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Poverty activists reject upscale housing developments in Regent Park

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On a dull late spring Saturday morning at Regent and Dundas in Toronto, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and supporters have come to Regent Park with a clear message: We must defend the communities we live in and stop their being obliterated by developers and the politicians that serve their interests.

Behind them, roughly 19 months after the ground-breaking ceremony, sits the 293-suite One Cole Condominiums with prices starting from $189,000 for a 497 sq.ft. studio that’s roughly the size of a two car garage. One Cole has suites in two separate buildings: the 9-storey West Building has 92 suites and the East building has 19-storeys with 201 suites.

“We are excited to be putting One Cole on the map, signaling the start of the transformation of Toronto’s east downtown neighbourhood,” said Martin Blake, vice-president of project implementation, The Daniels Corporation in their October 30, 2007 press release. “With homes being built to the highest energy performance standards and the creation of a mixed use community that will attract residents of all income levels, the vision of transforming this part of the city is becoming a reality.”

OCAP doesn’t share Blake’s excitement about the renewal of the downtown east side. “David Miller and the developers are working to gentrify this area and destroy it as a home for poor people,” says OCAP.  “They have similar plans for other Toronto Housing communities.”

The Daniels Corporation has a slogan: Love where you live. In this part of Cabbagetown, low income people have loved where they’ve lived for over 100 years. “Yet the number of rent geared to income units in this first phase of “redeveloped” Regent Park is less than was promised and the continuing gentrification of this area will only increase the pressure to push out public housing tenants,” says OCAP. “In US cities, where similar plans have been put into effect, this has been the experience.”

“In 1992, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development launched its Hope VI program, designating mixed-income communities as the way to redevelop and revitalize public housing,” said authour Kari Lyderson in a story published in the May-June 2008 of The Chicago Reporter. “Significant funding was made available for housing authorities nationwide to carry out this model. And it soon became de rigueur for public housing redevelopment from New York to New Orleans to Chicago to Oakland.”

Although a “healthy” mix of incomes is one of the selling points of mixed-income communities, Lyderson said, “census numbers show that the difference between the income levels in naturally occurring mixed-income neighborhoods are much narrower than the spread that occurs in Chicago Housing Authority redevelopments.”

Lyderson continued: “Intentionally created mixed-income redevelopments are marketed with rosy images of people from vastly different backgrounds and income levels sharing barbecues and front porch chats. But relationships between people of different income levels in many neighborhoods are strained and hostile, according to various residents across the city. Higher-income new residents are afraid and annoyed with their low-income neighbors, blaming them for crime and failing to maintain their property. And lower-income residents are threatened by their wealthier neighbors who might force them out through higher property taxes and rents associated with the more valuable property.

“Alejandra Ibanez, executive director of the Pilsen Alliance, a community rights and affordable-housing group, said she sees no way a mixed-income community can exist without intentional programs that promote, protect and subsidize affordable housing. And, she said, these projects must include a homeownership component for low-income people, since someone renting their house will always be less stable and have less of a feeling of ownership of the community.”

In the fall of 2007, “35 first-year graduate students in the university’s Master of Public Policy program analyzed the pluses and pitfalls of Baltimore’s mixed-income neighborhoods to help city leaders better understand the implications of a recently enacted inclusionary housing ordinance,” said authour Amy Lundy Homewood in her story Does Mixed Income Work? published in the December 17 JHU Gazette.

“The students set out to determine whether there is hard evidence demonstrating that mixed-income environments — generally defined as having a blend of low-, middle- and high-income households — are beneficial to the lower-income families in the neighborhood. Overall, the students concluded that making universal assumptions about the desirability of mixed-income neighborhoods is unwise.”

The One Cole Condominiums, part of the Phase One revitalization of Regent Park, aren’t about to win any architectural design awards. At least not by any public opinion standards. These drab, grim-looking, irregular windowed, black bricked, shoebox structures resemble grimy 19th century East End London houses. Not much to inspire the prospective homebuyer. Except for the fact that any space under $200,000 at record low interest rates represents a “good deal” in downtown Toronto.

There appears to be more police officers outside the presentation centre than prospective buyers and poverty activists. OCAP congregates on the sidewalk around their “Housing for All” banner chatting with community residents.

In response to the OCAP demonstration, Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) sent a letter to their tenants Friday outlining their revitalization plans for Regent Park: replacing all 2083 rent geared to income units with quality new homes, building an additional 700 new affordable rental units, creating a healthy, mixed income community with improved community amenities, facilities and services for residents, and working together with tenants to improve housing, access to city services and create employment opportunities.

“What’s been found (especially in redevelopment projects in the U.S.) is that the people who move out don’t come back, making it possible to erode the rent geared to income component in a community like Regent Park,” says OCAP organizer John Clarke outside the One Cole presentation centre. “And there’s no question that’s what the overall situation is going to be.”

Clarke explains to me that the Regent Park project is taking place in the context of a broader agenda of redevelopment and gentrification. “In these so called “mixed neighborhoods” what happens is the middle class home buyers based on property values and quality of life want to see the social housing component reduced over time,” he says.

“The pressure to destroy the rent geared to income component is going to be enormous. Over time, you’ll have homeowners lobbying, tensions rising. Eventually, you’ll see the rent geared to income component wiped out entirely.”

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