By: Julia Bevacqua

They had the secret sauce. The silver bullet to solve the affordability crisis. It was the golden age of housing. Remarkable. An undeniable success.

These are some of the sentiments often associated with the 1970s urban renewal project in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood of Toronto. Unlike other social housing and urban renewal projects of the time, the St. Lawrence neighbourhood does stand out. 

It was designed with the community, for the community. It was affordable for many a range of household incomes. It was welcoming to families. It has plentiful open space and parks and is in close proximity to everyday services and amenities.

All of this is true, but past success does not always equate modern day lessons. While we should commend the planners and community involved for breaking a streak of poorly planned social housing projects in Toronto, we should also question whether these best practices apply today. Leaning on the success of the St. Lawrence neighbourhood alone won’t get us through today’s affordability crisis. 

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About the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood Project

The St. Lawrence neighbourhood urban renewal began in the mid-1970s. Its vision was to create a new, municipally planned and developed, mixed-income, high-density, and socially diverse neighbourhood. It resulted in 3,500 housing units over 44 acres of industrial and underused land, which included townhomes and 10- to 12-storey buildings. Approximately a quarter of all the housing units created were co-operatives.

Its success is often attributed to the diverse agencies and partners involved and its focus on offering a mix of market-based and affordable housing that appealed to residents from many backgrounds and income levels. The multitude of unit sizes catered to diverse residents too, especially families.

Why This Success is Hard to Replicate Today

There’s no denying that the St. Lawrence neighbourhood did a lot of good for the community. There are multiple testimonials from original and current residents on how successful of a community it has been, but the financial, political, and spatial context that created the St. Lawrence neighbourhood is very different from what faces Toronto today.

In the early 1970s, the population in Toronto was declining due to low housing starts and low vacancy rates, which prevented low- to moderate-income families from finding suitable housing in the city. Population decline is certainly not the case in Toronto today, but at the time, these factors prompted newly elected mayor, David Crombie, to come up with innovative ways that would invite low- to moderate-income families back into the city.

Housing policy at the provincial and federal levels also set the stage for the St. Lawrence neighbourhood. By the sixties and seventies, the government had begun to realize the feasibility challenges with fully building and maintaining public housing projects, as shown by public housing failures in North America like Regent Park and Pruitt-Igoe.

In Canada, this realization led to more government involvement and funding, including amendments to the National Housing Act in 1973 that encouraged co-operative housing and non-profit housing through partnership agreements and favorable mortgage terms. Because of this, the co-operative model flourished. Policies like this are why there are so many co-operatives in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood. These models gave tenants voices and decision-making power, promoted diversity, and provided stability and community. They were a key success factor for the neighbourhood.

But over time, federal and provincial funding for social housing projects declined, with federal responsibilities being downloaded to the province, and eventually to municipalities without sufficient financial support. By the 1990s, little support was being provided for co-operative housing like the ones in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood. To this day, housing policy at the federal, provincial, and municipal level caters more to home ownership than it does non-profit and co-operative housing.

Some positive news did come in 2017, however, when the federal government launched Canada’s National Housing Strategy which includes grants and loans to finance the construction of new co-operatives. This is a promising sign, yet other challenges still exist that make creating another St. Lawrence neighbourhood so hard.

Back in the 1970s, acquiring the necessary land for the 44-acre project was a smoother process. Private owners were happy to get market value for underutilised industrial land. Land for the St. Lawrence community was also supported by the federal Land Banking Program which provided funding for municipalities to assemble and purchase parcels of land.

Fast forward to today and even small parcels of land in Toronto can cost a fortune. There are less policies and tools for acquiring land, and even less developable land left to buy. The St. Lawrence neighbourhood was built on 44 acres of underutilised land, or about an area the size of 30 football fields. Nothing like that exists today, with perhaps the exception of Villiers Island in the Port Lands project.

The Port Lands are further from downtown and will contain mostly parks and natural space that protect Toronto from future flooding, but Villiers Island is a 54-acre area within that that will eventually be developed to include some affordable and rental housing. If the right partners and funding can come together, then maybe this is one opportunity for a St. Lawrence-like success. Otherwise, large developable areas close to downtown like St. Lawrence are few and far between. 

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How Do We Move Forward?

The glorification of the St. Lawrence neighbourhood is understandable. It was a uniquely executed project that engaged diverse partners, empowered residents, and provided much needed housing, including affordable housing.

However, it can’t be reminisced on and leaned on forever.

The neighbourhood has its modern challenges too. The buildings are now nearly 50 years old and may eventually need significant -- and costly --repairs. The community may also not be as diverse as it once was, with a higher average household income and a lower proportion of immigrants, family households, and visible minorities than the rest of the Toronto, according to Stats Canada.

This doesn’t necessarily mean we should forget or dismiss the success of the St. Lawrence neighbourhood. We should still make an effort to engage and empower citizens, explore innovative housing models like co-operatives, and build diverse homes for diverse groups but we need to do it through our own modern lens. That means thinking of creative solutions that fit the political, economic, social, and environmental context of today, and not just dwelling on the past.

Urbanity Fair