Last Sunday, a diverse panel met at the Toronto Reference Library for Home Not Housing, the third instalment in Waterfront Toronto’s Future Cities talk series. The afternoon was hosted by placemaking expert Jay Pitter, who guided panelists and guests through the holes surrounding conversations about Toronto’s housing market.
The panel was made up of five Torontonians from a wide range of backgrounds and industries, including architects Dean Goodman and Tura Cousins Wilson, journalist Asmaa Malik, artist Matthew Progress and community advocate Mirlo Liendo.
With the library’s Bram and Bluma Appel Salon thematically transformed to resemble a living room, Pitter and the panelists mused on the concept of home and reflected on their personal journeys through the city’s evolving housing landscape.
They also vibed out to a live hip-hop show.
Though the upbeat performance from Matthew Progress felt startlingly out of place for the casual Sunday afternoon talk, it was framed and followed perfectly to suit the tone of the event.
“So I know that some of you are wondering what hip-hop has to do with housing,” Pitter said post performance. After some laughter from the audience, Pitter reminded the crowd that hip-hop is “an art form that first broke the inner-city crisis.” She praised the genre for “reporting on the housing crisis happening in inner-city neighbourhoods before it became co-opted and commercialized.”
The commercial nature of housing was brought up again by veteran architect Dean Goodman. “We talk about housing as a commodity,” Goodman said. “Housing is not a personal thing. But home is always about personal things. It’s about the personal connection.”
When Pitter invited the audience to ask the panel questions, the conversation shifted beyond the walls of home and into the neighbourhood.
Pitter asked the audience to reflect on what belonging and inclusion look like in a neighbourhood. One guest described it as “a simple smile and a hello from the people around you.”
Pitter then asked the audience a question that captured the essence of the afternoon, “What are we not talking about when we’re talking about housing?”
“There seems to be no green space in this concrete jungle,” one audience member commented.
Affordability was brought into question as well. Architect Tura Cousins Wilson urged guests to expound on the topic. “We often say affordability but it’s important to ask, ‘affordability for whom?’” Wilson said. “There are conversations on who can afford housing but there are less conversations on who can afford an apartment on a single income or who can afford space for their three or four children. We need to break it down to affordability for elderly people on a fixed income, affordability for immigrants who have to find work and students on a fixed budget.”
In addition to cost, audience members brought up the need for more livable design to suit the changing natures of work and family, proposing condos tailored to families with young children and artists who work from home
One audience member questioned the development of the city altogether, which sparked conversations about widespread NIMBYism throughout beloved Toronto neighbourhoods. In order to alleviate angry Toronto NIMBYs, Wilson says that “it’s about educating people about the process of development and it’s also getting people involved at an early stage where it’s proactive development as opposed to something that’s very reactive.”
Pitter added that proactive talks of development are lacking in Toronto communities. “One of the things that I think we do terribly in this city is that we only talk about neighbourhood transformation when there is a development proposal on the table.”
She urged the audience, “in every neighbourhood across the entire city, we should be having conversations about what we would like our neighbourhood to look like, what densification could look like, what belonging looks like.” Instead, Pitter said that “development is shaping and guiding our housing conversations.”
“I think that if neighbours were engaged in those conversations now and sharing their aspirations for their neighbourhoods, we would have much better conversations,” Pitter added.
“There’s a fundamental paradigm shift that needs to happen,” Progress said in closing. “It’s about housing but it’s (also) about community building…it’s about how we relate to each other.”