Tall order

Poverty in Toronto’s residential tower blocks has become so concentrated that campaigners are pushing for action before they reach the point of no return. Clare Goff reports

High-rise apartments have long been associated with poverty. But in the Canadian city of Toronto, concentrations of ‘vertical poverty’ have risen in the last 25 years in line with declining incomes and rising housing costs.

In a new study, local charity United Way Toronto considers the impact of greater concentrations of poverty on housing stock and communities and highlights the success of a partnership approach to turning around blighted areas. Can Britain learn lessons from how Canada’s largest city is dealing with a growing affordability gap?

Despite overall material increases in the last 30 years the gap between rich and poor has grown. Poverty has become concentrated, a fact that can be mapped physically in many cities across the UK and around the world.

United Way Toronto has been active since the 1950s and has undertaken a number of research projects examining the nature and extent of poverty in the city. Its most recent report, Vertical Poverty, looks at the changing geography of poverty in the city since the 1980s.

Thirty years ago just 18% of the city’s low-income families lived in neighbourhoods where more than one-quarter of the families was low-income. In 2006 this had climbed to 46%. High-rise apartment blocks have increasingly become sites of concentrated poverty, particularly in inner city areas. By 2006 nearly 40% of all families in high-rise buildings in the city were ‘poor’, compared to 25% in 1981. In one suburb the level of poverty rose to half, compared to 31% in 1981.

The reasons behind the growing concentration of poverty in Toronto mirror that of the UK: new homes are increasingly targeted at better-off families; social housing newbuilds have declined and gentrification has reduced the stock of good rented homes at the lower end of the income range. As the costs of owning a home have risen, privately-owned high-rises have become a major source of relatively affordable housing for low and middle income families. Families gravitate to high rises because they are increasingly all that they can afford in the city.

Added to the housing market forces are the broader forces of income inequality. Since the 1980s there has been a significant decline in the incomes of families in real terms over the past 25 years, and an increase in the number of families living in poverty. In Toronto the median income of all households fell by $3,580 between 1981-2006; the decline among renter households was almost double this amount, at $6,396. In the inner suburbs renters suffered even bigger losses in their annual incomes over this period. As a result there were nearly twice as many low-income families in the city in 2006 as there were in 1981.

While income has declined, rental costs have increased in private sector high-rises, resulting in a ‘squeeze’ on incomes and rents. Close to half of the tenants interviewed in the study say they worry about paying the rent each month while a quarter say they do without things they need every month in order to pay the rent.

So why does a greater concentration of poverty matter? As president and chief executive of United Way Toronto, Susan McIssac explains in her introduction to the report’s findings, once a neighbourhood reaches a certain level of poverty concentration it is all but impossible to turn around, leading to a ‘downward cycle of neighbourhood deterioration’.

‘We are seeing evidence of this in many of our neighbourhoods today: business flight and disinvestment, deteriorating housing conditions, and crime and social disorder. Safe and affordable neighbourhoods not only attract and retain business investment but also the qualified workforce that allows our city to compete successfully in a global economy.’

While the experience for many residents living in high-rises in Toronto is a good one, with strong connections to neighbours and positive relationships with landlords, there are many problems associated with high-rise living, from increased levels of crime to poorly maintained buildings and low levels of cohesion. Nearly half of the city’s high-rises no longer have common rooms or recreational spaces for tenant use and tenant associations are non-existent in privately-run blocks.

The report offers recommendations for what government can do to tackle the broader housing affordability issues: it calls for a national housing strategy and for local government to establish an Ontario Housing Benefit.

But the city’s greatest success story in turning around social issues related to concentrations of poverty has come from a partnership-led, place-based approach to the issue.

San Romanoway was once dubbed Canada’s worst community but is now leading the way in community revitalisation. Built in the 1970s, a large influx of low-income households in the 70s and 80s overwhelmed social services; the green spaces surrounding the estate soon became empty zones where crime moved in. By the end of the 80s it was an under-resourced, poor community with crime levels 122% above the national average.

In 2000 property owners and managers got together with the head of a security company to put together a research team aimed at finding solutions to the crime and social disorder. The team hired a community organiser who engaged residents in interviews and focus group research. A lack of social cohesion was identified as a key problem, a tool to measure and monitor quality of life was created and goals for improving the situation set.

The San Romanoway Revitalisation Association was established as a forum for residents to work with property owners, security company representatives, the police and others. Its motto is ‘Making it happen together’, and since its inception this partnership approach has turned the estate around. Violent crime has halved and social cohesion has been boosted by the collective efforts of local businesses, charities, residents and landlords.

Breakfast and after-school programmes are now available for schoolchildren living in the towers, led by a local teacher. Well-used basketball courts and youth programmes have sprung up on areas that were previously sites of drug dealing, and summer camps and a recording studio set up for young people.

A community garden is managed by older people in the community with help from local children, and positive parenting and domestic violence programmes are offered on-site. Summer barbecues put on by residents and a playground and computers have been donated by local businesses. Cineplex Odeon has opened a cinema in the place of an old swimming pool which had fallen into disrepair.

United Way Toronto is now calling for similar partnerships to be set up across the city to tackle some of the issues related to concentrations of poverty. It wants citizens to have access to a fund to allow them to be at the heart of the revitalisation of their communities, and for landlords to be incentivised to make accessible common spaces for residents.

The experience of San Romanoway shows that even the most entrenched levels of social disorder can be turned around through a collective approach at the local level. Concentrations of poverty are not likely to go away soon but the building of links between private, public and voluntary sectors within a neighbourhood can transform its social capital and renew its resilience.


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