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Why does social housing look like that?

August 16, 2011

Close your eyes and think of social housing. What comes to mind?

For most of us, it’s the social housing built in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s: Blake Boultbee, Jane Finch, Teesdale or Thistletown. You know the look: uniform, segregated and often, unappealing.

I think many people assume social housing was built this way purely to save money. But this is not so.

Social housing was designed to be ugly on purpose.

When the federal government edged into the public housing field in the 1940s and 50s, social housing was seen as “residual housing:” housing for people left out of the market. To ensure it retained its residual status, there were two policy imperatives built into its design.

  • Make sure it doesn’t compete with the private rental market.
  • Make sure it’s not too nice, or people will want to stay.

In their classic 1972 text, Programs in Search of a Policy, authors Michael Dennis and Susan Fish quote a 1962 CMHC position paper listing the design features that will “create some measure of functional and social obsolescence” in social housing. The position paper called for:

  • Higher density housing. “Desirable on grounds of economy, high density environment is also to be sought on grounds that it is considered less desirable.”
  • Small room sizes
  • Functional but unfashionable cabinets, appliances, and storage spaces
  • Cement or cement brick partition or wall exposed as interior finishes
  • Use of uniform colours
  • “Not too convenient” parking or garbage collection. As CMHC’s position paper summarized, “Public housing projects do not compete with private enterprise to increase the livability of apartment type projects.”

In particular, social housing was relegated to marginal and inconvenient sites. When there was a mix of public and private housing, said CMHC, “the most valuable or advantageous site should be left to be developed by private enterprise.”

By 1970, 85 public housing projects had been built in Toronto. With the exception of the 17 projects built in the old City of Toronto, the majority were at the fringe of residential districts, away from public transit or amenities. A half dozen were located near railways. Many others were built close to freeways, or on the edge of industrial sites.

Different philosophy. Different design.

This old-style public housing has shaped the popular image of social housing, even though it represents less than half TCHC’s units, and only 30 per cent of all Toronto social housing.

By 1973, CMHC had adopted an entirely different philosophy of social housing. The old public housing model was dropped. In its place was community-based housing – funded by CMHC, but developed and owned by resident-owned co-operatives, independent non-profit corporations, and forward-looking municipal enterprises such as Cityhome.

This housing was not saddled with “ugliness guidelines.” Instead, costs were controlled by Maximum Unit Prices. (Up to the mid-1980s, I recall the maximum cost for a 3-bedroom unit was $75,000 all in – an amazing bargain by today’s standards.) Provided you brought in your development under budget, your design could suit your own philosophy.

The results? Here are three examples from my own neighbourhood.

Innstead Co-op

Riverdale Co-op

Cityhome (now TCHC)










In this blog I’ve already mentioned Innstead Co-op where I used to live and work. Many of Innstead’s founders were second-generation Dutch Christians who had left rural Canada and the US to study in Toronto. They wanted to live close to each other, but also wanted to “salt” neighbourhood change. Their design solution: scattered unit houses – many of them renovated by people who lived in the co-op — all within walking distance of each other.

Riverdale Co-op’s big idea was to preserve affordable housing and promote Riverdale’s neighbourhood atmosphere. Like Innstead, they also bought up houses and small apartment buildings. When the opportunity came to redevelop an old church site, they built homes that reflected their commitment to community. The result is 37 townhomes surrounding a lovely, well-used courtyard.

As a non-profit corporation owned by the old City of Toronto, Cityhome saw social housing as one element in a city-building agenda.  Cityhome is famous for its work in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood. But you can see its philosophy play out in this little jewel: the City’s former public works stables. Cityhome preserved this heritage site, and created 11 mixed-income apartments alongside a new city park. There’s a school and grocery store down the street, and a bus stop right outside the door.

What you think is what you get.

I dredge up this little history lesson for two reasons.

First, I think it is worth reflecting on the impact of “marginal housing” on the people who live there, and on the surrounding neighbourhood.

At the foot of my street there is a 120-unit TCHC development built in the old style. The residents are pleasant, the site is litter free, there are flower baskets beside the entrance and TCHC has recently installed new balconies. Yet it is almost impossible to overcome that “marginal feeling” once it has been built into the design.

But there is a second more pressing reason. Much of today’s discourse about social housing subscribes to the same philosophy that led to  “marginal” buildings.

Social housing is now routinely described as “the housing of last resort” for people who can’t make it in the private sector. Resident are admonished to  “move along” to make room for others – as if a stable home was a bad thing.  We hear that social housing residents should not “take up valuable downtown land” – why can’t they be moved to the fringes of the city?

We have (literally) concrete evidence of where this thinking leads, and it is not a pretty sight.

Let’s not make the same mistakes twice.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 16, 2011 10:12 am

    I know, aight?

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