It’s the dank, stinking stairwells of Toronto’s Regent Park housing project that for residents like Ines Garcia represent the failures of the past, and now, as they’re being demolished, hope for the future.
Garcia, a 48-year-old single mother of four, has been forced to shield her children from strangers shooting up heroin on the urine-soaked steps. One time, the Ecuadorean immigrant mustered the courage to tell a man smoking crack to do it elsewhere. He replied, “Bitch, you wanna die?” Garcia’s eyes teared up at the memory.
If all goes according to plan, Garcia, who makes less than C$10,000 ($9,174) a year juggling two jobs, soon won’t have to climb the stairs to her subsidized apartment. She’ll have elevators in a new unit in a new Regent Park, part of North America’s largest social-housing redevelopment.
“Everything there is brand new, beautiful,” Garcia says of the C$2 billion transformation taking place within sight of her 50-year-old apartment, where black mold is creeping down her bathroom wall. Every day, she passes the tidy red-brick townhouses and glass towers going up nearby, dreaming of a home where her children can grow up to fulfill their own dreams.
As its population swells to 17,000 from 7,500, the new Regent Park will mix renters in subsidized apartments with owners of market-priced condominiums and integrate the area into the city by adding through-streets, chain stores and amenities such as swimming pools. The project is a public-private experiment in housing that will provide a test case for cities from New York to San Francisco struggling to offer affordable homes as property prices soar.
Toronto’s average home price reached a record C$547,786 in March, a 79 percent increase from a decade ago. The city of 2.8 million is tied with New York as the 14th least affordable of 85 major housing markets ranked by Belleville, Illinois-based researcher Demographia, with Hong Kong at No.1. There are about 168,000 people waiting for subsidized housing in the city where Toronto Community Housing is the second-largest social-housing landlord after New York.
Built in the 1940s to house World War II veterans and immigrants, Regent Park was laid out as a so-called garden city -- an enclosed neighborhood with no major through-streets and plenty of parks. The design was supposed to make the streets safer for pedestrians. Instead, it cut the area off from the city. As the area deteriorated, businesses fled and drug dealers, prostitutes, and gangs, including the Bloods, moved in.
“The ideal is you won’t be able to tell where Regent Park was -- it will simply blend in,” said Ken Greenberg, principal at Greenberg Consultants Inc. and the lead urban planner on Regent Park’s revitalization. “It’s important to work on housing, but not in isolation. If you just rebuild, you’re going to get a more genteel form of ghettoization, the same social isolation, the same lack of employment, the same lack of education opportunities.”
Greenberg, who’s worked on New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park and Boston’s “Big Dig” project, said he’s already sharing lessons learned in Regent Park with other projects he’s consulting on. At the Barry Farm redevelopment in Southeast Washington, D.C., he’s suggesting the community reconnect streets to the rest of the city.
In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio presented a $41.1 billion plan on May 5 to build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing in the next decade by increasing rent protections for the poor and requiring developers to include below-market apartments in newly zoned areas.
Bringing together lower-income and middle-class residents “reduces acute crime in the short-term but in the longer term it depends on how well it’s managed,” said Susan Popkin, a senior fellow at The Urban Institute, an economic and social policy organization, by phone from Washington, D.C. The question is, “Can you keep those higher-income residents there?”
With construction starting in 2005 and now about one-third complete, a new neighborhood of glass towers, brick townhouses and neatly laid out parks and streets is taking shape.
Eight condo towers are up so far, with five under construction and 22 planned, according to Daniels Corp., the developer that’s partnering with the city on the project. About 15 of these, or 1,848 units, plus an additional three towers TCH built nearby, will be for the original residents of Regent Park who pay rents based on their income.
The rest, about 5,250 units and 20 towers, will be for buyers in an area that’s never had market-priced condominiums before. The development also includes about 27 blocks of townhouses for sale and rental.
The nine-story One Cole, the first building to go on the market, sold about half its units on the first day, according to Daniels.
The neighborhood’s amenities, designed to keep kids busy and off the streets, include an aquatic center, a 60,000 square-foot cultural center, and the Paintbox Bistro, serving steak frites and espresso. An athletic facility will host the Toronto Raptors basketball team and outdoor ovens and community gardens are planned.
At 69 acres (28 hectares) in central Toronto and a planned 7,500 units when it’s completed around 2025, the stakes are high and everyone from the private developer, to the city, to the residents is greeting it with a mixture of anxiety and hope.
“When I first drove through the new Regent Park, I didn’t even know it was social housing,” said Eugene Jones, 58, former chief executive officer of TCH. “I thought, ‘Damn. This is the most amazing thing -- it’s not being done anywhere in the world like this.’” The interim CEO, Greg Spearn, took over last month.
It’s a far cry from the 1980s when crack began to infiltrate the neighborhood, said Diane MacLean, a community activist who raised three children in Regent Park.
“People would shoot up in the stairwell,” she said. “It changed the community in terms of crime rates, guns, homicides, assaults, drug addiction -- all that skyrocketed.”
The transition to a new community hasn’t been easy. While every current resident is guaranteed a replacement TCH unit, it may not be in Regent Park. Residents, many of whom have kids in local schools and work nearby, may also be relocated kilometers away for the several-year wait between demolishing units and getting new ones. That makes Garcia, who is facing at least five-year wait for her new place, worry about getting back in.
“Revitalizing Regent Park should have been called ’kicking out residents of Regent Park,’” Garcia said. “That’s the fear from a lot of the residents.”
TCH says it’s learned from mistakes made in the first phase when residents, many of whom didn’t speak English, weren’t clear on the process and sometimes signed away their right to return. The agency is now sending in more staff to explain the procedure.
In the first and second phases of the project, the city helped fund the construction of market units and received a premium from sales, which they reinvested in the community and other units in its portfolio. In the third phase, which started construction this spring, TCH is selling the land to Daniels, reducing its exposure to the housing market, but also giving up prime downtown property.
“We took a huge risk investing in this community,” Mitchell Cohen, president of Daniels, said at the Regent Park sales office. “Government alone can’t do something like this. The private sector alone can’t do something like this.”
TCH and Daniels declined to say how much they each contributed to the C$2 billion total cost and TCH declined to say how much of the profit from units and land sold is reinvested into the community, citing the information is proprietary. The partnership allowed the agency to save at least 30 percent on phases two and three, TCH said.
“There needs to be employment opportunities at the root of this,” Cohen, 63, said. “For many, many decades there was no grocery store, no coffee shop, no bank and no economic activity within Regent Park. People weren’t earning money here and weren’t spending money here. That is not a healthy community.”
Current residents have average annual income of about C$20,000, half that of the rest of Toronto, according to Dixon Hall, a local charity. About 20 percent of the neighborhood’s households report no income at all.
Daniels is busy putting streets and sidewalks back and drawing businesses to the area again.
Royal Bank of Canada, the country’s second-largest lender, Tim Hortons Inc., its largest doughnut-and-coffee chain, and grocer Sobeys Inc. each opened a location on-site, hiring locally in an area which was a commercial wasteland before.
Regent Park “needed believers -- from businesses, the city and the neighborhood itself,” Jennifer Tory, head of personal and commercial banking at the Toronto-based Royal Bank, said in an e-mail. “Four years on, our business has grown.”
In order for it to be successful, Regent Park needs people like Vanessa Yu too -- young professionals or empty nesters willing to put money on a bet that Regent Park won’t slide back into the crime-ridden neighborhood it was.
The 33 year-old moved two years ago into the 13th floor penthouse unit at One Park West, one of the first towers to go up. She bought her 800-square-foot home for under C$375,000.
Her Chinese parents in Nova Scotia fear for her safety. She’s had two bikes stolen and was accosted by a man one night in January as she went out to get some food. A streetcar driver who saw the attack stopped and the man fled.
While the experience left her shaken, she has no plans to sell and move away. She likes being a 15-minute bike ride from the center of the city and being able to afford a home that won’t strain her pocketbook.
“I know what I was getting into moving here, I work in the community,” Yu said last month from the sofa in one of three community rooms in the building. “There are way too many upsides to living here but I know it isn’t for everyone.”
The crime has already declined, said Farzad Ghotbi, a 12-year Toronto police veteran whose first day on the force was in Regent Park.
“We were getting more calls 12 years ago even though there were less people and the area was smaller,” said Ghotbi, who’s been working the beat ever since. “Do we still have shootings? Yes, we do. But compared to what it was before, it’s a tremendous improvement.”
Reports of crime, not including traffic violations, dropped 12 percent in 2012 from the start of the revitalization in 2005 in Regent Park and the surrounding area, latest Toronto Police data show. Crimes include manslaughter, sexual assault, and breaking and entering.
Ibrahim Hussein’s family was one of the first to get a house in the new development.
“The house we’re living in now, poor people shouldn’t be living there,” said the 29-year-old who works for TCH cleaning and maintaining new condo buildings. “It’s for rich people. The backyard is so big, we don’t know what to do with it.”
His house, with a neat front yard and jumbo-sized windows, faces a line of market-rate houses across the street. The two sides don’t communicate much. When his mother has bananas left over from baking, she takes them to her neighbors on either side, not across the street.
Community worker MacLean’s biggest fear is that in 10 years Regent Park looks like every other part of Toronto instead of the place where single mothers can leave their kids with neighbors, people swap food at well-attended events, and residents form a single voice on community issues
“Affluent members of the community will have the wealth and the power around planning and the future,” said MacLean, who moved one block away from the neighborhood after her rising income disqualified her for subsidized housing. “This is true entrenched gentrification. If you understand gentrification, it does mean the wealthy win.”
For her part, Garcia has already started shedding items in anticipation of her move to a new home. An old mop handle stands near the door, one of the many things she needs to throw out before leaving.
“I saw one of the new homes and said ’Oh my God! It’s beautiful!’” she said. “The first thing I asked is ’does everything work?’ There’s so much light. There’s so much life there.”