Rebuilding Regent Park – an independent view

[Ryan Kohls is a student in Ryerson’s Masters in Journalism programme. Ryan’s blog contains other writings.]

As Regent Park enters the second, and largest, phase of its $1 billion facelift, some nearby residents and at least one expert fear that history is about to repeat itself. The 15-year revitalization project, which consists of six phases, is beginning its southward expansion. With development approaching Shuter Street and the Corktown neighbourhood, residents are voicing their concerns.

“If you look at what’s happening in the city today the mayor’s saying cut back 10 per cent on everything,” says Bill Eadie, a resident of Shuter Street since 1983. “They seem to be good at getting money to demolish and build new buildings, but I don’t think they’ve considered how they’ll maintain it 10 years from now.”

When it was first constructed in the 1940s, Regent Park was the largest social housing experiment in Canadian history with all tenants occupying subsidized housing. But maintenance of the buildings lagged, and as the site rotted so too did the community. Crime and drugs trafficking increased. The revitalization, which began in 2004, aims to lower the proportion of subsidized housing to 44 per cent while adding condominiums and townhouses at market prices. “Toronto Community Housing’s vision for revitalization goes beyond replacing housing,” said Kyle Rooks, the media relations consultant for Toronto Community Housing. “Our goal is to transform communities to build great neighbourhoods for everyone, based on the tried and true mixed-income approach that is so successful elsewhere in Toronto.”

Revitalization is a partnership between the city-owned Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) and the private Daniels Corporation. Some see the city’s oversight of both as cause for alarm. “The City is acting as a planning authority, but on the other hand they are also the developer. There’s a conflict of interest,” says Eadie. “There’s no one questioning the planning at Regent Park.”

Earlier this year the TCHC declared a state of crisis with $650 million in backlogged repair bills for its properties. Despite selling off many units to deal with the financial woes, the TCHC will construct hundreds of units in Regent Park, adding to future (and unbudgeted?) repair obligations.

Another Shuter Street resident, Claudio Degrano, believes that the TCHC is mishandling funds. “The sale of Toronto Housing units all over the city has created $40 million …couldn’t that money have been better used to fix up the sad state of current community housing?” he asked.

Shawn McIntyre, a Regent Park specialist and assistant to City Councilor Pam McConnell, says the projects mixed-income model will help sustain the neighbourhood. “We need a sense of pride and ownership of property. It wasn’t like that in the former Regent Park when it came to up keeping properties,” he said. “People got discouraged and stopped caring about litter. If you bring a neighbourhood up to where it’s proud of it, and has financial and social capital to tap into, we think it’s a recipe for success.”

James Caldwell, a Corktown resident and member of the Residents and Business Association, believes that community housing is destined for failure regardless of its surroundings. “The best business policies for change have the stakeholders having a say, but we don’t do this for housing. Why are we giving everything away for free? You’ve got to earn a little bit of what you get,” he said.

Sean Purdy, a Canadian professor of history at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, wrote his doctoral thesis in 2003 at Queen’s University on the failure of Regent Park. He predicts the revitalization will suffer similar problems.

“Redevelopment proponents willfully ignore how declining funds for education and social assistance, lack of child care, a precarious job market, racism and social stigmatization restrict the opportunities of public housing residents,” Purdy said via email. “I don’t believe in the merits of mixed-income schemes: the poor don’t need “role models” from the middle class. What they need are good jobs, education, and decent, affordable housing.”

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