Healing Abandonment: When Houses Have No People and People Have No Houses, Use it or Lose it

by Shiri Pasternak and David Wachsmuth

In Detroit, which is choking on tens of thousands of abandoned properties, the housing abandonment problem is easy to see but effective solutions are hard to imagine. In Toronto, the opposite is true. The abandonment problem, though real, is easy to miss, and effective solutions are available. This article briefly describes Abandonment Issues, a Toronto-based campaign for affordable housing. The campaign was built around a demand that the municipal government introduce a “Use It or Lose It” by-law meant to prevent housing abandonment and reclaim already abandoned buildings through targeted expropriations, for conversion to social housing. One year since its inception, and with the bulk of the groundwork over, we want to reflect critically on the successes and failures of the campaign from the point of view of academics working in the planning field.

The Affordable Housing Crisis and the Motivation for Use It or Lose It

The centerpiece of the Abandonment Issues campaign has been an effort to persuade the City of Toronto to adopt a Use It or Lose It by-law to prevent buildings from being abandoned and to reclaim already abandoned buildings. Activists have been trying to convince the city to adopt similar policies for at least a decade. In particular, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) issued this demand in tandem with a series of highprofile housing takeovers, such as the Pope Squat in 2002, timed to coincide with Pope John Paul II’s visit to the city.

OCAP and other anti-poverty groups such as the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee are frontline organizers who see the direct effects of the city’s policies on homelessness on other areas like access to services, police harassment and the lack of affordable housing. There are nearly 70,000 households on the waiting list for social housing in Toronto, and many of them are single-mother families. Over the last few decades, mixed-income neighborhoods, once ubiquitous across Toronto, have been disappearing as the spatial segregation of the working poor (overwhelmingly immigrants) in the city’s inner suburbs and the wealthy in the downtown—what University of Toronto Professor David Hulchanski has called the “three cities within Toronto”— has increased.

The municipal government is not entirely to blame for these problems. Canada has a particularly poor record in the area of housing; rare among wealthy western nations, it lacks a national housing plan. Recent years have seen the deterioration of the position of low-income households in the rental sector—no surprise, given that Canada has the most free market approach to housing in the west, and the second lowest rate of social housing after the United States.

Despite the calculus activists have been doing for years using obvious math (people need housing + housing is going to waste when buildings are vacant = expropriate these properties and prevent others from being abandoned), research about addressing abandonment as a strategy for solving the affordable housing crisis has been minimal—mostly the work of devoted OCAP members.

The core of the Abandonment Issues organizing strategy was simple. Two main organizers (the authors of this paper, both graduate students in urban planning at the University of Toronto) partnered with a dozen community organizations that ranged from service agencies to militant anti-poverty groups to social justice think tanks. We developed a plan to undertake a thorough catalog of Toronto’s abandonment issues and to follow this up with a proposal for a comprehensive by-law directly addressing our research findings. We would highlight our issues by planning some direct actions that forced the city and news media to respond to our proposal. The Abandonment Issues project was thus to have two pillars: policy research and community organizing. We believe our particular successes and failures in realizing these two objectives may speak to broader issues confronting academics engaging in planning activism.

Policy and Research Successes

The concept of “abandoned” has a decidedly different ring than either “vacant” or “unoccupied” when referring to a building An abandoned building is one that has been neglected, scarred by boards patched onto its windows and in desperate need of attention. What kind of care is appropriate for something that has been abandoned? What kind of responsibility has been shirked and which obligations are incumbent upon witnesses? When babies are abandoned in stairwells, communities are roused to action. But what about when houses are abandoned? From the outset, we were determined to connect housing abandonment (houses without people) to the thousands of families either homeless or stranded in precarious living situations due to the lack of affordable housing in Toronto (people without houses). Abandonment, we wanted to argue, was more than just an objective fact of vacancy or disrepair; it was a social phenomenon.

One of the central tasks for Abandonment Issues was thus to define exactly what we meant by abandonment. Drawing on academic literature from the United States and our own investigations in Toronto, we defined abandonment as an uneven and reversible process (as opposed to a yes-or-no binary state) that occurs along three axes—functional, physical and financial. One surprising and important outcome of understanding abandonment as a spectrum of neglect was that, having identified low-end highrise apartment buildings with dwindling occupancies as a form of abandonment, we discovered that in the last five years rental vacancy across the city has concentrated in these buildings, which have consequently seen deferred maintenance and accelerated deterioration. Because these buildings provide an enormous share of Toronto’s affordable housing stock, this vacancy trickle-down is likely to represent a major policy challenge for the city in years to come.

We also found that, while boarded-up buildings were a significant issue mostly in the downtown core, there were properties scattered in wards throughout the city that justified a citywide response. Furthermore, we confirmed what is apparent to the naked eye: Abandonment is not widespread in Toronto the way it is in American cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia (or Canadian cities such as Winnipeg and Windsor). Because Toronto’s abandonment problem is relatively modest, we have been able to argue that a Use It or Lose It by-law would be a workable solution. Moreover, since we found that many of the vacant buildings in the city are located in neighborhoods undergoing or on the threshold of undergoing gentrification, promoting expropriation for conversion to social housing and preventing existing private affordable housing from being abandoned would help ensure that people with a diversity of incomes could co-exist within prime Toronto real estate markets.

In the spring of 2008, we released From Abandonment to Affordable Housing, a comprehensive report on the abandonment problem that included a set of policy options for addressing it. The report was informed by our field research in Toronto and other research into strategies pursued by municipalities in North America and the United Kingdom. Our recommendations for preventing abandonment included licensing landlords and strengthening controls on the demolition of apartment buildings or their conversion to condominiums; our recommendations for reclaiming abandoned buildings included a citywide vacancy fee and a procedure for expropriating buildings and redeveloping them as social housing.

The most controversial aspect of the Use It or Lose It proposal, expropriation for conversion to social housing, is no longer unprecedented in Toronto. Our model for the project was a building in the lower-income neighborhood of Parkdale, where a landlord sitting on a burnt-out former rooming house became the target of community activists who last year won their bid to have the city expropriate the property and turn it over to a non-profit, using a bidding process, for redevelopment into social housing. By similarly linking many of our other recommendations with existing municipal policies or policies currently being debated (such as landlord licensing), we were able to take an issue which had previously been unfairly ignored because it was championed mainly by radical anti-poverty groups and bring it to the attention of city councilors and staff.

The report presented a case for a Use It or Lose It policy in a concrete way that had never been done before. As a result of the original research we conducted and our ability, as planning graduate students, to present our findings in the technocratic language of municipal policy and law, many doors were opened for us at city hall. Our access was also made easier by the fact that we had previous experience navigating the city bureaucracy (one of us had worked for the City of Toronto) and that, as graduate students, we had the flexible schedules necessary to schedule and attend meetings with councilors and staff.

Through a combination of these structural advantages, hard work and luck, Abandonment Issues was able to get Use It or Lose It on the table at the city council’s Affordable Housing Committee, where the councilors decided to request a staff report on the feasibility of adopting such a bylaw. After more than a decade of activism aimed at stopping abandonment in Toronto, the municipal government has finally begun to take the issue seriously, and the prospects for effective municipal action, while not certain, are better than ever.

Organizing Failures

When we started the Abandonment Issues project, we had a million ideas about how to turn vacant buildings into an opportunity for communities throughout the city to reclaim and transform them into badly needed social assets, such as affordable housing. We envisioned a grassroots campaign that mobilized interest and support through high school classrooms, anti-poverty groups and community centers. We also envisioned an online map that grew steadily darker with pins as people from across Toronto marked vacant buildings and lots, contributing vital local knowledge to a collaborative urban research project.

At the height of our excitement, stimulated by a campaign launch in the fall of 2007 that drew 150 people into a crowded community center, we felt encouraged that the demand for a Use It or Lose It by-law could be an example of successful community-driven planning activism. The momentum seemed unstoppable. A number of national media outlets contacted us and ran stories about Toronto’s abandonment issues, and we received messages of support and offers of help from Toronto’s residents—both of which helped us progressively catch the attention of politicians.

We knew that despite all this early momentum, the project required a tremendous amount of research and a boost of support from city hall. As a result, we disengaged, temporarily we thought, from the broad-based organizing work we had tentatively begun and turned our efforts to the researchbased investigations mentioned earlier. This was not a difficult decision to make since we knew we lacked solid information and policy proposals, and since we had initially conceived of the project as having two pillars— policy research and community organizing. But as the first pillar grew larger, the second crumbled. In the interim between the launch of the campaign and the release of our final report, we worked hard on conducting and compiling our research, generally managing to keep community partners informed of our progress. We led a few workshops on Toronto’s affordable housing crisis and the benefits of a Use It or Lose It by-law, mostly at the request of local university student groups, but then in Evansville, Indiana, London, Ontario, and Los Angeles, California. We fielded calls from other municipalities and distant activist groups who had heard about our project. But most of all, we tried to find activist partners for a housing takeover to spectacularly launch the report, and though groups were interested and supportive, we ran out of time and energy. We ended up releasing the report through our networks and then holding one final meeting to discuss with our community partners what kind of event we should organize to bring people back together.

At that meeting we presented a plan for a panel discussion about Toronto’s affordable housing crisis and the benefits of a Use It or Lose It by-law to be held at a rapidly redeveloping former social housing intersection in the city and were surprised when the idea was shot down from all corners. We were told emphatically that people didn’t want another event without action they could plug into, that we were unable to initiate such action ourselves, and that we needed to focus our efforts on building support from where we would encounter the greatest resistance.

After much discussion around the table about policy priorities and opportunities with the provincial and municipal governments, a participant from the Women Against Poverty Collective asked about where the voices of the marginalized Toronto residents most affected by the affordable housing crisis were in this fight? It was true that we had not done enough to encourage those voices. Despite our initial intentions, the majority of our time had been spent researching and writing our report and shopping it around to councilors and staff at city hall. We readily admitted that we had failed on this count, but to our surprise, two veteran community activists rose to our defense.

“I’ve been a community organizer for twenty-five years and I still don’t think I’m doing it right,” said Elinor Mahoney from the Parkdale Legal Clinic as a way to soften the criticism. Another of our mentors, Brian Eng of the Wellesley Institute, said: “Look, you’ve focused on your strengths here—research—and you’ve kept all the community groups in the loop, involved and consulted. That’s more than most researchers ever do. And since you’ve focused on what you’re good at, you’re getting results and people at city hall are paying attention.” Perhaps the nature of this project was more academic than we were at first willing to admit.

As planning academics trying also to be planning activists, we weren’t able to align our practice with our political commitments. In such a technocratic and expertdriven field as planning, this is a challenge at the best of times, but particularly disappointing for two people politicized in direct action communities. It turned out to be a lesson in humility more than anything.

Though we are proud of the work we have accomplished—raising awareness of an important issue and making a set of substantive proposals that may just lead to a few hundred people finding housing in the coming years—we have also become aware of the tensions embodied in our project. These are the tensions between commitment to communityled planning, which means a commitment to grassroots community groups already working on the ground, and the recognition of the privilege of our social capital to be taken seriously by municipal government and allowed to work with them. This article is a tribute to all those anti-poverty groups who broke ground before us on making the case for a Use It or Lose It by-law, and hopefully a lesson to fellow planning students on the potential of solid research that finds its way into the right hands.

Shiri Pasternak is a co-coordinator of Abandonment Issues, a doctoral student in planning at the University of Toronto and moderator ofhttp://www.propertytaskforce.org. David Wachsmuth is a co-coordinator of Abandonment Issues and doctoral student in urban sociology at New York University. The full report and policy brief on the Use It or Lose It proposal is available athttp://www.abandonment-issues.ca

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