Q+A: How to keep the sense of community in social housing?

Feb 4 • Affordable Housing, Q+A • 1814 Views • 6 Comments on Q+A: How to keep the sense of community in social housing?


Katerina Cizek is a Czech-Canadian digital documentary-maker. At the National Film Board of Canada, she has helped redefine the organization as one of the world’s leading digital content hubs, first with the Webby-winning Filmmaker-in-Residence and now, with the Emmy-winning HIGHRISE,  a multi-year, multiple-media experiment.


As director of the National Film Board of Canada documentary project HIGHRISE, I have been specifically interested in Toronto’s market-rent apartments (rather than social housing) built in the post-WWII period in the inner-city suburbs. Of the 1,189 post-war apartment buildings in Toronto, approx. 80% are privately owned. My initial interest 4 years ago sprung from the realization that so little is known about life inside and around these buildings. Here in Toronto, we have relatively strong public housing (by strong, I mean relative to other places in the world), run by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation. We regularly hear about what’s lacking and what’s wrong with our social housing — especially the disgracefully long waiting list to get in. But I’ve been very impressed with its internationally recognized civic engagement of tenants. The TCHC has strong, democratically motivated tenant boards and tenant representation in the governance structure.


There’s of course much to fix at the TCHC, but there are some really strong systems in place to address issues (apart from the larger questions of the erosion of public support for public housing).


That’s why I felt our type of interventionist media-making might be more interesting — and complicated — in the privately owned buildings ringed in the inner suburbs, filled mostly with new Canadians, who have been abandoned by landlords with  little or no accountability to the city, no resident associations, and are cut off from easy access to public transport, social services and other parts of the city.


A sense of community, whether in social or private housing, relies on some basic principles of urban rights.  All levels of government, as well as the people of a city, need to understand that where we live is an issue of housing, not real estate. A top issue is to ensure we have enough units for the number of people who need them. The pressure of demand is one of the biggest ways in which social housing can deteriorate. Residents need to have a real voice in all aspects of decision-making, from the ground level (infrastructure, repairs, safety, community space, gardening/landscaping) to broader neighbourhood and city levels of current and future planning. 


The City needs to be involved in the regular monitoring of existing vertical housing, much like restaurants get licenses every year. We need to go into these spaces and evaluate the safety and hygiene. Landlords and property managers need to be held accountable for conditions, and when they are not meeting regulations, rent goes into escrow until conditions improve.


So what do you think?

How to keep the sense of community in social housing?


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