Public Works: The Rebirth of Affordable Housing
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Public Works: The Rebirth of Affordable Housing

Could a San Francisco initiative save Toronto's struggling affordable housing system?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

A rendering that projects how the Alice Griffith community in Hunters Point, San Francisco , will look when it is rebuilt. Image courtesy of McCormack, Baron, Salazar.

Toronto has a serious problem with affordable housing. The number of Torontonians on the housing wait list is at over 165,000, and counting. Spending on affordable housing is in sharp decline. Toronto’s Shelter, Support, and Housing Administration Division (SSHA) has seen its budget cut by over $215 million since 2010, thanks largely to decreases in provincial and federal contributions. Repairs to Toronto’s existing public housing units are expected to run to $2.6 billion over the next 10 years. The City is working hard to solicit one third of that money from Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill. But, in spite of some encouraging success, recent history provides little cause for optimism. There are, however, models of success in other North American cities. In San Francisco, a notoriously troubled public housing system is getting a major overhaul thanks to HOPE SF, a City initiative with state, federal, corporate, and non-profit support.

In the mid-2000s, San Francisco’s Hunters View housing project epitomized the very worst of American public housing. Murder and drug crime were rampant. The residences themselves, built mostly in the 1950s, were dilapidated and in bad need of repair. Things looked grim. But in 2006, the neighbourhood was picked as the pilot site for HOPE SF—and now Hunters View is at the forefront of an ambitious, holistic redevelopment of affordable housing.

HOPE SF’s stated goal is to “rebuild our most distressed public housing sites, while increasing affordable housing and ownership opportunities, and improving the quality of life for existing residents and the surrounding communities.” In total, HOPE SF will replace 2,500 existing public housing units, and add 6,000 brand-new mixed-income residential units, across four communities (one of which includes Hunters View). Based on a similar project in Seattle’s NewHolly neighbourhood, HOPE SF is creating safe, healthy, economically integrated communities that will provide locals with options for public housing, affordable home ownership, and market-value homes. Ideally, this mixed-income atmosphere will improve the neighbourhoods’ purchasing power and attract businesses that will, in turn, create job opportunities.

It’s all part of the HOPE SF approach to build strong, healthy communities, not just inexpensive housing. Small and struggling local businesses will be given a chance to bid for contracts on the HOPE SF building projects. Also built into the initiative are programs for job training, healthcare, and the development of parks and community gardens. Throughout the construction of HOPE SF projects, job opportunities will be made available to neighbourhood residents. There’s even a “walking schoolbus” that supervises kids’ trip to school in an effort to improve the area’s lousy school attendance rate.

Attention (and money) has also been paid to short-term public housing solutions. In 2007, the San Francisco mayor’s office and the City’s housing authority pledged $2 million per year for urgent repairs to housing projects. And in 2009, the U.S. Department of Housing and Development put $17.9 million toward San Francisco public housing repairs—enough to fix up 1,800 homes.

Would a HOPE-style program work in Toronto? We’re already experimenting with mixed-income communities. While proponents continue to tout its benefits, though, not everyone has been happy with this new direction in affordable housing.

What makes HOPE SF an admirable case study is the cooperation of all levels of government, and the fact that corporations and communities have come together to fund and execute an major improvement in affordable housing. It’s certainly not a quick and cheap solution—but it represents a combined effort by many stakeholders to avoid band-aid solutions and address the greater social and economic problems that were harming that system in the first place.