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Exiles on Main Street

June 28, 2011

In the past two weeks, Opening the Window has described two versions of “social housing paradise:” Chicago Housing Authority and Montreal’s Benny Farm.

I don’t know much of the history of Benny Farm, but it seems to have been quite successful for 50 or more years. This seems to have been something of an exception, though. We’re all much more familiar with places like the Chicago Housing Authority which failed miserably, like much of the public housing in other large US cities and, of course, in places like Regent Park and other urban public housing in Canada.

Why did it happen?

In his comment from two weeks ago, Michael Shapcott suggested a lack of tenant control was a big part of the problem. He said,

“In the early 1950s, the housing expert Albert Rose warned that the exclusion of tenants from management and engagement in the newly developed Regent Park public housing project was setting the stage for a big problem downstream. He was very right. Public housing tenants should have resources to build and maintain independent tenant structures – and also to engage in the management of Toronto Community Housing. CMHC research shows that tenant-managed housing (ie – housing co-ops) are the most cost-effective form of social housing and also deliver many other benefits.”

I support resident control. I’ve lived in and managed a housing co-op, so I know first-hand their benefits. And I’ve been proud to help develop other co-ops. But I don’t think the real cause of the problems we see with CHA and Regent Park were caused by lack of resident control. I think the real cause of public housing’s decline was government policy.

Like the units managed by the Chicago Housing Authority, Regent Park ran pretty well at first. Its decline began in the 1960s, when Ontario imposed new access rules, just as the feds imposed similar changes in Chicago.

“A” housing problem or “the” housing problem?

Public housing was created to solve a problem: low-income, working families could not afford a decent place to live. Governments responded by creating affordable, well-maintained housing. An extensive support network (encouraged by management, but provided for the most part by either the residents themselves or by civic institutions such as schools and churches) was part of the package.

Ironically, the very success of post-WWII public housing in addressing a large – though narrowly focused – problem led both the Ontario and US governments to make the same logical error. (I’m not picking on the US and Ontario. I grew up near Glasgow and I’ve also heard of the stories from across the developed world. It’s just that we’re discussing CHA and Regent Park here.) Starting in the 1960s, policy makers began to believe public housing could solve not just “a” housing problem but “the” housing problem; that is, it could provide decent housing for any poor person no matter the cause of that person’s poverty. It’s true that many poor people have at least one thing in common – they can’t afford decent housing, especially in cities. But, as we now recognize, poverty has many causes: a changing economy, that has reduced the likelihood for many people that they will get a decent job (pick your own reason: export of manufacturing jobs to lower-wage countries, decline of unionization of blue-collar jobs, poorer educational standards, growing economic disparities created by changing tax structures); the closure of psychiatric hospitals and other institutions; reduced social cohesion; the list goes on. And the failure to recognize the significance of this causal diversity has had dismal consequences.

Access through victimhood

The new housing policy established a new access system, where applicants earned “points” for being victims. The system gave preference to people who were unemployable, abused, mentally ill, or homeless – the people that society at large had failed the most. But instead of trying to correct things by reducing the number of people who “fell through the cracks,” many governments decided, “Well, we can at least house these people in the units we already own, i.e. public housing.”

This new access policy, while perhaps well intentioned, meant that public housing no longer acted as a base for people to participate in the economy and society as a whole. Instead, it became a kind of “holding tank” for households that had nowhere to go, and were continually given that message. While public housing developments are literally in our midst, their occupants are effectively exiled from the rest of society, with almost no interaction apart from the kind that leads off the local news or makes the tabloid headlines. (The exceptions are recent immigrants, who moved to Regent Park as their first place to stay in Canada but are desperate to get out and have the skills to do so.)

The old point-rating system has been abandoned in Ontario. But the new access system that replaced it preserves many of the same flaws as the old one. In fact, you could argue the situation is worsening since the new provincial policy applies not only to public housing but to all social housing governed by the Social Housing Reform Act. Theoretically, the new system is based on chronology (“first come, first served”). In fact, the priority rules that allow some households to “jump the queue” mean that those who do get housed usually have more problems than just a lack of money. And just as governments in the 1960s ducked the problem of society creating “winners and losers” by offering to “warehouse the losers”, the current policy ducks the challenge of eliminating domestic violence by warehousing its victims in social housing without providing the supports they need.

In all of this, the governance structure seems less important to me than the factors I’ve set out. Co-ops, non-profits and public housing are all suffering from a dysfunctional access system.

Perhaps there’s a way to test my theory by comparing Regent Park with Benny Farm. Benny Farm stayed under Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Did CMHC impose the same kind of access policies that the Government of Ontario did on Regent Park? If so, did Benny Farm start to suffer from the same pressures that Regent Park did? If not, did a measurable difference in the quality of life in the two projects occur in the decades following changes to Ontario’s access rules in the 1960s?

To return to Michael’s original point, I’m not saying anything against co-ops. I just think it would be dangerous to propose they could be “the” solution. Society has tried to find one big solution to “the” housing problem before, and it was a disaster.

Let’s not burden the co-op movement with impossible expectations. Till we get the diagnosis right, let’s not go writing prescriptions.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Dave Snelgrove permalink
    June 28, 2011 2:39 pm

    I could not agree with you more. Michael pointed to one critical difference between TCHC and housing co-ops, but that is not the only significant difference.
    I remember back in the mid to late 80’s when there were co-ops, private non-profits, Municipal housing, and the Ontario Housing Corporation all competing to provide affordable housing for their various constituents.
    The ideological belief that competition produces the most efficient results affected the Ministry of Housing program planners, and every housing provider then was expected to compete for limited money.
    This makes some sense if the “results” you want are easily defined and the same for everybody. So to “level the playing field”, everybody had to house the “neediest first”. It became very convoluted, with co-ops and non-profits only having to house x% of the neediest, and y% of very needy households, etc. I didn’t stay around to see the evaluations of the programs, and how well each sector fared.
    I do remember politics getting in the way when a newspaper discovered that a co-op was subsidised and housing people who could afford more than market rent.
    My guess is that there was a badly done evaluation if one was done at all. The difficulties and complexities of evaluating a program designed to solve “The Housing Problem” are insurmountable, I suspect. Michael may have been referring to such an evaluation, but I haven’t read it.
    By the way, Rosemary left Benny Farm in the early sixties, returned briefly, then left for good in the early seventies. Her brother-in-law tells me it went downhill after that. If I can quote him, “As the project reverted to more and more non-military residents and their families, it rapidly went downhill and until the recent new construction it was nothing but a slum and a drug infested war zone!!!”

  2. June 28, 2011 4:01 pm

    Thank you, Mr. Wensleydate and Dave, for your critical insights about some of the factors influencing the present dilemmas in social housing. In terms of the access policies, I don’t know how a more effective system could be designed without a total re-think of the role of private and public capital in all housing. But it might have to take into account the significant continuum along which applicants for assisted housing fall, in terms of degree of and history of poverty. Those who have recently fallen into poverty are most likely to not want to stay there – one end of the continuum. They want to transition out, through efforts that they can sense how to make – sometimes with some help. At the other end are those who have never learned about other possibilities, who feel at home among others who exercise the skills of maneouvering within the system of financial supports, who are severely ‘stuck’. They are those Mr. Wensleydale speaks of as being let down by their governments and the electorate as soon as we start accepting high levels of unemployment and of school dropouts.

    And by the way, friends I visit in Benny Farm who have lived there since the late forties, still feel happy and lucky to be there and wouldn’t accept the ‘slum’ and ‘drug-infested war zone” labels that were possibly flung at the place by social-housing-hating press??

  3. June 28, 2011 8:16 pm

    Let me connect the dots. You are saying that access policies, esp. SHRA, favour people in crisis over skilled, low income workers who would be capable of what Joy calls “Homesteading”, but the government calls “Housing Connections”.

    Doesn’t it boil down to the selection of the tenants or members? I.e. those able to Homestead?

  4. September 16, 2011 12:04 pm

    As Shapcott stated, ‘tenant control’ needs to be taken care of, but oftentimes I see that gangs and gang members do not even live in these public housing complexes. There needs to be ‘other than’ police control where they just show up to shoo away the trouble and then go back to their station houses.

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