Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"For" vs "By": Affordable Housing Back in the Day

The Toronto Star has been running a cool series to find "hidden experts" as part of their year-long Big Ideas project on how to make Toronto better.

On March 8th, Craven Road was mentioned in an intriguing article by Laura Kane, 'Hidden experts' have Big Ideas (and some small ones) for affordable housing:

When Nicole Stewart imagines the future of Toronto, she likes to think small — really small. 
The policy development officer in the City of Toronto’s Affordable Housing Office wants to see “tiny homes” built in backyards and laneways across the city. The teensy-tiny abodes could be between 100 and 800 square feet, made from recycled materials and energy-efficient.... 
“What I’m suggesting isn’t any sort of shanty town or RV home in the city. I’m talking about really well-made, well-designed homes,” she said. The phenomenon has exploded across the U.S., Europe and in some Canadian cities like Vancouver. But Toronto’s building code still contains some provisions that prevent landowners from building tiny homes.  
The city does have a “Tiny Town,” on Craven Rd., near Gerrard St. E. and Coxwell Ave., the largest concentration of detached houses under 500 square feet in Toronto. The homes were built for manual labourers at the turn of the 20th century.
Interesting how one tiny word – "for" – can warp the story of an entire street.

Because as important as social housing is, the idea that the houses on Craven Road were built "for" rather than "by" the people who lived in them is simply ahistorical.

Walk down the street and you'll see the evidence. There is no central planning or design:

from Walking Woman
from Walking Woman

from the MASH

from Spacing.ca
These houses were built according to the individual vision of whoever acquired each small lot. And even those lots are irregular sizes, since the land was sold by the foot, like cloth off a bolt.

That's why manual labourers bought and built on Craven Road:

Edward Relph in The Toronto Guide: An Illustrated Interpretation of Toronto's Landscapes says:
As much as 40 per cent of all the houses constructed between 1900 and 1913 were owner-built, in what Richard Harris has called "unplanned suburbs". The owner-builders acquired a small lot at the end of a new street-car line, put up a wooden shack and then gradually improved it to their own designs as they earned a bit of extra money. The result was a landscape of widely differing houses, irregularly sited on their lots and poorly serviced.
We always tend to see the past through the lens of the present. We have Toronto Community Housing now, so surely they must have had something like it a hundred years ago. 

Except they didn't.

There's a similar mistaken perception in a comment below this blogTO article:

Craven Rd and the surronding streets north of Gerrard had significant impact on the current governence laws for cities in the province of ontario. Housing for poor working class families was in short supply just before and after WWI... The city of Toronto experimented in two forms of proto type social housing....

The Craven Road area experiment was to sell plots of land to labourers who bought them for $100.00 and were expected to build as they could. Most started with building and living in the basement until they could afford to build the upper home. This fit the ideology that if people owned their own home they would take better care of it than if they were renters. 
But the city neglected to put in sewer and water lines into these neighbourhoods and a serious diptheria epidemic ensued.... The city retfitted the sewer and water system in the 1920's but the cost put the city into debt... 
This commenter at least knows that Craven was the product of owner-builders, but the language still suggests that this was a centrally- (albeit poorly-) planned prototype social housing "experiment" rather than a free-market Wild West.

In fact, it was even less coordinated than the settlement of the Canadian west, where the federal homesteading policy of 1871 sold Dominion Lands to pioneers. The lots along Craven were sold not by the government but by realtors like Frederick B. Robins of 52 Victoria St.

And there were no sewer or water lines (or streetcars or police or fire protection) because there were no taxes to pay for them before the Midway area became part of Toronto in 1909. There's a great conjuration in this Star article from December 11, 1911 of a local councillor trying to remind the city's newest citizens of the connection between taxes and services:
 It was a stormy, roily meeting of the members of the Midway Ratepayers' Association... There were complaints to make against the sewers, the waterworks, the side-walks, the roadways, everything.... 
Ald[erman] Sam McBride... stated that the Midway should congratulate itself upon the city having taken it in, considering the condition they were in when annexation was broached.... 
To show that their wants were pretty well attended to within the past year, the alderman quoted a tabulated list of expenditures [on schools, streetcar tracks on Gerrard, roadways, sidewalks and sewers. The $90,000 spent on]... this latter item, he explained, represented nearly one-third of the total city's expenditure on sewers....  
"You've had a total expenditure of $510,000 this year; I'd like to compare that with the taxes you pay. You came here because this land was cheap. If you expect the City Council to put in water, sewers, etc., and make your land valuable in a minute, you are mistaken, it can't be done.
For anyone who's really interested in how housing was built by (and also for) people with lower incomes a hundred years ago, I highly recommend not-so-"hidden" expert Richard Harris's Unplanned Suburbs: Toronto's American Tragedy, 1900 to 1950.

A few thought-provoking excerpts:

(p.16) Probably the most original element to the argument that I develop in this book is that owner building was very common and a major factor in helping so many workers move to the suburbs....  What social scientists missed was the possibility that workers might save money by investing sweat equity in their own dwelling. The geographical implication was obvious. By buying small lots and using their own labor to erect what began as very modest structures, even unskilled workers who worked downtown could afford to settle at the urban fringe. Owner building, then, was a vital factor in the growth of blue-collar suburbs.

(p.18) The opportunities for owner building depended on a number of circumstances, the single most important of which was the virtual absence of municipal regulation and services. Most owner-builders were poor and lacked construction skills. They were in no position to satisfy even quite moderate controls over residential construction or to pay more than the bare minimum in property taxes.... major differences in the extent of regulations and services between the city and its suburbs provided strong incentives for suburban owner building, at least until the early 1920s.

(p.20) A journalist in 1918 described the story of owner building in Toronto's blue-collar suburbs as a "romance of the common life," but time introduced elements of tragedy... the [tragic] flaw was laissez-faire government. Those who settled in Toronto's suburbs did not, for the most part, have mortgages, but they were living on borrowed time. They could not afford the municipal services that their close settlement on narrow lots necessitated. An unfortunate fate was always likely for some, and during the 1930s it became inevitable for many.... Laissez-faire governance, combined with the optimism of ambitious immigrants, helped to make a North American tragedy.
(p.286) "For North Americans today, the unplanned blue-collar suburbs have a larger significance. Commodity relations permeate our lives.... Home building... is assuredly an industry, and homes are consumer goods, though still not quite like any other. This style of life is built upon an edifice of debt, both personal and public.... 
Earlscourt and places like it speak to us of a different time, about what one contemporary referred to as a 'separate sort of thrift', when people made what they could for themselves and used only what they could afford. It would be absurd to romanticize that time, for it was hard... 
Optimism of the kind that made one-room shacks a harbinger of prosperity is now in short supply. But as we try to think our way out of current problems – of homelessness, vacuous materialism, debt – we must draw practical inspiration and spiritual sustenance from wherever we can. The values of thrift, mutual aid, and self-reliance which went into the making of unplanned suburbs are not a complete recipe for renewal. But they are a good place to start."

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