Blog Feature

The secrets to a lasting mixed-income neighborhood

Like many global cities, Toronto has become increasingly segregated into wealthy enclaves and boroughs of poverty. But one area that bucked the trend offers lessons for the future.

By Philip Preville

St Lawrence Cooperative Housing

Cooperative housing is a hallmark of the St. Lawrence neighborhood (above, a view of the Woodsworth Co-op). Although less common in Toronto today, this approach demonstrates how giving renters an ownership stake can lead to a stronger mixed-income community.
(Booledozer / Flickr)

For two decades, Toronto’s condo boom has been the envy of the world. It has felt like a kind of global confirmation of the city’s identity and its ambitions: diverse, dynamic, cosmopolitan, egalitarian. Yet even as Toronto has led the world in construction cranes, those same values have been quietly under siege.

Ten years ago, just as the boom was reaching its peak, a groundbreaking academic research project at the University of Toronto told a striking counter-narrative: the city’s neighborhoods were transforming from middle-income communities into enclaves of the very rich or boroughs of poverty. Back in 1970, 66 percent of the city’s neighborhoods were considered middle-income, while 15 percent were high-income and only 19 percent were low-income. By 2005, only 29 percent were middle-income, while more than half were low-income. Toronto had, over the course of 35 years and with few people noticing, self-segregated itself based on wealth.

That research — now known as the ubiquitous “Three Cities” report by U of T professor David Hulchanski — also told a different story about all those downtown construction cranes. In 1970 the city core (south of the Bloor Danforth subway line) was largely made up of poorer neighborhoods, but by 2005 they were quickly turning middle- and high-income. Meanwhile the city’s inner suburbs, once the heart of Toronto’s middle-class, had suffered steep income declines. “I’m an urban planner, and we are taught that planning should serve everyone,” says Hulchanski. “People need housing, but the condo boom has mostly benefited higher-income earners.”

In the years since the Three Cities findings were first published, income polarization has preoccupied researchers, urbanists, and mayors in cities around the world. Hulchanski has found similar trends in Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver. Outside Canada, big metros like San Francisco, London, and New York have suffered from severe income inequality. “This has become a global problem,” says Susan Wachter, a professor of real estate and finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “The issue of inequality has become one of the most pressing policy issues in America.”

The economic forces behind income polarization are bigger than any one city: a global shift away from factory jobs, stagnant wages for service workers, the revival of downtown living by a highly educated knowledge class. But the local impacts remain dire for equity, social cohesion, and perhaps most important, opportunity to rise up the social ladder. Research shows that kids under age 12 who move into mixed-income neighborhoods are more likely to attend college or university and less likely to be single parents than those who remain in poor neighborhoods. In other words, for the city’s most disadvantaged populations, finding a place in a mixed-income neighborhood can mean a new outlook on life.

So while Toronto is not alone, the problem still threatens both the city’s sense of self and its international reputation as a beacon of diversity and inclusion. Yet the solution to Toronto’s problem might just lie a stone’s throw from its own downtown: the St. Lawrence neighborhood. With average household incomes just below the city’s overall average, more renters than the city average (70 percent to 47 percent), and a diversity that includes a black population nearly double the city’s average (16 percent versus 9 percent), St. Lawrence is what Hulchanski himself calls “an exceptionally good social and income mix,” especially given its location in the midst of a rapidly gentrifying downtown.

In an urban landscape of extremes, St. Lawrence’s statistical averageness makes it unique — and a case study in how to revive the mixed-income neighborhood for cities everywhere.

A Variety of Incomes and Backgrounds

Frank Lewinberg, one of the founders of the Toronto-based consulting firm Urban Strategies Group, never misses a chance to wander through the St. Lawrence neighborhood. “Whenever I am near there, I make a point of walking, cycling or driving through,” says the 74-year-old. He even has a favorite building: the Archer Co-op, a red brick housing complex with seven stories of apartments facing the Esplanade and a row of attached townhomes facing the lesser-traveled, lanewayesque Jenoves Place. “When I take friends down there I make a point of showing them those homes at the rear,” he says. “They are a delightful surprise to people.”

Back in the 1970s, as a planner with the City of Toronto, Lewinberg led the master planning team for St. Lawrence’s redevelopment. The neighborhood, which was built through the 1980s and early 1990s, has a unique ambiance to it. It’s a high-density area with taller buildings than most other residential Toronto neighborhoods, but without the condo high-rises that characterize the current building boom. Many of the buildings are teardowns of historic properties that had become decrepit, but their facades are made of brick and feature arched doorways, just like the original properties they replaced.

Lewinberg and his team had a different idea for this neighborhood. They didn’t want St. Lawrence to be made up entirely of public housing, nor did they want the public housing to be entirely owned by a single municipal agency. They set out a plan that called for a mix of market and non-market housing that would appeal to residents from a variety of income levels and backgrounds.

Lewinberg recalls that, at the time the plan was announced, it wasn’t well-received. “Public planning of housing developments wasn’t popular back then due to the perceived failures of the past,” he says. Regent Park, just a short stroll to the north, was considered then an abject mess. So was nearby St. James Town at Bloor and Sherbourne streets. People wondered if private developers would even consider building next door to subsidized housing.

Designed for Residents, by Residents

More than a quarter-century after the neighborhood was built, its success is undeniable. One of the reasons was its commitment to maintaining the street grid. In contrast to many public housing projects of the past, whose buildings faced inwards to their courtyards and cloistered parks and turned their backs to the street, planners made sure St. Lawrence’s buildings related to the street. The neighborhood’s park, named for Mayor David Crombie, is a narrow stretch of green space that runs for six city blocks along St. Lawrence’s main artery, the Esplanade.

Hulchanski also says a main reason St. Lawrence succeeded where others failed is that it avoided the pitfall of a single, large housing agency serving as the distant, sole landlord for all the non-market housing. Whole neighborhoods of affordable housing with a single landlord can fall into trouble if that landlord ever experiences hardship. That was the old model in Regent Park, and it had resulted in weak social ties for all stakeholders: every resident was a renter, and the landlord’s commitment to the neighborhood was diluted by its many other developments scattered throughout the city. A multitude of agencies and partners with a variety of funding models helps spread the risk of that ever happening.

In St. Lawrence, different public agencies built housing for low-income earners and seniors. And non-profit housing cooperatives, financially backed by federal grants, flocked to the area to build developments of their own, offering low-end-of-market and rent-geared-to-income units in the same buildings as market-rental units. Cooperative buildings offer a hybrid form of tenure: residents are renters, but they are also voting members of the co-op, which owns the building. It’s an arrangement that gives residents an ownership stake in their building, their street, and their neighborhood without the burden of a mortgage. Many co-ops also have a specific social mission, such as the Cathedral Court Co-op on Henry Lane Terrace, whose tenants include a group home for children with developmental disabilities.

All told, more than 1,000 of the 4,000-plus units in St. Lawrence were built as co-ops. “They hired their own architects and drew up their own plans,” recalls Lewinberg. “They decided how they wanted things done, they made their own decisions. It’s a terrific way to build a neighborhood.”

The St. Lawrence plan also called for family-oriented housing located at street level, which ensured that the neighborhood would not cater exclusively to wealthy singles. This requirement gave rise to the Archer Co-op’s rear-side townhomes that Lewinberg so admires. It’s a reminder of the old planning axiom that children should have easy access to the street and to public playgrounds. In St. Lawrence, children remain a highly visible part of street life. They slow traffic, bring protective eyes to the street, and diversify local commercial uses. St. Lawrence’s success argues for making larger, family-friendly units a priority — an ongoing challenge for recent condo developments — and even for keeping some residential development at grade.

Still, you can’t be a truly mixed-income neighborhood without market housing for higher-income earners. St. Lawrence achieved the mix by becoming an innovator: it was one of the earliest areas of Toronto to successfully integrate the construction of condominium apartments. The St. Lawrence on the Park development symbolizes that success: the 250-unit, 10-story development, completed in 1988, looks out onto Crombie park, with both cooperative housing and municipal public housing as its neighbors. One of its units, a two-bedroom, 872-square-foot penthouse with a fireplace — a feature impossible to find in more recent condo builds — sold last year for $570,000, more than $120,000 over the original asking price. That price is relatively affordable for the city yet still represents a healthy rise in value for its owner, who purchased the unit in 1997 for $139,000.

“St. Lawrence incorporates a truly broad variety of ownership and tenure,” says Hulchanski. “And diversity of tenure attracts a diversity of residents.” That was precisely the point. The objective behind St. Lawrence’s diverse tenure models — freehold, condominium, and cooperative ownership; market and non-market rental units; housing for seniors and other groups, some provided by government, others by non-profit agencies; housing up high and at grade; easy access to parks and playgrounds — was to ensure social and cultural diversity. “There was a commitment to creating a social mix in St. Lawrence,” he says. “If you have social mix, you’ll have income mix as well.”

Giving Renters an Ownership Stake

If Toronto were to plan and build a successful mixed-income community today, it’s unlikely it would have the same built form as St. Lawrence. Time has altered some of the basic rules of the development game for everyone, most notably with regards to density. St. Lawrence’s midrise developments can’t compare with the “new normal” density that comes with 30-story residential towers.

Lewinberg reckons that a newly built St. Lawrence-style neighborhood might have to forego all the street-level access for its family-oriented housing units. “Once you accept the density parameters of high-rise, you do need to keep the ground level for commercial and institutional uses,” he says. “In a community of that density, it’s hard to see how you could fill that space up with front doors for housing.” That said, midrise and highrise buildings aren’t incompatible in a single neighborhood, and kids still need easy access to parks and other street-level amenities. Meeting all these needs in a higher-density environment will be part of the planning challenge for future mixed-income neighborhoods.

More important than built form is the mix of market and non-market housing from a variety of developers. That commitment is harder to make today than it used to be, in part because the federal government ceased providing new funding for cooperative housing developments back in the 1990s. From 2004 to 2014, the Toronto region added more than 370,000 new housing units to its stock, of which only 34 were co-op housing.

If St. Lawrence offers any guidance, it’s that giving renters an ownership stake in their neighborhood pays long-term dividends. Co-ops aren’t the only way to achieve this goal. Larger affordable-housing developers could innovate with building-level advisory boards or management committees with robust budgets and real clout. What matters most, in a city beset by income polarization in its neighborhoods, is that new affordable housing units get built.

“You can’t get mixed-income neighborhoods any other way,” says Lewinberg. And while he is well aware of the income-polarization challenges Toronto faces, Lewinberg remains optimistic. St. Lawrence, as he points out, got built despite having the odds stacked against it. “I think Toronto can do it again.”