OUR SECOND CHANCE AT PUBLIC HOUSING
With its opening 15 years ago, Toronto’s Regent Park development — and others that followed across Canada — promised a cure-all for the nation’s housing crises. But social stigma, shortsightedness and red tape all combined to dim this bright prospect. Now a blend of public and private enterprise offers fresh hope of a bold nationwide attack BY HAL TENNANT
To A LOT OF PEOPLE it seemed like a real milestone the March day in 1949 when a CNR oiler named Alfred Bluett, his wife and their five children moved out of the condemned house they had been renting in Cabbagetown and settled into a raw new brick building in the Regent Park development, in Toronto's east end.
It was just a matter of crossing Sumach Street and walking a few feet along the block, and as the Bluetts carted the last of their belongings over, the mayor of Toronto and a squad of reporters and photographers were there to greet them.
With flashbulbs popping. Mayor Hiram McCallum made a little ceremony out of installing the Bluetts in the six-room house that had been built, and was still owned, by the city.
By then, newspaper readers had already seen before-and-after pictures of the family — twelve-year-old Georgie, first squashed into the round washtub where the family had bathed, then kneeling in the modern white tub that seemed big enough for swimming lessons; Billy, age fourteen, pretending to empty the last ashes out of the old kitchen stove: then Mrs. Bluett, pretending to cook her first meal on the new four-burner gas range. And newspaper stories had compared the drawbacks of the old place — sagging floors, hopeless furnace, the rat menace— with the advantages of the new one — gleaming hardwood floors, pastel walls, hot water always on tap.
Told in these terms, the Regent Park story seemed like dramatic proof that two serious problems — the slum situation and the postwar housing crisis — could both be solved at once. The city needed only to clean out the slum, build new apartments and houses on the land, and rent these at subsidized rates to the slum-dwellers and others badly in need of housing.
With these clear-cut objectives, Regent Park became the first publichousing scheme in Canada to be financed by three governments (the provincial and federal governments were somewhat reluctant contributors) and the first to gear rents to family size and income.
But has Regent Park proved to be the happy solution it seemed at the time? If so, why is “public housing”
a distasteful phrase to most Canadians today? If not, why have dozens of other Regent Parks — by whatever name — been built in cities across Canada? Have they solved the problems of families unable to afford decent housing? If there is still a problem today, how serious is it — and what are we doing about it?
With the sixteen - year - old Regent Park experiment as my starting point, I recently set out to find the answers to these questions. What I found was far from reassuring. The housing problem today is less dramatic than it was fifteen years ago. But in some ways it’s worse than ever. Indications are that one family out of eighteen is now suffering physically or psychologically (or both) from inadequate housing because it cannot afford anything better.
On the other hand, new developments within the past few months indicate that the Regent Park era of experimenting is over. New solutions which are only getting started will, if they succeed, take public housing out of its insular compartments and disperse its families throughout urban and suburban districts.
Or, to put it personally, you may soon see the day when a family in your block is living in a governmentsubsidized house.
If such new experiments are carried that far, it will be partly because Regent Park is not the model of progress it was supposed to be when it opened. Instead, it is a paradox — financially and socially more of a success than a failure, but not one that even its defenders would want to repeat.
The land where Regent Park was built is worth four times the three million dollars it cost. In another twenty-four years the whole project will be paid for out of rental revenue. And meanwhile the city collects full taxes — currently about three hundred and sixty thousand dollars a year, or ten times what the area yielded when it was a slum.
Regent Park has provided a leg-up for hundreds of families who were on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, and it has helped make productive. law-abiding citizens out of people who were potential criminals and welfare cases. (Police say the
area has been transformed from a trouble spot to a normal neighborhood.)
Yet, given the same circumstances, nobody in authority today would build Regent Park again. It has an institutional character you don’t find in most neighborhoods. In some people’s minds a stigma attaches to anyone living there. And many people who held high hopes for its social benefits feel disillusioned today. Disillusionment was inevitable, for the fad among progressive reformers of those days was to tout public housing as a cure-all for the social and economic ills of the lowest income groups. As a University of Toronto professor of social work. Dr. Albert Rose, was still warning in a penetrating study of Regent Park seven years after it opened, “The change from inadequate shelter to public housing is conceived by some citizens to be a major answer, if not the answer, to many social problems. This point of view is extreme and sets up the most unrealistic expectations for public-housing developments.”
Apparently even some tenants themselves shared these unrealistic expectations. In a newspaper interview a day or two after she had moved her family in next door to the Bluetts, Mrs. Hazel Meere described the problems she and her husband Albert had had in twenty-two years of marriage: She had borne six children. The family had moved eight times and had been on relief for four years during the Depression. For the last three years before they moved into Regent Park, Albert had suffered from tuberculosis and was now a TB after-care patient.
“But that’s all past,” Mrs. Meere was reported to have said happily. “We’re in our new house and our troubles are all behind us.”
Of course life in Regent Park, like life anywhere, was never that simple for families with serious problems. The benefits of public housing can be great, but as Robert Bradley, executive director of the Housing Authority of Toronto, says, “Public housing won't change a drunken husband.”
It’s easy to see how it can seem to, if you talk as 1 did to someone like the twenty-nine-year-old father who
moved into Regent Park last summer. Just a year ago, his friends and family considered him a hopeless drunk. His wife had left him, and the Children’s Aid Society had placed their four children in foster homes. On one three-week binge he and a drinking companion lived on a single loaf of bread, one jar of mustard and all the wine they could keep on their stomachs. “A few months more,” he says, “and I would have been in a mental institution, in Kingston Pen — or dead.”
A few weeks ago, when I saw him, he was clear-eyed, and sober, and had got settled with his wife and children in a three-bedroom apartment in Regent Park. But it wasn't public housing that sobered him up and found him a job. Alcoholics Anonymous and his own determination got him on the wagon, and an AA member took him on as a truck driver. What Regent Park did was make it possible for him to get his wife and children back under one roof, at a rent he can afford on his sixty-dollar-a-week wage. Now,, he says, with his family around him he’s more determined than ever to make good — a process that will, incidentally, include moving out of Regent Park.
Regent Park provided one real surprise for people who thought of it as the place where the area’s slum dwellers would live after the old houses were cleared out. Most slum families had indicated in surveys that they wanted to move into the new quarters that would be built, and these people were given priority. But when it actually came down to moving into the new development, only half the families did so: the others apparently scattered to become private tenants in other parts af the city. In later housing projects, only one family in four made such a move. (This pattern has been duplicated, before and since, in other Canadian and U. S. cities; in the U. S„ seventy - nine percent of slum dwellers, on. the average, decline to move into public housing, mostly because they simply don’t want to.) So Regent Park didn't solve the housing problem for. most families displaced by slum clearance — not directly; but it did proviile housing for families who needed it, / continued on pape 32
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“Socialism for the rich,” snapped a critic, “private enterprise for the poor”
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including some who could not exist as families without it.
The people who probably have been disillusioned most over Regent Park are those who hoped it would signal the beginning of a massive
nationwide move to provide proper housing for low-income families.
Unfortunately for thousands of Canadians, it has done no such thing. Regent Park has grown into a complex of 1,397 dwelling units containing fifty-one hundred people and is known as Regent Park North, to distinguish it from a separately run pub-
lic-housing development adjoining its southern flank. Other smaller Regent Parks, under various names and mostly in designs more attractive and comfortable than the original, have been built in many other cities across Canada. And some of these, such as the Jeanne-Mance development in Montreal, have replaced some appalling
slums. But in total, these moves have not even begun to cope with the housing needs of low-income families as they have developed over the past fifteen years.
After a two-year, government-commissioned study of the nation’s housing needs, Toronto architect James A. Murray reported last August: “The provision of housing for families of low income in Canada is so pathetically inadequate, we might as well conclude that as a nation we are so rich we don’t need it, so poor we can’t afford it, so inept we don’t know how to do it, or so apathetic we don’t care.”
Murray’s criticism came as no surprise to Ottawa’s housing experts. “Public housing has been a qualitative success but a quantitative failure,” admits Ian Maclennan, executive director of Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the federal-government agency that has had a large hand in planning, financing and supervising virtually every public-housing project in Canada since Regent Park.
One reason for this failure has been a national housing scheme which someone once described as “socialism for the rich and private enterprise for the poor.” That’s not an unfair description, since it has helped families ih the upper two thirds of the income scale finance the houses they need, while pretty much neglecting families in the lowest one third of the scale — typically, those earning four thousand dollars a year or less.
This is the scheme that provides mortgages under the National Housing Act, with their principal guaranteed, and their interest rates set, hy Central Mortgage and Housing. No comparable deal has been offered to the lower-income families to help them get houses of their own choice at prices they can afford. So, while a lot of us have been down in our rec rooms trying to get the second fireplace to work, a good many others have been trying to make three rooms do the joh of six.
It’s impossible to say exactly how many Canadian families today have this problem. In some cases, there is nothing wrong with the houses except there are too many people living in too few rooms. But Central Mortgage uses a rough rule of thumb that says a family needs a bathroom of its own, plus one room per person. On that basis, -H. W. Hignett, president of CMHÇ, estimates there are at least one hundred thousand, and perhaps as many as two hundred and fifty thousand families whose accommodation is less than adequate. Other authorities accept the higher figure as closer to the truth (which would mean one Canadian family out of eighteen). But even the lower figure is staggering compared to the number of publichousing units (houses and apartments) built in Canada in the past fifteen years. That figure is known — and it's only about twelve thousand.
Some families living in overcrowded houses are not poor by any reasonable standards. Their incomes may range as high as six thousand dollars a year — far above average. Yet they
have a housing problem. Typically, there may be eight or nine children in the family, and the income won’t cover the rent (let alone a down payment) for a big enough house. The “solution” is to share an old onefamily house with one or two other families who have a similar problem. They may never suffer anything so dramatic as a rat bite, yet their plight is serious. Overcrowding makes it impossible for the parents to raise their children properly. Families without a bathroom to call their own can’t toilet-train little children efficiently or teach older ones proper hygiene. Teenagers without a room in which to do their homework aren’t likely to get good grades in school. Parents with no place to be alone can't easily talk over the problems that may be making them poor in the first place, let alone enjoy any personal privacy.
"You can’t overestimate the benefit of living in a proper, self-contained unit,” says Robina Morris, Toronto welfare commissioner.
But, as a nation, we evidently have underestimated it. We take it for granted that some of our taxes will be used for other kinds of assistance — old-age pensions, hospital-insurance schemes, grants to universities. But, to many people, “subsidized housing” is still a dirty word. Torontonians often speak of the Regent Park area as a ghetto of charity cases and ne’er-do-wells.
“Charity” is an insult
Understandably, families resent being thought of as charity cases (only nine percent at Regent Park North are on full welfare). This notion is particularly irritating to those who are earning the maximum income (at Regent Park North it’s forty-nine hundred dollars a year, plus an allowance at that level of one hundred and fifty dollars for each dependent) and are paying the maximum rent (one hundred dollars a month). But to this insult, outsiders often add injury-by-slander. Usually it's a juicy item of gossip to “prove” that public-housing tenants are filthy, ignorant, sexually promiscuous or criminally inclined. Long.before I accepted this story assignment, 1 had heard, for instance, that some Regent Park residents commonly store coal in their bathtubs. The implication was that they were too ignorant to know better, too ill-bred to need the tub for anything else—or both. What this tale never explained is w'hy anyone at Regent Park would store coal anywhere for any reason: there are no fireplaces, and all dwellings are heated from a central plant of oilfired burners. Oh, yes — 1 saw several bathtubs when I toured the development. They were clean and empty.
“Ninety percent of the people here arc good people, with pride in this area, and they resent any sort of public denunciation,” Robert Bradley, the housing-authority director told me.
1 found evidence of similar pride at other housing developments I visited. At Regent Park South, members of the development’s own horticultural society keep the common grounds blooming all through the growing season. One member is a man who has decorated the garden of his mais-
onette with a trellis and a tiny white picket fence — all carved from scraps of wood given him by friends. In such an atmosphere, I w'as quite willing to believe the administrators of Montreal’s Jeanne - Mance development and Toronto’s two Regent Parks when they assured me that vandalism is a minor problem.
Every development, of course, gets a few' cheaters and deadbeats. At Jeanne-Mance, one couple who had declared a modest income were found
to be doing very well: the man owned a retail business, and his wife had a full-time job she had neglected to mention. They were evicted. At Regent Park North, authorities tightened up their screening process after a tenant, a ninety - seven - year - old woman, died and was said to have left a bank account of forty - four thousand dollars. But such cases are rare, and deadbeats cost both administrations very little. In the first thirteen and a half years of opera-
tions, uncollectable rents at Regent Park North amounted to less than one half of one percent of total revenue.
Part of the problem with Regent Park North has been its appearance from the street. With its groups of obviously institutional, red - brick buildings, it looks uninvitingly like a ghetto. When Regent Park South and Jeanne-Mance were being designed. Central Mortgage and Housing tried to overcome this effect — and get maximum use out of the expensive
land — by designing high-rise apartments as well as some row houses. The designers now admit this was a mistake. Few mothers with small children are willing to live ten or twelve stories above ground, with no chance of watching their youngsters on the playground. “We were a little unsophisticated in those days,” C'MHC’s chief architect and planner, David Crinion, admits now.
However, he insists, it was the beginning of a better image for public housing, and this objective, without the drawback of high rises, has been achieved in such later developments as Burrow-Kecwatin in a Winnipeg suburb, Orchard Park in Vancouver, and Mulgrave Park in Halifax.
“There is surprisingly little friction,” Crinion says, “if you provide something (i.ea design) that anyone would be willing to live near.”
But for every public-housing development that has fitted happily into a city or a suburb, a dozen other proposals have been blocked. “It's like a public bus system,” one housing executive told me. “Everybody’s in favor of it — but not on his street.”
Anyhow, many low-income families want to stay right in the city where their friends, their jobs and their old associations arc.
But even all these factors don’t fully explain our failure to build more than a small fraction of the publichousing units the nation needs. A lot of the failure, until recently, was built right into the cumbersome system by which public housing had to be created. Only a municipality could take the initiative, but both the provincial and federal governments were deeply involved—in land selection, financing, designing, supervision of construction and so on. One govern-
ment or department would sometimes overrule another and delay a project for months. A technical blunder, such as making house lots a foot narrower than zoning permitted, could set a project back two years or more.
It has been quite common for two and a half years to elapse from the initial proposal until the first house could actually be built. “By then,” recalls H. W. Suters, of the Ontario Housing Corporation, who has been through it all dozens of times on behalf of the Ontario government, “you might find you were dealing with a whole new city council filled with people who don’t believe in public housing anyhow.”
Suddenly these mounds of red tape were swept aside last June by amendments to the National Housing Act which give provinces and municipalities a much freer hand than ever before to build public housing as best they can. As amended, the act now makes Central Mortgage, in effect, simply the banker in public housing— and a more gerferous banker than it used to be. Previously, C'MHC bore seventy-five percent of the cost and underwrote the same percentage of operating losses, if any. Now CMHC will lend up to ninety percent of the capital and underwrite half the operating losses.
Ontario, already far ahead of all other provinces in public housing (seventy-five hundred of the twelve thousand units built in Canada in the past fifteen years) has been quick to take advantage of Ottawa’s new deal.
Last fall it set up a new housing agency, the Ontario Housing Corporation, and picked as its chairman a man who, at first glance, seemed a most unlikely choice: Ken Soble, a continued on pape 36
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shrewd, hard-working TV station owner, broadcaster and wheelerdealer from Hamilton.
Two of Soble's lesser-known sparetime activities have been on the Urban Renewal Committee in Hamilton and on a provincial housing committee. Having recommended the formation of the Ontario Housing Corporation, Sohle was asked to boss it himself. The job carries no salary.
Along with the new corporation, the Ontario government has provided a
new housing act, under which Sohle can create new public housing with no more fuss than he’d put up with if he were ordering a new TV studio. OHC can borrow money from Central Mortgage and spend it in almost any way it sees fit. It can build or buy a whole development, or any part of one — even a single house. Or it can buy old houses and renovate them.
By choosing houses and apartments in scattered locations, most of them after they’re built, Sohle will avoid
creating new “ghettos” — at least any big ones. Since there will be nothing in its appearance or location to distinguish an OHC-owned house from any other dwelling, families enjoying rental subsidies could soon be living in many sectors of many Ontario towns and cities without even their next-door neighbors realizing that their landlord is the government. Besides avoiding the creation of ghettos, Soble’s new OHC promises to avoid red tape, by leaving most of the prob-
lems in planning, designing, zoning and inspection to the builders. Builders are being invited to compete in offering housing units to suit specifications laid down for a specific town or city.
Soble has even coined a new term— “Ontario housing”—as a euphemism for “public housing” and “subsidized housing.”
Some “Ontario housing” will not. in fact, be subsidized anyhow. There is no limit on tenants’ incomes, but the rental scale is graduated in such a way that, beyond a certain income level, the tenant family will be paying OHC a profit—more of a profit, perhaps, than they would have to pay a private landlord. (At the highest rate, a family would pay 31.3 percent of its income as rent.) At this point in the scale, a family would be better off renting from a private landlord. Or. it might take advantage of another OHC innovation — an option to buy the publicly owned house.
Probably the feature that appeals most to men such as H. W. Suters, the former Ontario Housing Board executive who is now Soble’s No. 1 man at OHC, is the way the system promises to reduce delays—from two and one half years to (hopefully) as little as one hundred days, from the time the municipality applies for public housing to the day a contract is let for a new house.
“It sounds so easy,” Suters says, “it scares me a little.”
It may not be so easy, of course. Nobody in any municipality can get public housing if the municipal council doesn’t want it or doesn't bother to apply. Councillors may need a lot of selling before they begin to think of “Ontario housing” as something different from the “public housing” that displeases taxpayers. Some towns may reject the OHC deal because they don’t want to pay even their portion of the cost — seven and one half percent of operating costs, with capital costs and all other expenditures covered by Ottawa and the Ontario government. Builders may be leery of selling part of a development to OHC if private buyers seem likely to shun a neighborhood where “subsidized tenants” will be living.
But so far it’s the most promising answer yet to a national problem that will otherwise continue to grow each year.
Sohle, part showman, part businessman, has deliberately set himself a significant quota for the next three years: twelve thousand units of public housing — the number built in all Canada in the past fifteen years.
People who understand the Ontario housing problem arc hoping he’ll make it. Meanwhile, authorities in other provinces are watching him with more than casual interest. Quebec has sent two men to Toronto to study the scheme, and Manitoba has written asking for detailed information.
Such interest, of course, raises hopes much broader than Ontario’s own problems: that this one province’s peculiar new blend of public and private enterprise will inspire a bold nationwide attack on the housing problem.
Which is something Regent Park, for all its merits, never quite managed to do. ★