Design Ingenuity: My wknd stay in Canadian public housing

Design Ingenuity is a series highlighting teachable examples of urban design. The first Design Ingenuity post highlighted US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, the second highlighted OKC’s citywide park redevelopment plan. The goal of Design Ingenuity is to understand the difference that good design makes in the lives of city residents.

1-year ago, after learning about development processes and policy mechanisms behind American public housing at an accelerated rate, I had a hair-brained whim to go explore the Canadian equivalent.

daniels-spectrumI particularly wanted to see Regent Park – Toronto’s “most notorious” public housing estate (for all the wrong reasons, if you could imagine such a thing in Canada) – which underwent an ambitious revitalization project in 2005. Regent Park’s Daniels Spectrum community centre (an art gallery I believe?) recently won the UK’s prestigious Civic Trust Award, along with a bevy of other awards. This is not your grandfather’s public housing, or even Drake’s – see MTV article likening a co-appearance with the Toronto-native rapper to “a passport out of Regent Park.” The NY Times has hailed Regent Park, once a “neighborhood in despair,” as an international “model for inclusion.”

In case it seems odd (or insensitive) to “vacation” in another nation’s public housing…

  • I am very interested in the culture of public housing, which is quite rich.
  • I am very interested in the design opportunities surrounding public housing, which are limitless.
  • I am very interested in the social and equity implications of redesigning public housing, which are a double-edged sword.

Regent Park was an amazing thing to check out for all those reasons and more. It turns out that, thanks to the mixed-income composition of the replacement housing, you can find AirBnB units within Regent Park itself. It might even be the best AirBnB location in Toronto, for someone on a budget who wants a sleek rental near downtown TO.


I stayed in the extremely cool Paintbox building, which is a 26-story, 282-unit mixed-income housing tower designed to evoke its namesake. In the elevators you truly rub shoulders with people from all walks of life, and from the balcony, look down on the entirety of Toronto’s vast cityscape. You also look down on Regent Park’s namesake park itself, also redesigned as an excellent space. The view was highly instructive:

The park itself integrates all the amenities you would expect on-site for 1,800 public housing units, including an aquatic center (toward the right), greenspace programmed with active- and passive-recreation spaces, the Daniels Spectrum, and a church that was preserved. The most interesting thing in these photos are the older units, what remains of Regent Park (the next phase to be replaced), across the park.

The redevelopment is replacing roughly the same number of units – 2,083 units existed in 2005, and 1,800 will be rebuilt along with another 266 off-site (“nearby”) – while 5,400 market-rate units will be introduced on-site. Those market-rate units sell for around $400,000-$500,000 for a 2br, and around $200,000 for a studio. I have been told that they are completely indistinguishable from the public housing units, although I am not sure whether the unit I stayed in was public or market; I can attest that there are no separate entrances or “poor doors.”

All in all, Toronto Community Housing’s redevelopment will take 15-20 years to accomplish the following:

Y:2009 Projects916 Regent Park MP Phases 3-6Drawings00 Sit

  • Replaced RGI Rental Units: 2,083 (over 1800 in Regent Park and 266 in new buildings nearby)
  • New Affordable Rental Units: Over 210 in Regent Park and 100 in new buildings nearby by the end of Phase 2. Additional affordable rental units in future phases will be subject to funding availability.
  • Market Units: 5,400
  • Project Start Date: 2005
  • Anticipated Project Length: 15-20 years
  • Total Size: 69 acres
  • Amenities: New amenities include the Daniels Spectrum, the Regent Park Aquatic Centre, the new Regent Park, and the Regent Park Athletic Grounds
  • Retail Space: Freshco by Sobeys, Rogers, Tim Hortons, RBC and Main Drug Mart have moved into newly created retail space
  • Employment: 1,100

All of which looks good on paper, but looks even better in person – as it such amidst Toronto’s beautiful cityscape, replete with open modern design, green rooftops, and “red rockets” (Toronto streetcars).

Perhaps it is not only possible for public housing to raise people up, but to more importantly immerse people in an immersive community that naturally provides better social supports than a community action program ever could.


Statewide Urban Agenda


Mayor Coleman calling for a statewide urban agenda at Greater Ohio’s 2015 Policy Summit

There has been a lot of discussion, almost entirely figurative, about a statewide urban agenda. This would be the reason for Greater Ohio Policy Center‘s existence, though they have chosen to not flex this muscle. At the 2015 GOPC Policy Summit in Columbus, both Senator Sherrod Brown and Columbus ex-mayor Michael B. Coleman, suggested the urgency of creating such an agenda at the grassroots level. It is imperative for the grassroots to rally around an agenda before embedded institutions can safely push the envelope on needed change.

Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper also recently tweeted about the need for a statewide urban agenda. Fellow bloggers, such as Angie Schmitt’s post on Rustwire, have echoed and contributed to these calls. So let’s strike while the fire is hot.
welcome-to-weinland-park-signThe change we need is all around us, plainly visible to anyone. We have a system that is collapsing in a state that is treading water, with a wealth of case studies in our own backyard. For instance, Weinland Park in Columbus is one of the nation’s best case studies in holistic urban revitalization. The transformation in Weinland Park was made possible by local and state policy tools that have become exhausted – inhibiting our ability to further this successful model. We also have a streetcar case study in Cincinnati and the nation’s best BRT case study in Cleveland. Ohio is indeed in the most unique position, where visible problems and visible solutions coexist side-by-side. We just can’t connect the dots because our hands are tied.


Anyone who functions on a daily basis in Ohio’s cities must be keenly aware that we’re getting our lunch money stolen by rural areas and exurbs. In a state that is overwhelmingly urban, somehow the deck just seems stacked in favor of rural interests. ODOT is the primary vehicle of this redistribution of wealth. What ODOT actually does is set funding priorities for federal transportation dollars that we are apportioned – these are Ohio dollars paid in federal taxes, that come back to Ohio. The current transportation bill (we are now in the era of the FAST Act) sets the parameters in which state DOTs are supposed to allocate funding to projects, but only in theory; in practice, FDOT has a long-standing practice of allowing state DOTs to do anything that they want. This is even one area in which Kasich has offered an opening for common ground.

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 11.09.42 AM.png

The above graph is from a Nelson Nygaard study on ODOT Dedicated Transit Funding Needs. By the way, a classic means of deflecting accountability is to hire the best consultants that money can buy, let them do their work, and then polish off a spot on the shelf for the plan to sit in perpetuity.

You might ask yourself, based on the above graph, if something happened between 2001 and 2004 that made Ohio precipitously less urban? The answer is no. Still urban!

The problem with this has been diverging venn diagrams. Whether we admit it or not, an “urban” agenda as opposed to the suburban/rural alliance that currently prevails, is likely going to be one party. Complicating matters, the democratic party in Ohio (and in most states) is slightly above moribund on a good day, and down-right moribund on most days. Something is happening at the grassroots level that is causing the extinction of state-level Democrats, even in solidly blue states.

An urban agenda must find a way to pull a few Republican and suburban leaders, without whose support, urban interests will remain sidelined. The argument must be made that suburban interests are urban interests, and not rural interests. Wherever possible, alliances must be made with rural interests as well – in the name of preservation (of farm land, of green space, of historic assets).

The agenda must be positively branded and diagrammed. There is virtually zero chance to get a politician, the likes of whom often scare easily (I would too if people were barking at me all the time!), to reverse course on a really technical, wonky policy. The problem with this is that I am a policy wonk and a planning practitioner, so I naturally go to technical details that people around me usually expect. Rather than do that, the urban agenda should stick to banner statements, with specific bullets reserved for metrics of accountability.

An Ohio Urban Agenda should cover three broad policy areas: Housing, Mobility, and Jobs. The selection of this wording is deliberate. Rather than narrow issues of urban housing, “Housing” is a policy area with which legislators are already familiar and likely involved. “Transportation” is often reworded in policy circles to “Highways,” which is intentionally anathema to urban planners – Rather than accept “Highways” or reverting back to middle ground, urbanists should use “Mobility” to specify their intended transportation goals. Lastly, “Jobs” speaks to everyone, particularly moderates apparently.


Four specific action items that accomplish three broad banner goals.

250px-gcrtaredlinetrainMobility: We have to get back to actual state funding for urban public transit. Yes, our roads are a disaster – no, building more of them doesn’t fix the roads we have – “Fix it First” is how we all win, regardless of our personal transportation needs. Bringing the 3C Rail project back will get Ohio back on the path to linking its cities to the future, and having a dedicated program for matching funds for FTA/Tiger/Small Starts and any other federal grants actually brings a lot more funding back to Ohio. These solutions all increase the pot for mobility programs, enhance Ohio’s array of mobility options, and fosters parameters for multimodal connectivity both in policy and in practice.

10142565-largeJobs: We can do more here, not because we have to, but because Ohio has a tremendous opportunity to leverage its existing assets. Anchor districts specifically have been huge in Ohio, leading the economic transition from industry to innovation. In addition to the state staying out of the way of this, the state can help by requiring that “job ready” sites be within our existing infrastructure footprints. Preservation of brownfield funds is paramount (which Ohio has now exhausted!), as these dollars have been vital toward revitalizing urban, contaminated sites. These sites are strategic despite their contamination because these historic industrial sites are already embedded within communities originally built for their workers. Similarly, we MUST clean up the Lake and the River – which can also lend increased tourism potential, a space where Ohio lags behind neighbors (Pure Michigan). Lastly, the historic tax credit is both a Jobs and Housing issue.

barrett_croppedHousing: In addition to the federal low-income housing tax credit, the state has a housing trust fund that can be and must be expanded. The OHTF leverages fee revenue, invests it, and puts returns toward housing projects that help families in need and transform communities. Similarly, we must get better at homeless services. If you don’t like being “bothered” by the homeless, then let’s house them! In addition to housing the homeless, a similar group in need of housing is young professionals. The historic tax credit has been our most effective tool for retaining young professionals and housing them, and anyone else interested in urban living, within our cities. There simply aren’t any consumers lined up for Cleveland’s excess Cape Cod-style homes – there are however consumers demanding more urban apartments. Growth boundaries are the obvious tool for retention of stable suburban housing, and stopping the cycle of perpetual sprawl and decline (embrace this, stop calling it radical). Toward this last goal, a minor policy wreaking havoc on our cities is the state law requiring school districts to offer excess property to charter schools. School districts such as CMSD prefer demolishing these properties before offering them to charter schools, which not only inhibits school choice, but costs us dozens and dozens of structures perfectly positioned for adaptive reuse into affordable and/or market-rate housing. This law has come with a tremendous opportunity cost as our urban neighborhoods have hemorrhaged many of their best opportunities.

Certainly, in the end, reviving the 3C Rail and enacting growth boundaries will likely never happen. That said, close your eyes and imagine that it could – these two proposals, more than anything, ensure a prosperous future for Ohio’s cities. More importantly, in the housing realm, this is a future of stability – a growth boundary is one of the few policy tools (particularly within the low-cost, high-supply context of Ohio’s housing market) that actually resets the market to resolve its own problems. This is a virtuous solution, and given its potential to fix so much dysfunction, I think is worth fighting for. It’s not radical at all.

Common ground can likely be found on streamlining preservation of school buildings (recognizing the need to repurpose into desirable housing), the “Fix it First” policy that ODOT is already pursuing, restoring brownfields funding, and establishing dedicated funding for matches to bring more federal dollars back to Ohio. At a minimum, we can make this happen.

Housers Must Lead on Lead

Flint happened. We all know about it.

Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Philly also happened. Nobody realizes it. For lack of political convenience, awareness of the rest of this lead paint iceberg remains sub-surface.

7% of Flint’s children are lead-poisoned. In Cleveland, the number is 14%. In Cleveland’s historic Glenville neighborhood, formerly the suburban “Gold Coast” of the Rockefellers, the number is 26.5%. If resources were made available for better testing, public health practitioners believe the number could be as high as 40%. Nearly half of children in Glenville could be lead-poisoned.

Similar hot-spots abound in most older cities.

lead_crime_325Lead-poisoning doesn’t just lower IQ. Studies show that moderate lead poisoning can lower IQ by 5 points. Worse yet, lead paint has been proven to make afflicted individuals more violent. That is the exact part of the brain that lead affects, and it turns out lower IQ isn’t the only way this manifests itself.

The trend is nearly indisputable. Yes, there are outside factors to control for, but…

  1. Lead paint contact soars. Violent crime soars.
  2. Neighborhoods are afflicted by lead paint. Neighborhoods are afflicted by violent crime.

The NYT is doing their best to raise awareness with a “smoking gun” article, which I put in air quotes because it is nobody’s fault.

It is hard to raise awareness for a problem that is nobody’s fault. However, more than awareness, we need to raise funds. Whether broad awareness comes or not is besides the point because this lead contamination crisis shouldn’t be about politics. In fact, the lack of broad awareness and political interest could actually be an opportunity to fly under the radar and cut through the political gridlock.

There are funds, just not for lead paint abatement. The lead contamination problem is a historic preservation problem. Outlawed in 1978, the U.S. has made incredible strides toward putting a lid on the lead paint problem. Outlawing leaded gasoline made a big difference.

However, the CDC funds to test for lead paint have been cut by 40%, in part because public officials are under the misimpression that we solved this problem.

In 2003 the Ohio Legislature created a lead paint abatement fund, as federal resources became rolled back. After the press gala they just forgot to actually fund it. Oops.

There is a bill in Congress to provide over $200 million to replace lead pipes across the nation. If only it weren’t for Utah Senator Mike Lee’s legislative hold, citing that Michigan has a budget surplus and doesn’t need help (despite that the bill in mention is for any community impacted by lead pipes).

lead-paint-removalThe federal government actually withdrew the City of Cleveland’s 2012 lead paint funding application because they didn’t like the city’s track record in fixing this problem. Not sure how that computes; I’m reminded of when Judge Judy once said “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” It seems like the Feds defunded the city’s efforts, then refused to fund additional efforts because they didn’t like the city’s effort. Alrighty then.

The NYT article that I praised earlier goes after the city for spending $30 million on the Browns Stadium. You can’t unequivocally praise or vilify anyone/anything. They are wrong here. My biggest pet peeve: Arguments that imply that rust belt cities shouldn’t do projects (like every other city) until they solve every basic problem (that exists in every other city). Yes, we have lead paint. However, what does that have to do with the NFL? Take the sports and other amenities away and then not only do Cleveland’s problems get bigger but Cleveland becomes less relevant and less familiar.

You gotta be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.


However, there is a program that could help: The Hardest Hit Fund. I need to become better-informed about this program, but the Treasury just added an additional $2 billion to what was a $7.6 billion program to address housing problems in the “hardest-hit” communities.

The money overwhelmingly goes toward demolishing these communities. That is the predominant federal thinking toward rust belt cities: take their money, tear them down, make their residents move elsewhere, and pipe their water to the south.

Ohio in particular just got a big fire hose of $100 million that can only be used for demolition a la “blight removal.” It does nothing to help historic communities. It is in fact a huge detriment to historic preservation, which is the solution to removing contaminants in historic homes. I don’t know why this isn’t obvious.

This means you can get funds to erase the abandoned home that nobody lives in, but not a dime for the lead-plastered home next door inside which children are growing up.

We have an obsession with tearing down vacant and abandoned properties. The common argument against the HHF is that you’re tearing down these community’s future opportunities. You never know what neighborhood will come back to life next. That said, the better argument is that you’re solving for a cosmetic problem when a much bigger actual problem exists next door.

This vacant and abandoned obsession is a new thing, since the 2008 housing crash. As the new kid on the policy block, it has gotten all of the attention. Lead paint is the old kid that can’t seem to ever graduate high school. Nobody wants to deal with it anymore.

In Cleveland, this effort (the “blight removal” one, not the lead paint one) is led by the Thriving Communities Institute at the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, of which the very capable CEO is Jim Rokakis. Rokakis is an impassioned crusader for Cleveland’s inner city communities and an expert on urban housing. I would encourage historic preservationists to extend the olive branch and work together with him on finding how these resources could be put to better use.

There has to be a better way. Revenue neutral, less homes torn down, more lead paint removed, better housing, and stronger families. What’s not to love?

Next week I will be in DC, meeting with Sherrod Brown, Jim Jordan, and Steve Stivers. The agenda is mostly about streamlining the historic tax credit. My agenda will be focused on these Hardest Hit Funds and killing two birds with one stone: Saving the diamonds in the rough amongst our housing stock, and getting lead paint out of homes where children are growing up.





Join me. Reach out to Congress, reach out to the Feds (Treasury, Federal Reserve, HUD, etc). Reach out to local leaders like Rokakis and especially your local land bank. Reach out to public health officials – they stand ready, willing to work together with housing and urban development practitioners. In fact, that’s the way forward – partnering with land banks, housing groups, and public health. The goal is a healthy housing program.

Don’t attack them. Don’t scapegoat. Sometimes these things happen where we’ve got a problem and it isn’t the fault of anybody in particular. That doesn’t mean we can’t work together when we aren’t working against “another side.”

There is hope. NYC is a model for lead paint abatement. They have effectively reduced lead paint contamination to 2% in what is obviously an older city. They didn’t do it by tearing homes and apartments down. They did it by abating nearly every dwelling unit, with strict inspection standards matched with abatement funds, and repurposing historic housing into healthy housing.


Hardest Hit Fund Should Help the Hardest Hit

As the world’s focus is locked on Flint, where the a catastrophic chain of cause and effect has poisoned the city’s youth. Governor Snyder’s directive to obtain water from a lower-quality source led to corrosive water leaching lead out of the city’s outdated lead pipes. Without any of those elements – the water source or the outdated lead pipes – this doesn’t happen.

However, many larger cities are facing a similar outcome with a much larger impact. Lead paint in housing has a similar effect on children. Just as Flint’s older lead pipes primarily affected African American neighborhoods, the preponderance of lead paint (banned since 1978) is also in older, inner city, African American neighborhoods. Lead paint consumption, just like lead-contaminated water consumption, can be disastrous for younger children whose bodies are still developing.

The City of Cleveland and Senator Sherrod Brown are asking for the federal government’s help on abating this issue through an existing program that has been wrongly applied in some instances. The Treasury created the $7.6 billion Hardest Hit Fund in 2010 to provide assistance, mostly through homeowner counseling, housing mortgage modifications, and housing demolition, directly to the states most affected by the housing crash. This would be mostly big states such as Ohio, Michigan, Florida, California, etc. Each state’s HFA set the policy for spending all of the money in that state.

In Michigan this program is used almost exclusively for demolishing Detroit’s historic neighborhoods en masse. To expedite this mission, Snyder undercut his SHPO’s otherwise-sanctioned duty to conduct Section 106 review of HHF-funded projects. That could be a problem if your project is just demolishing what remains of Detroit. In Ohio – at least in Cleveland – the funds are similarly put to use.

The city’s spokesperson, Natoya Walker Brown, is calling for feds to allow the funding to go toward home rehabilitation instead. This would allow the funding to be directed specifically toward abating lead paint in older neighborhoods that are still occupied, but lack the financial resources to renovate their homes every 20 years like in some areas of the city. Historic preservation groups, including the Cleveland Restoration Society and the Legacy Cities conference we co-hosted with CSU, have long been calling for the Hardest Hit Fund to take a look at housing rehabilitation not just as well, but perhaps instead.

I understand the multi-faceted argument behind demolishing unused housing stock. It reduces overall vacancy, “right-sizes” cities for their new and likely long-term populations, makes remaining property in the city more valuable, and mitigates the “broken window” effect more locally. All of those are legitimate. However, an even bigger consideration that has been completely ignored is the impact of a newly rehabilitated home on its surrounding block. Especially of that home’s exterior has been professionally restored to its original luster. Donovan Rypkema’s economic impact report on historic preservation concluded that a rehabilitated home has greater impact on its surroundings than removing blight.

While winning the economic argument will always be important for historic preservation, the real argument to win is the impact on people’s lives. Rather than destroying history and removing future opportunities from a community, the Hardest Hit Fund could be used to rehabilitate homes in low-income communities, keeping them standing, and safer for the children that grow up in them. That’s what could be done if Treasury, HFA’s, historic preservationists, and public health officials partnered toward solving this issue.