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Canada’s social housing paradise: a memoir

June 21, 2011

One summer afternoon in 1947, my mother left work early to show me what would be our new home: Block B in Benny Farm in N.D.G, Montreal.  At war’s end we had been evicted from our rented flat and lived the next two years in different temporary premises.

At seven years of age, I sensed my mother’s relief at being able to show me a place that would be ours and I was determined to love it.  The three-story red-brick apartment building with a big muddy courtyard in front – heavenly.

For the next 15 years I did indeed love it.  As did hundreds of others who also moved in over the next year as buildings were completed.

Benny Farm was one of Canada’s first social housing projects. It was built by the Government of Canada to house returning World War II veterans and their families. Rents in its 2, 3 and 4 bedroom units were set at a low-market rate and supported by the federal government.

Like Toronto’s Regent Park, Benny Farm’s design was inspired by Ebeneezer Howard’s Garden City movement. An unusual amount of open green space in the nicknamed “Back Forty” around the buildings allowed for playground set-ups, boards for outdoor hockey rinks, paths for maintenance trucks that made safe bike paths, grass and trees.

An air of hopefulness

The availability of space was a huge bonus but the real heart of the place developed among tenants.  An air of hopefulness pervaded the halls and courtyards.  Some natural leaders created a Tenants Association (the BFTA), which provided a sense of agency for tenants by becoming an effective advocate to our landlord, CMHC. It was organized around the configuration of the buildings, with a rep from each block (17 ‘blocks’, each with 4 doorways with their own street numbers, six apartments per doorway; over 400 apartments in all).

Community volunteering perhaps helped make up for lost family time: signing up for the winter-long nightly icing of rinks, creating a library in one of the basements, designing summer carnivals and winter festivals and doorway Christmas decorating contests – all tenant-driven.

The collective bond of the war experience was possibly one reason for the hilarity of the partying on weekends and the soundscape of tinkling glasses, heard from my bed at night.  Men and women seemed, even to me, almost desperate to have a good time.  In hindsight, the men also likely needed regular shots of male companionship after five years of steady male contact.  In fact a reality emerged, that some ex-servicemen were not comfortable in family life.  Their children didn’t know them.  A wife who had been a great buddy in 1939 had changed.  Or the husband had changed.  Insecurity abounded. But the urge was strong to put the war behind and create something new and good.

So what made this place work so well? 

The buildings were demolished over 10 years ago, starting in 1997, but there are 75 rebuilt units housing the same people (mostly vets) as in the 40’s and 50’s.  And at 80-plus years they still help each other out and maintain a strong community (I go and visit several times a year).

Was it a unique happening, Benny Farm?  Could be, but here are some principles that might apply to social housing today:

  • A solid proportion have to believe that this can be a good home (providing motivation to pay attention to what’s going on in the neighbourhood)
  • Some leaders emerging from among the tenants, willing to speak collectively to the power structure
  • A majority of tenants have to have the inner resources to look beyond their personal situations to identify with other families
  • A majority have to have the capacity and willingness to be at least a modest part of social networks, from highly informal to moderately structured, that will identify and define and speak out to leaders about what is working and what isn’t
  • A proportion of residents who are home during the day: providing security, eyes and ears on the neighbourhood, a base for any child to find refuge
  • A positive collective identity to allow cohesion, fostered by how the housing is targeted and promoted.

Did you grow up in social housing?

Do you have a story to share about growing up in social housing? Was it a good experience, or a bad one? And based on that experience, what advice would you offer social housing leaders today?
The comment box is yours!
Resources:
Erin Silver’s Hope. Effort. Family. The Benny Farm Community Then . . . and Now? 
Video and photos of the demolition and redevelopment of Benny Farm.
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One Comment leave one →
  1. Paul Connelly permalink
    June 24, 2011 5:23 pm

    I was struck by the reference to social networks. It’s clear that a sense of social cohesion has been lost in North America and (from what I hear) in much of the UK, where I was born. Social networks seem to have been collateral damage in some kind of large push towards what Rick Salutin once called “Bizlam”, a personal submission of the interests of big business. No doubt, many people have benefitted from what we call “economic progress,” but I think it’s pretty clear that something has been lost. Not least, a lot of public housing stock all over the western that started out being desirable but is now seen as a hell-hole.

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