It is impossible to succinctly summarize the reasons we have not successfully addressed the housing problems in the DTES over the past decades. However, here are a few ideas for consideration.
1. The city has not enforced its maintenance and occupancy by-laws, thus allowing the deterioration of much of the housing stock. The reasons are two-fold…there was a fear that some landlords would simply close up, further reducing the stock; and the one time the city did go in and repair, it was accused of ‘gold-plating’ the repairs and sued. The result, the province decided to go in and buy up some properties, often at a high price. This is not the long term answer.
2. The shelter component of welfare is too low. It remained at $325 a month for more than 10 years, before increasing to $375. But this is not enough to pay for a well maintained unit, even an SRO unit. Some local housing activists did not demand higher shelter allowance rates since “it would be putting money in the landlords’ pockets”. To my mind, this is precisely why they should be increased, and then the M&O by-laws can be more effectively used if properties are not maintained.
3. The replacement housing is too expensive. Housing officials and politicians don’t like to talk about it, but the replacement units (the Pennsylvania Hotel) is a good example are too expensive and not value for money. The Pennsylvania Hotel cost in the order of $300,000 for a 325 sq.ft. self contained suite…you do the math.
Similarly the new ‘12 projects’ are costing far too much on a per suite basis. There should be an enquiry into why these units are costing so much. The answer? build more cost effective projects and also buy or rent existing stock away from the DTES.4. Another thing people don’t like to talk about….the homeless keep coming here. The more people we house, the more that come. Yes many on the streets have been around for quite a while, but I have met quite a few who have arrived in the past two years….why? because the climate is better, and there’s a chance they’ll get free housing, along with easier access to cheaper drugs.
5. So what’s the answer? We need to do some lateral thinking…not just increase the number of shelter beds and units…we also need to address the roots of the problem…some of the homeless could work, if they were offered more opportunities and guidance. Let’s help them get jobs. If they need a shave and haircut, let’s have free barbershops open up. If they need clean clothes, just tell us where to bring them.
We also need to open up more facilities for the mentally ill. I often joke that I blame Jack Nicholson for many of our problems. Why Jack Nicholson? Because he made such a mockery of mental institutions, governments closed them down without adequate replacement facilities.
We also need to help some people re-unite with families and friends…I know many don’t have families, or want to escape them. But not all.
6. We need to better coordinate our efforts. I agree with Ric Matthews…we need a coordinating body to manage our efforts. I call it the DTES Community Trust. What we are doing now is not working. Too much money is being spent with inadequate coordination.
7. And finally, we need to stop fighting. The more some housing activists try to embarrass the governments, the more some government officials and politicians will say, let’s go where our efforts will be appreciated. I don’t think the rent tent campaign, or Wendy’s public protests will help. How can I prove this?..I can’t, other than to share my perspective as a former federal official who built a lot of housing in the DTES.
I would conclude by noting all the noisy, clever and creative protests haven’t really helped over the past 7 years when there was a real potential to address the problem in advance of the Olympics.
Now that the Olympics will soon be over, I think it is time to rethink how best to proceed.
A design charrette?
One way to start might be a community design charrette. While I know that there are different opinions on the value of charrettes, I think there would be merit in a weekend 'design charrette' for the DTES that brought together community representatives, architects, planners and civic minded people and city hall officials and politicians.
We would start with large plans of the area, with an indication of which buildings are 'heritage', and which are not heritage but likely to remain for the next 10 years or more; vacant sites, commercial areas, community amenities...we would identify all the social housing projects, SRO's etc...with an the numbers...as well as the market housing projects....rental, ownership,etc;
The goal would be to undertake a first cut as to where additional housing might be located, and at what heights....where additional park and amenity space would be located, as well as commercial and employment areas. This might help us understand options in terms of mix of market and non-market housing, etc.
This is not necessarily going to result in a refined plan, but what it might do is give us all a better idea of what the area might look like in 10to 20 years, given the recently approved height limits, market demand, etc.
We could test out a variety of approaches...lower forms of development; taller buildings, as recently approved...a more mid-rise model which is what I prefer.
I believe a lot of people who care about the DTES and nearby areas would participate in such an event...we'd need some funding, but not much...hey, many of us would happily contribute to the cost of food, drink, venue rental and materials.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?