New Visions for Social Housing
A couple of years ago, I returned to study the social housing community where I lived as a child, before my mother completed her post-secondary education and moved us to a suburban enclave. The research aimed to explore how social and spatial issues contributed to community challenges such as isolation, despair and violence. While I witnessed a number of disturbing incidents in my childhood community, an under-aged sex trade that tragically claimed the life of a friend’s older sister haunted me.
North America’s social housing dates back to the 1930s, when the first state-run initiatives had three aims: to initiate the systematic clearance of slums; to resolve and prevent public health risks emerging from slums; and to squelch public unrest and insolvency resulting from both the Depression and the postwar era. While some early social housing advocates hoped to provide stable housing for low-income and working-class families, the approach wasn’t particularly collaborative.
Within a relatively short period of time, a large number of social housing communities were developed, mostly in the Corbusian “towers in the park” style favoured by Robert Moses. When auditing my childhood community, I noted a number of design deficiencies resulting from this approach. The height and girth of my former building obstructs access to a park and ravine out back; the basketball court is sunk below grade where it can’t be easily supervised; and there are an inordinate number of undesignated spaces that play host to illicit activities.
Better design could have improved some aspects of life in this community. Obviously, many issues—particularly lack of appropriate funding and prohibitive by-laws—extend well beyond the purview of design. An integrated design, policy and social development approach is needed to address the increasingly complicated array of challenges surrounding social housing.
Architects, with their inherent visioning and problem-solving skills, have an important role to play in transforming social housing, working alongside other stakeholders. I recently spoke with a group of design leaders, based in Toronto and Vancouver, with extensive expertise in this area.
Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based architect, planner, real estate consultant and property developer with over four decades of cross-sectoral experience, including as a former official with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation in Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver. Gregory Henriquez, FRAIC, is managing partner of Henriquez Partners Architects, and author of the recently released book Citizen City. Michael McClelland, FRAIC, is founding principal of heritage-focused ERA Architects and co-editor of The Ward. Graeme Stewart, MRAIC, principal at ERA Architects, is a key initiator of The Tower Renewal Project and co-edited Concrete Toronto. Shei la Penny is a Toronto-based architect and vice-president of facilities with Toronto Community Housing, with 20 years of public sector experience.
Here’s what they had to say.
ON BUILDING TRUST AND CONSENSUS
Michael McClelland: Trust is one of the greatest challenges working within social housing communities. The average person—not just social housing residents—lacks the design literacy to fully grasp ideas such as zoning, planning and permissions. So we have a situation where people have little understanding of concepts that have a big impact on their lives.
At ERA, we’re currently developing a booklet clearly outlining a recent zoning by-law, Residential Apartment Commercial, which will create more complete social housing communities and encourage local economic development. We’ve also worked closely with local organizations and spent many volunteer hours building relationships to address the trust issue. Distrust in planning (and the decisions made in the name of planning) is very broad throughout many communities, but I think that in social housing communities, this distrust may be more warranted.
Michael Geller: There’s also a level of mistrust looking at social housing communities from outside of them. There are numerous myths and misunderstandings surrounding social housing. People generally become uncomfortable when they’re no longer living among their “own kind” and fear crime or reduced property values. These concerns can be alleviated by incorporating more community engagement and trust-building into schools of architecture, and by architects taking more time to get to know communities and municipalities conducting research.
Graeme Stewart: I think consensus building is a major issue. Stake-holders on all sides need to be clear about what is being discussed, what the real budget is and the best way to spend it, and what is truly possible on any given project.
ON CLIENT ENGAGEMENT
Gregory Henriquez: One of my mentors was Jim Green, a not-for-profit housing developer and community activist. I applied for a job working in partnership with him 25 years ago. When I walked into the room, there was a scantily clad young woman with numerous piercings sitting at one end of the table, and Jim sat at the other end. Jim said that the young woman was the head of the housing committee, and so naturally, I directed my presentation to her. After winning the job, I learned that everyone else had ignored her and presented to Jim.
Sheila Penny: Having extensive experience working in the public sector, I’ve had close contact with communities throughout my career. For example, I’m currently working on a resident-led pilot focused on how a holistic capital repair program can transform both the built environment and social conditions. Residents participate in meaningful ways—they’re part of the architect selection process, establishing design principles and identifying service priorities—to ensure sustainable success. I make it a point to attend local design team meetings because I learn a lot about each neighbourhood while fulfilling my lifelong commitment to really working in a collaborative manner with whomever I am building for. The outcome is always a stronger solution.
Graeme Stewart: When we think about centralizing residents, we consider their lived reality on the ground: the systems and structures that shape their daily experiences, support their aspirations, and allow their community to thrive.
This thinking really helped us to clarify key ideas that we used to advocate for the Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) zoning. Toronto is a city of hundreds of tower neighbourhoods, and most of them lack the basics that many neighbourhoods take for granted—local access to services, shops, and other conveniences of daily life. We found that these uses were not just missing, but were not permitted in these neighbourhoods due to 50-year-old zoning rules—rules that never anticipated today’s needs nor evolved as neighbourhoods changed.
The RAC zoning changes this, allowing for mixed-use in tower neighbourhoods—from outdoor pop-up markets, to service and educational programs in the base of towers. The aim of RAC is to remove barriers and allow residents to shape their neighbourhoods, and for the neighbourhoods themselves to evolve in response to community needs.
Centralizing residents in social housing projects extends beyond consultation. It requires creating the framework whereby residents can truly engage their neighbourhoods and be key actors in neighbourhood change.
ON PROCESS AND PRODUCT
Michael Geller: It’s important to listen. Architects are highly skilled in many areas, but we’re often not terribly good listeners. I worked for over 10 years with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and have spent a large part of my career listening to residents.
The process is often more important than the product. Architects often design first and then present. We can achieve better results when we listen first, by consulting residents early on in the process.
For instance, one time when I was at a public meeting, a resident insisted that the plan would not work because of the traffic layout. I initially thought he was trying to stop the project—but as I discussed the issue with him, I realized that this resident, who had daily experience with the local traffic patterns, was right. He was able to identify something that the phasing design team hadn’t contemplated.
ON AIMING HIGHER
Gregory Henriquez: I think social housing designs should be relevant and speak authentically to the surrounding community, while being a symbol of hope.
When I worked on the Bruce Eriksen project, a social housing community for individuals facing numerous social barriers due to poverty and mental illness, I collaborated with a visual artist to design the balconies. Residents came up with words like “trust,” “faith” and “dream,” which were incorporated into the design. Although the area is frequently tagged by graffiti artists, these balconies have not been touched. We have to find ways of making the poetic programmatic—so that whatever we create will reflect and be respected by the community
Michael Geller: Architects should become engaged in community affairs long before the beginning of a project. We should join neighbourhood associations or volunteer for not-for-profit organization boards. Although we have very busy schedules, other professionals, like lawyers and accountants, tend to have more presence in communities. We should be more involved.
Sheila Penny: It’s important to remember that all housing is part of a larger neighbourhood system—including schools, childcare, recreational services and access to healthy food. When we consider social housing transformation initiatives, we should think about them in relation to this system.
For example, back when I worked for the school board, we needed to accommodate a large number of students in a tower community because of an influx of newcomers. If we applied a conventional solution, we would have built a second school on a different site. After consulting with the community, we decided to expand the existing school instead. For parents living in the towers, keeping their children in the local school—where they could monitor them from their balconies or quickly make their way over to the school—was important. Considering housing within a larger neighbourhood system is important both on the grassroots and governmental levels.
ON REDEFINING VALUES
Michael McClelland: It would be a good idea to reflect on how we value places considered precious and urban—which tend to be costly, accessible to the rich, and situated in the city’s core. In order to reimagine the transformation of social housing communities, we need to get away from a single set of values steeped in class and location.
We have to think about how people living outside of the core or in huge social housing towers might define value. We need to recognize that these people have, in many instances, chosen these places and are in many ways happy living in their communities. We have to ask more questions about how we can expand our narrow notions of value to be more inclusive and constructive—so that we can help to translate, increase and support the development of value within social housing communities.
Jay Pitter is an author, placemaker and stakeholder engagement director. She co-edited Subdivided: City Building in the Age of Hyper-Diversity with urban affairs writer John Lorinc, released earlier this year.