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Multiplying neighbourhood investment

July 19, 2011

Last week, TCHC’s outgoing Managing Director mused about “taking the community out of Toronto Community Housing.” This week, Toronto’s City Councillors are discussing which services we can cut.

I wonder whether we are taking the wrong approach. What if TCHC set its sights higher, rather than lower?  What if the City asked, “How can we multiply the value of the money we have?” rather than “What can we do without?”

Two years ago, I was inspired by Erika Rushton, a housing activist from Liverpool UK speaking at the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association Annual Conference.

Erika started life as an artist – just the sort of job cost-cutters disdain. But when she was hired by a social housing landlord, she brought the artist’s gift for connecting the dots to help transform Liverpool’s south end – a district beset with social housing vacancies, unemployment, high crime and 20 years of failed regeneration attempts.

Her first step was to count up local assets, including a whopping 500 municipal or agency employees that were providing some type of service to the district. She asked, “If 500 workers can’t turn around this neighbourhood, what good are we?”

It was this insight that spurred agencies and public services to rally their forces. They took over a vacant building and seconded 20% of their staff – 80 people in all – to form INclude, a management team mandated to turn round the neighbourhood.

Clean, safe, well-managed

Local residents told the team what they most wanted was a “clean, safe, and well-managed” neighbourhood. So the team started hiring local people to pick up garbage, remove graffiti and clean up local “grot spots.” Today, INclude Environmental Services is contracted to maintain 75 publicly- and privately-owned sites, providing employment and training for 55 local residents every year.

When the team observed most crime was committed on Friday and Saturday nights, they took hold of funding allocations for youth programs: no agency would be eligible for funding unless it offered evening and weekend programming. Youth crime plummeted.

To attract private investment, the team surveyed all social and private building owners in the area. They learned that the current and planned capital investments in local buildings – just the ordinary maintenance and capital repair budgets – totaled £313 million. It was an impressive statistics to show private investors looking for the next up-and-coming neighbourhood.

One of these private investors was Tesco, a major grocery chain. To bring this much-needed service into the community, the team promised to facilitate Tesco’s planning approvals process. For a big box retailer accustomed to neighbourhood opposition, a quick, conflict-free rezoning was worth big money. The team negotiated the re-investment of Tesco’s savings into local training programs, including a commitment to hire 500 local residents.

And of course, the team did many of the things we Canadians associate with neighbourhood regeneration: computer training that helped bridge the generational divide; an annual music festival that now attracts 29,000 people to a former “no go” park; a Safer Neighbourhoods program and youth engagement projects – all through strategic use of existing funding.

Deprived neighbourhood? Try, “Beautiful North.”

Today, Erika is Neighbourhoods Director at the Plus Dane Group’s Neighbourhood Investor. Plus Dane owns or manages 16,000 affordable homes, and is now leading the regeneration of three deprived North Liverpool neighbourhoods under the banner “Beautiful North.”

The project’s aim is to cut through red tape and rally resources at a time when public cutbacks outstrip anything seen in Canada. With the help of Liverpool City Council, the team has pulled together a 40+ member coalition, including the local police, fire and other municipal services; local universities, hospitals and housing providers; cultural organizations, community agencies, the travel industry, British Telecom, and two local football clubs. The coalition’s combined spending power is more than £400 million.

A thousand little actions

Ward councilors work with residents and make ‘Asks’ of Beautiful North Partners and Erika then seeks ‘Offers’ from the 40 partners. As the Beautiful North’s Facebook page says, “We don’t have One Big Plan to make North Liverpool more beautiful, just a thousand little actions. . . . It’s about affirming the importance of North Liverpool to the life of the city, by revealing the unrealized potential and the unrecognized beauty of its people and places.”

Early results have been encouraging:

  • In six weeks, Beautiful North cleaned up a grot spot that had been a crime magnet for over five years.
  • Residents have cleaned up their own back alley, put up lights, planted flowers and put out benches to create a safe place to play and meet. Beautiful North partners supplied plants, volunteers and tools for a day, and were rewarded with a buffet lunch supplied by a local resident. Now there is a waiting list of residents seeking minimal help to improve their own streets.
  • The team is rekindling a stagnant housing market, inviting private housing developers to refurbish houses using local talent, while addressing the anti-social behaviour problems that have kept property values down.
  • Over 80 budding entrepreneurs have received laptops and mentoring.
  • And this week the team will be announcing the winners of a Show Your Beautiful Face photo contest.

Something beautiful in Toronto

Liverpool is not the only city with neighbourhood success stories. In Toronto’s Regent Park, for example, we saw Toronto Community Housing take the lead. The private sector followed with investments in new market housing. RBC, Sobeys and Tim Horton’s joined in with much needed services and employment opportunities. And the City did its part to provide new streets, sidewalks, parks and recreational facilities.

But not every neighbourhood needs wholesale redevelopment or has the real estate potential of a Regent Park. For these neighbourhoods, and for neighbourhoods where most affordable housing is in private hands, we need different strategies.

Friends and colleagues:

  • What would happen if agencies and city services really worked together – not simply by sitting on steering committees and working groups, but by pooling their staff and their budgets to work together on a common cause?
  • What if social housing saw itself as a neighbourhood leader, rather than a problem in search of a solution?
  • What if the “priority” in priority neighbourhoods was not to increase social services, but to attract private investment and create new businesses?
  • And finally, how are Ontario communities already multiplying the value of public funds.

Do you know the answers? The comment box awaits.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Gordon Mack Scott permalink
    July 19, 2011 11:50 am

    Maybe a Toronto starting point is to insist that all meetings take place while actually doing something in the community, removing graffiti, picking up litter, painting, planting, washing out garbage containers etc. I bet it would reduce meeting frequency, provoke spontaeneous conversations with residents, and provide up to the minute information on community conditions. How often does the meeting really need an office, power point etc?

  2. rosemary gray-snelgrove permalink
    July 20, 2011 3:49 pm

    I find this very challenging. It both excites and makes me a little guilty. Am I slipping into a willingness to embrace business as an ally? But I like the sound of the Liverpool project. Had to write about it today, and include thoughts of Joy’s blog on Bizlam (a la Rick Salutin). See Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove


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