Between Paper and Concrete: a visual inquiry into the history of housing policy in Toronto. How do the legacies of past housing policies shape the lives of Torontonians today? What do these lessons from history teach us about implementing a National Housing Strategy today?
Policy Moment: The Toronto Purchase
Ideology: Fee Simple Land Title
In 1787, the British government acquired a large swath of land on the shore of Lake Ontario to settle loyalists after the American War of Independence. The acquisition was ratified in British law through a contract called The Toronto Purchase.
This agreement was disputed by the Mississaugas of the Credit who claimed that it overstated the usage rights they had offered the British. While several amendments were later made to address these grievances, the concept of Fee Simple Ownership—a legal principle which makes it possible for an individual to own territorial property—endured as law of the land.
Today, thousands of Indigenous people live in the urbanized area now called Toronto—a name derived from the original Tkaronto. Like their settler neighbours, they are obliged now to live under a European property regime of Fee Simple Ownership.
Policy Moment: Construction of the QEW
Inspired by Germany’s Autobahns, Ontario policymakers in the 1930s began remaking the systems of roads that connected cities in southern Ontario.
The first ribbon was cut in 1937 for the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW), and over the subsequent decades a series of highways would pave the way for rapid residential development into the farmlands to the west, east and north of the city.
While these new suburbs initially attracted white Canadian families, their demographics have shifted considerably over time. By the 2000s, the suburbs surrounding Toronto had become home to the highest concentrations of visible minorities in Canada.
Policy Moment: Creation of the CMHC
Ideology: Universal Home Ownership
On January 1, 1946, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) was created to house returning war veterans and lead the nation’s housing programs.
Among other functions this government agency secured mortgages provided by private banks, allowing many Canadians to pursue ownership dreams that would have otherwise been impossible.
Born out of an optimistic post-war modernism the CMHC and their mortgage program precipitated a shift towards widespread home ownership, a norm that persists today.
Policy Moment: High Density Suburban Zoning
Ideology: Post-War Modernist Planned Communities
In Toronto, an unusually large number of high-rise apartments poke above the flat landscape many miles from downtown.… [T]his is a type of high density suburban development far more progressive and able to deal with the future than the endless sprawl of the U.S.…
Buckminster Fuller, 1968
Between 1950 and 1980, the population of Toronto tripled from 1 million to 3 million people. To house all those newcomers, over 1200 concrete towers were constructed across the GTA.
Inspired by post-war utopian planning ideas from across the Atlantic, Toronto’s policymakers imported European high-density ‘planned communities’ and adapted them to the automobile-centric culture of North America. The result was dozens of far-flung tower communities connected by freeways to the rest of the GTA.
Though initially designed for young professionals favouring a modern lifestyle, the typical resident of the tower communities has morphed over the decades from hip urban swingers to families of new immigrants. Today these concrete towers, while sometimes isolated and deteriorating, comprise 25% of Toronto’s housing stock and form the backbone of the region’s affordable rental market.
Policy Moment: Revitalization of Regent Park
Ideology: Mixed Use Neighbourhoods
In 1947, Canada’s first urban renewal effort began in a project that would clear 69 acres of slum to build a 1056-unit, low-rent housing development called Regent Park.
The project was poorly integrated into the broader city, and contained exclusively social housing for very low income people. As early as the 1960s, disrepair and social ills began to plague the community. By the 1990s, Regent Park had become notorious.
In 2003, a new kind partnership was struck between Toronto’s social housing provider and private developer Daniels Corporation. Through this public-private partnership, Regent Park would be re-developed once again, this time as a mixed-income community.
By 2018, 2 of 5 construction phases were complete. While many Regent Park residents have returned to live in a community with improved public amenities, upgraded rental units, and wealthier neighbours, others chose to move on with fading memories of a planned community dreamed up more than a half-century prior.
Housing is a human right. Yet today, one in five renters spends half of their income on housing, and a million and a half households can’t access a decent home they can afford. More than 235,000 Canadians will experience homelessness this year.
In November 2017, the Canadian Government released a much-awaited National Housing Strategy (NHS) to address these issues. The policy recommendations contained within the NHS, as well as the $30 billion allocated to their implementation, promise to significantly impact the way we house ourselves.
This is not the first grandiose policy effort to improve housing in Canada. In Toronto – one of North America’s most expensive cities – the landscape is littered with artifacts from past housing policies.
These strange artifacts emerge from a central mismatch: housing policies, the physical form of housing, and communities that occupy them, all operate at fundamentally different time scales. White papers of the 1960s are cast into concrete, leaving behind a legacy that will outlive their initial context. What legacies will the policies of today’s NHS leave behind?
By turning the microphone and lens to the stories of Toronto residents living with the relics of past policies, Between Paper and Concrete examines this paradoxical mismatch and sheds light on why it is so difficult to imagine and implement lasting solutions to our housing problems. As we look to implementing the new National Housing Strategy, we must bear in mind lessons from our past.
When we were initially approached to work on Between Paper & Concrete we were thrilled to use this as an opportunity to learn more about Toronto’s rich housing history. From community housing to home ownership, we were eager to better understand how people’s personal ambitions both complemented and challenged Canadian housing policies.
At the same time we also understood that we had a daunting task in front of us: how do we create a common thread between the 200+ year old Toronto Purchase with the many ways we as Canadians relate to housing today? How do we ensure that our subjects aren’t portrayed as their stereotypes but as real-life people with their own unique intentions and dreams?
This project is the culmination of hours of personal audio interviews and rapportage photography that aims to break these stereotypes while exploring five intimate relationships to different housing strategies.
Taha Muharuma is a photographer, teacher and creative influencer who tells visual stories of the world around him. Through his photo-style “#streetsoul” Taha has been able to connect with brands such as Samsung, BMW and the NBA as well as meeting like-minded individuals that understand the importance of community and art. But it’s through teaching photography and mentoring Toronto’s youth at JAYU’s – iAM Program and The Remix Project that keeps him happiest.
Gilad Cohen is a human rights activist, artist, and also the founder and Executive Director of JAYU, a charity that shares human rights stories through the arts. JAYU’s year-round programming includes the annual Human Rights Film Festival, iAM: an initiative that provides high quality social justice arts mentorship to Toronto’s underserved youth, and The Hum, a human rights podcast which Gilad co-hosts.
Dana Granofsky – Policy Advisor
The Tower Renewal Partnership – Policy Advisor
Joshua Barndt – Policy Advisor