and no economic activity within Regent Park. People weren't earning money here and weren't spending money here. That is not a healthy community."

Residents have average annual income of about C$20,000, half that of the rest of Toronto. About 20 per cent of the neighbourhood's households report no income at all.

In order for it to be successful, Regent Park needs people like Vanessa Yu - young professionals or empty nesters willing to put money on a bet that Regent Park won't slide back into the crime-ridden neighbourhood it was.

Two years ago Yu, 33, moved into the 13th floor penthouse unit at One Park West, one of the first towers to go up. She bought her 800 sq ft home for C$375,000.

Her Chinese parents in Nova Scotia fear for her safety. She's had two bikes stolen and was accosted by a man one night in January as she went out to get some food.

While the experience left her shaken, she has no plans to sell and move away.

"I knew what I was getting into moving here, I work in the community," Yu said in one of three community rooms in the building. "There are way too many upsides to living here but I know it isn't for everyone."

Crime has already declined, said Farzad Ghotbi, a 12-year police veteran whose first day on the force was in Regent Park. Reports of crime dropped 12 per cent in 2012 from the start of the revitalisation in 2005 in Regent Park and the surrounding area.

Ibrahim Hussein's family was one of the first to get a house in the new development.

"The house we're living in now, poor people shouldn't be living there," said the 29-year-old who works for TCH cleaning and maintaining new condo buildings. "It's for rich people. The backyard is so big, we don't know what to do with it."

His house, with a neat front yard and jumbo-sized windows, faces a line of market-rate houses across the street. The two sides don't communicate much. When his mother has bananas left over from baking, she takes them to her neighbours on either side, not across the street.

The biggest fear of community activist MacLean is that in 10 years Regent Park will look like every other part of Toronto instead of the place where single mothers can leave their kids with neighbours and residents agree on community issues.

"Affluent members of the community will have the wealth and the power around planning and the future," said MacLean, who moved one block away from the neighbourhood after her rising income disqualified her for subsidised housing. "This is true entrenched gentrification. If you understand gentrification, it does mean the wealthy win."

For her part, Garcia has already started shedding items in anticipation of her move. "I saw one of the new homes and said 'Oh my God! It's beautiful!'" she said. "The first thing I asked is 'does everything work?' There's so much light. There's so much life there."