A Case Study in Affordable Housing: Trellis Gardens

First occupied in February 2003, Trellis Gardens is a 24-unit housing block at the southeast corner of Lawrence Avenue and the Allen Expressway in Toronto. Its design by Quadrangle Architects is commendable, but its true importance lies in the fact that it is one of the first housing units completed in Toronto since the devastating provincial and federal termination of funding to housing programs in 1995.

Trellis Gardens is the product of the City of Toronto’s Let’s Build Program initiated in 1999 in the wake of former Mayor Mel Lastman’s pronouncement that Toronto had no homeless problem. Picking up the slack in the absence of federal and provincial funding, the city was determined to respond to local needs. The Let’s Build program is intended to attract not-for-profit community groups and private developers by making available all vacant land as a priority for housing, and by either giving or leasing the land. The program also helps the development process by providing planning and development advice, fast-tracking applications, waiving fees and providing grants and loans.

In 1999 Out of the Cold Resource Centre, a multi-congregational charity dedicated to providing shelter, food and social programs for the homeless was asked by the city’s Housing and Shelter Department to find partners to create new affordable housing. Out of the Cold approached the Congregation Darchei Noam, a Reconstructionist Synagogue. Its Social Action Committee includes a group of volunteers dedicated to social action and in particular, to reducing homelessness. Darchei Noam had already built a 133-unit housing co-op in 1990 under the previous provincially funded housing programs. Out of the Cold would provide the programming while Darchei Noam would undertake the financing through donations and other fundraising, secure a private mortgage for 55% of the cost of the building, and manage the building process from first proposal to construction completion. They incorporated as a charitable body, Trellis Housing Initiatives, with representatives of both groups on the board. In return the city provided the land for a nominal cost under a 49-year lease, provided grants and loans, assisted with an interest-free second mortgage and waived all planning, building and development fees.

The site on the south side of Lawrence Avenue had already been allocated by the city for social housing. A small parcel of land, it is edged by two sets of conflicting conditions involving scale, building type, density and traffic. To the south and east it is surrounded by single and double-storey postwar suburban houses. On the north side of Lawrence it is faced by an 8 to 10-storey multi-residential block that surrounds a court with the expressway, subway line and a shopping mall immediately to the west. A long rectangular plot, the setbacks determine a building fringed by a green strip on the north, west and south sides with parking occupying the largest open space to the east. In 1995 planning approvals and funding had almost been achieved for a previous multi-residential block for the differently abled when funding cuts derailed the project. For the sake of planning approval expediency, the board decided to keep the block’s basic building footprint.

The result is a credible three-storey gable-roofed building, which due to setbacks can only sit in the centre of its site like an Oldenburg duplicate of its single-dwelling neighbours. The form of the building and its roofline is meant to signify the domestic as opposed to the institutional, as well as promoting unity for the disparate community it was to house. A simple rectangular block with a central corridor, its form and construction were determined by factors of site, as well as cost control and the intention to make the internal units spacious by local market standards.

The shallow-pitched gable roof reminds us of the enduring legacy of 1950s Scandinavian housing’s mix of the modern and traditional. The fractured stepping back of the volume and roofline on the northeast corner responding to setback acknowledges the ripples of theoretical zeitgeist concerning fragmentation, while providing opportunities for corner windows.

The Cherokee red of the window frames is repeated in the columns of the portico and combined with the subtler contrasts of the golden beige brick and greenish siding. These materials make up for the restricted volumetric play of the pre-determined footprint. A shallow relief is created in the surface as the siding steps back from the brick. Not quite an abstract collage, it punctuates the long form of the block at the corners, the sliding doors and entrances. The bricks and siding are cut away at the southeast corner for the entry and are replaced by red columns and curtain wall which steps to articulate the sequence of overlapping rectilinear volumes of canopy, telephone entry access, lobby and office.

A significant portion of the budget was allocated to the windows that are the most important feature from both an exterior and interior perspective. Unable to provide balconies due to site restrictions, sliding doors with balustrades were fitted to create an open air feeling. Elsewhere the windows are long and resist the typical provision of cheap, small, horizontal sliders. As a result the apartments feel bright, with the interconnected rooms benefiting wherever possible from dual aspects. Further spaciousness is created by opening the kitchens to the living rooms. The quality of the interiors is increased with finishes such as parquet flooring which was selected for environmental reasons.

The units were designed to accommodate a social mix and thus range from 1 to 3-bedroom dwellings. Six are rented at market rates for the area while the rest are subsidized. The tenants represent a variety of family types from singles, to single-parent and two-parent families. Most were on waiting lists for better accommodation, some were living in shelters or family residences, while others lived with family or friends or in poor market-rate apartments. Many of the residents were burdened with problems such as illness, addiction, unemployment, abuse, refugee status or just plain bad luck.

As the housing was designated transitional in order to secure funding, it is not a co-op, but is run by the Darchei Noam board, who still attend monthly meetings. Social programs were also part of the mandate and as Out of the Cold dropped out, congregation member Amy Block volunteered as community builder and program facilitator. The board-initiated rent bank enables most people who fall into arrears to apply for assistance and avoid eviction.

To the residents of Trellis Gardens the benefits would at first seem obvious: they have homes of their own which are affordable. As they are paying between 30-50% of their incomes towards rent, affordability is still not easily achieved. However in spite of this and the fact that the building is incomplete, the atmosphere is positive. A home of their own means privacy, security and freedom. Being out of the shelter or family residence means a safer and healthier environment for their children. The rent bank provides a sense of security for residents who are unemployed and living on income assistance. Many have returned to school to either upgrade or embark on new careers. Others have started their own businesses. Unlike a co-op, the confidentiality guaranteed by the board is paramount to the residents, some of whom were subjected to gossip and ridicule when relying on co-op boards that are typically populated by residents.

While the board seeks to bring the residents to a point of independence, their current participation with the community builder and social programs is the most successful factor of the project. As the board continues to look out for individuals, Ms. Block builds a community, deals with conflict resolution and fosters a spirit of caring support for all residents. In a survey, 77% of residents replied that Trellis was the best housing they had ever experienced. The best features included the reading and homework clubs as well as the parti
cipation in their community. There is a clear lesson that when it comes to the provision of affordable housing, bricks and mortar are not always enough.

Can there be more Trellis Gardens? The city now lists 30 projects under the Let’s Build Program. As the first one, Trellis Gardens was a guinea pig with significant accompanying difficulties. The program relies entirely on the goodwill and stamina of unpaid volunteer groups such as the remarkable Trellis Gardens Initiatives to undertake these projects. For such a group this kind of commitment cannot be taken lightly–they incorporated and took on personal liability for the project. Their board was responsible for financial management and overseeing all aspects of the project from planning through to completion, occupation and now the running of the project. The board was also beset with exorbitant legal bills for their own contracts with the city and the CMHC that were rewritten six times due to a wary city legal department unfamiliar with the new program structure. Due to a slow flow of government funding and legal complications, the contractor delayed construction by several months. Justifiably upset residents unjustifiably blamed board members. Although occupied in February 2003, the completion of the landscaping has been delayed because it was removed from the contract as part of the resolution to liens taken out as a result of financial and legal disputes. The delay is also due in part to various city departments trying to agree on the location of the acoustic wall separating the site from the Allen Expressway off-ramp nearby. Until then, not only is the hard and soft landscaping missing, there is no safety fence and parents are reluctant to let their children play outside. The elevator will be funded by federal SCPI funds allocated by the city, but until its installation there is daily difficulty for people struggling with young children, groceries, and laundry. Volunteers are not property developers and the board expanded to include members with knowledge of financing and development. One new member found it necessary to dedicate 10-15 hours per week for 6 months to untangle the legal and financial obstructions. Few of us could match this dedication, and it is not right that this be required of individuals to attain the goal of providing affordable housing to the needy.

This situation contrasts strongly with Darchei Noam’s experience of building social housing in the early 1990s where the prime factor of financing was provided under the old provincial housing programs. As long-time board member David Peltz puts it, “fundraising is the big big problem…[at Trellis] the cost of the land [$400,000] had to be raised by a group who is not well-heeled but who wants to do good.” The second problem is the reliance on volunteers who may not have the necessary skills. As Mr. Peltz explains, “it is self-defeating to have volunteers running around and falling into traps because they do not have the (requisite) knowledge.” Under the provincially funded programs, development consultants are much reviled for taking a percentage of construction for their fees, but nonetheless they had the expertise to guide a board through the process to avoid costly problems. With Trellis Gardens, a development consultant assisted in beginning the proposals, but they did not have the funds to provide full service. With provincial government backing, mortgages and other funding were more easily secured.

As past and current chair of the board Valerie Elliott Hyman says of the new program, not one penny comes from the province to assist with the process of building affordable housing. Its contribution is limited to rent-geared income supplements. In recent media coverage of the new provincial government’s budget there was no mention of the provision of affordable housing. It is clear, that in spite of all the media attention on Toronto’s tent cities, affordable housing lags as a priority. The province is relying on the goodwill and desperate concern of its citizens. While unfair, this reliance is not misplaced, for in spite of all the difficulties, Trellis Gardens Initiatives continue their commitment to resolving homelessness and are currently pursuing another venture in the provision of affordable housing.

Thanks to Trellis Garden Residents, Valerie Elliott Hyman, David Peltz, Greg Kalil and Amy Block of Trellis Gardens Initiatives, Evan Wood of the City of Toronto, Nancy Singer of Kehilla Residential Program, and Sheldon Levitt of Quadrangle Architects.

Marybeth McTeague is an architect and architectural historian. She teaches at Ryerson University and works in private practice. All photographs are by the author unless otherwise noted.