Regent Park is the oldest and biggest social housing project in Canada. It was built during the 1940s, and since its establishment, it has been home to low income families living in Toronto. Today, more than 2,000 households can call Regent Park their home, and as the neighborhood starts to revitalize, concerns begin to raise as to whether or not the country’s largest social housing project will become gentrified and the wealthy will displace the poor out of the area. Today the revitalization of downtown areas in major cities all around the world has become the norm. In fact, in many regions it has been the norm for some time. Today, the ongoing process of revitalization has reached Toronto, more specifically Regent Park. The problem is that with revitalization generally comes gentrification, and this raises serious concerns in the hearts and minds of the people who have never known a home different than Regent Park. However, despite existing concerns it is unlikely that revitalization will signify full-scale gentrification in Regent Park and the displacement of the poor to make room for the wealthy. Revitalization stands to bring better housing and an overall higher quality of life to the residents of Regent Park. Furthermore, if it is in fact accompanied by gentrification, this would be an opportunity for the residents of Regent Park to fully and positively integrate into Toronto’s society. The only real concerns that the community has are how the overall revitalization/gentrification process will take place, and whether or not they will be able to call Regent Park their home after it is completed.
Between the late 1940s and the late 1950s, Regent Park was constructed, and once inaugurated, quickly became Toronto’s poorest area. Today Regent Park has around 12,000 residents, and it is striking that apart from being the city’s poorest neighborhood, it is one of the most culturally diverse in the city. The area is packed with various minorities, all of which are considered “visible minorities” in the wider context of Toronto and Canada as a whole.
As of 2006, almost 80% of the population self-identified as “visible minority%u201F. The largest visible minority groups are South Asian (27% of the total population), Black (22%) and Chinese (16%). Selected social and demographic indicators for the area are presented in Table 2, and are compared to citywide figures for the same indicators. (Horak 6).
Those who live in Regent Park’s housing projects lead challenging lives. They face cultural, social, and economical barriers; they can barely make ends. The only reason why these people can afford decent housing in Regent Park is because those homes are managed and subsidized by the government. Decent subsidized housing was surely a dream that came true for the thousands of people that established themselves in Regency Park. However, things started to change when the government that had built Regent Park allowed more than fifty years to pass before developing any project for the neighborhoods revitalization. This does not mean that the local government knowingly and/or purposefully turned its back on the community. The truth of the matter is that Canada is a country in which social segregation has been scarce in its cities. Generally, great cities have problems as the poor are segregated to a specific area where poverty and ruin are widespread. Toronto, like the rest of Canada, was spared of such kind of a problem, but throughout the second half of the twentieth century the situation gradually worsened until the problem was at a critical stage.
Toronto, and indeed Canada as a whole, has little history of neighborhood regeneration policy. In large part this is because Canadian cities have historically been spared the acute socio-spatial segregation seen in large cities in some other western countries. It has been fifty years since a handful of “slum clearance%u201F projects took place in some Canadian cities. (Horak 5).
Perhaps it was because of the park’s social projects being publically managed that they deteriorated in the way that they did. Ever since the neighborhood’s inauguration, the local government failed to invest in the upkeep of the neighborhoods and its homes. During the 1990s, the park’s situation became critical. Residents lobbied so that the city’s council would finally invest in the neighborhood’s revitalization, but throughout the 1990s the city’s council had other concerns. During the late 1990s, for instance, the city underwent a process of unification, and even though this process brought about an increase in the number of distressed neighborhoods, nothing could be done because the city was undergoing a terrible administrative chaos.
The Toronto Community Housing Corporation
To make matters worse, the city was going through a fiscal crisis during that time; this explains that at the time “council was dominated by politicians who were more concerned with keeping taxes in line than with social policy” (Horak 5). Fortunately, things started to change during the mid-2000s, as neighborhood representation strengthened in the city and neighborhood revitalization became a centerfold item in Toronto’s political agenda. The Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) was founded in 2002; since its foundation, the TCHC has managed to consolidate itself as the second largest social housing authority, with a portfolio that stood at 58,500 housing units in 2010 (Horak 7). This was the ruling body that would undertake the development of a viable and sustainably revitalization project in Regent Park. Finally, after years of lobbying, the neighborhood’s residents were finally starting to see results. The TCHC conceived a plan that contemplated a full-scale redevelopment of the entire neighborhood. This plan would cost one billion CAD, and even though the city lacked the resources it was approved in 2003, just one year after the TCHC came into existence. The necessary funding for the complete revitalization of Regent Park was procured by agreeing to transform the country’s “oldest and largest social housing community into a mixed-income community for 5,100 households in Toronto’s east downtown” (EcoAction 1) .
The TCHC’s plan is ambitious, insomuch it plans to double the housing units available in Regent Park, but if revitalization is not a problem per se, gentrification is. The biggest concern in the hearts and minds of Regent Park’s residents is that after the revitalization process is complete, the mixed-income community model that will follow will inevitably drive the low-income residents (some of which have been living in the neighborhood for more than thirty years) out of the area. There is risk that the project is complete they will be displaced from their houses to other areas where they will continue suffering from the same problems they were forced to endure for so many years in Regent Park (poverty, crime, and inadequate housing infrastructure).
The revitalization project
Gentrification, based on the arrangement of the revitalization project developed by the TCHC, will happen, and even though no one is willing to admit it (including the TCHC), “such gentrification pushes low-income folks, people of colour and women-led families to the edges of the city” (Now Magazine 2). This is a worry of the most residents, even though the project received a widespread support from the community. It is understandable that the community favors the project, especially considering that they had been longing for such a project for a long time. Once completed, Regent Park will have twice as many housing units as it had when it was originally built. The problem is that the excess housing units constructed will not be publically managed, nor will they be subsidized and destined for low-income households. Instead, these additional housing units will be destined solely for the private market. It is striking to see that for many residents despite the fears of being displaced to the edges of the city, where poverty and ruin run high, the project is still popular and has ample support within the community. It was agreed that the revitalization process would be completed in nine phases; phase one began in 2006 and the ninth phase would be ready by 2025. This approach was agreed upon in order to minimize the disruption to the community living in Regent Park.
In March 2006, TCHC secured a developer for the market component of Phase I of the redevelopment. Demolition of 418 existing units of social housing, and their replacement with 302 new social housing units, 400 market units and four commercial spaces then began; the first tenants began moving back into the new units in May of 2009. (Horak 8).
Based on this, it seems that the revitalization of Regent Park has gone well, especially for the low-income houses that will be gradually relocated while their homes are demolished and replaced by more comfortable and beautiful houses. However, shortly after phase one was completed, the United States’ housing bubble burst and the country, along with the rest of the continent and the world, experienced a significant downturn both in housing and throughout all economic sectors. Naturally, this downturn in the market and the economy will force the TCHC to find ways of making the redevelopment project attractive for the private sector (otherwise private developers will not be willing to risk millions in constructing low income, subsidized homes). It is likely that in subsequent phases, the social housing component will be decreased, thus, making room for more commercial usage spaces and private high end housing units. Based on this, it is viable to argue that the redevelopment project promoted by the TCHC does not wish to promote revitalization, but gentrification instead.
At the same time, the strong market potential of the site may produce incentives for TCHC officials and the municipal politicians who oversee their activity to “cash in” on the market potential of the site when the housing market recovers. Indeed, some academic have recently argued that the Regent Park redevelopment is little more than a means through which the wealthy and powerful seek to “recolonize%u201F potentially valuable urban space, and that the resident engagement processes developed by TCHC are simply tools used to legitimize this underlying pursuit. (Horak 9).
All of the concerns that have been raised, thus, far appear not to worry the majority of residents of Regent Park. There are those who worry about being displaced out of their community by the rich and powerful. In fact, there are even those who claim they would rather not move back once the revitalization project is completed. However, the majority is more concerned with being able to relocate successfully and subsequently readapt to their new Regent Park housing unit (and the new neighborhood too). So far it appears that throughout the construction of phase one the families managed to relocate, and once the construction was finalized, most had no problems in moving back and adjusting to their new lives in their new neighborhood.
About a third of the new housing units in Phase 1 are already occupied. The mixed-use community features two daycares, community agency space, a learning center, employment hub and over 2,500 m2 of retail and commercial services space, including a bank and a large grocery store (EcoAction 2).
Benefits of revitalization and gentrification
The premise of the TCHC’s redevelopment project is that revitalization and gentrification will work together for the benefit of the community. The people should not be afraid of being cast aside by the wealthy. They should be optimistic and take advantage of the opportunities that will come once the project is finalized. Newer and more comfortable housing units are only some of the project’s objectives. Apart from this, the TCHC wishes to foment the integral development of the area; community services and programming are also contemplated under the development plan. This is why it is so important that the project foment gentrification as well. The only way to foment gentrification is through a revitalization process that is based on building mixed-income housing are in Regent Park. Once completed, people will have a better life; the new Regent Park will not be exclusive, but inclusive. That is exactly why the TCHC partnered up with a private company (Daniels Corporation) to revitalize the area (Greaves 99).
The community was excluded from the rest of Toronto for too long. People living in Regent Park were subjected to crime, drugs, and scarcity day and night while the rest of the city thrived. This must change. Polarization cannot continue, but it is important that the people realize that the government cannot change the situation on its own. The private sector must also collaborate, and households must contribute their share as well. Overcoming poverty, unemployment, and crime is challenging. The first thing that the residents of Regent Park realize is that having wealthier neighbors, improved transportation facilities, and more comfortable housing not only favors the private developers and the wealthy. If the neighborhood develops, revitalizes and gentrifies, everyone’s quality of life will improve. If there is more wealth and opportunities, the poor will have better chances of overcoming adversity and one day have their own cars, homes, etc. Thus far, the project has been successfully implemented. This owes largely to the fact that the neighborhood’s households believe that they will be able to capitalize, not only on revitalization, but on gentrification as well.
Many of the residents interviewed were optimistic about the future of Regent Park and expressed hope that the redevelopment, and especially the mix of uses and incomes, will present new opportunities and help to address some of the current problems with crime and drugs. (Schippling 115).
The revitalization and gentrification of Regent Park is a reality. The project has already started and even though its successful completion will be conditioned by the housing market’s performance in the upcoming years, it appears that most Regent Park residents start to believe in the project. There are also skeptics who believe that the TCHC’s project will signify the end of the Regent Park community. Fundamental changes will occur within the community, but once again, these households will realize that revitalization and gentrification is the only means of overcoming their present situation. The area’s residents need to adapt, they need to embrace change. They will have to readapt to new neighborhoods and environments during the relocation period, and they will have to once again readjust after receiving their new housing units in Regent Park. This will be challenging, but it is a challenge they should not resist, especially considering they will have much to gain once they are finally able to overcome it.