How an urban village model is tackling Toronto's housing crisis

Feb 13, 2024

How an urban village model is tackling Toronto's housing crisis

As many people struggle to find affordable housing in Toronto, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, some immigrant communities have decided to build their own

Kizito Musabimana is one of more than 1000 Rwandan refugees who came to Canada following the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsis in the 1990s, which claimed around one million lives in 100 days. After struggling through a period of homelessness in Toronto, and knowing the importance of culture and community, Musabimana would set out to help others from the African diaspora access culturally-sensitive resources, particularly affordable housing.

Today, he is the Project Lead of a Toronto-based group of East African organizations collectively known as the AfriCanadian Housing Solutions Lab (ACHS), which aims to build a culturally-sensitive African village in Toronto’s urban forest. With $230,000 in funding from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHS), the project's first deadline of the year — which also happens to be one of the main objectives needed to move the project forward — is coming up on Feb. 15: understanding housing policies and researching zoning bylaw requirements.

“The Lab combines traditional housing models that are centred around family, community and home with long-term support. These include skills and information services such as in-home mental health and community wellness support,” reads a description of the project on CMHC’s website. “The result, once implemented, will improve housing conditions for African Canadians, especially those dealing with isolation and lack of access to resources and mental health support.”

While it’s a long-term project that won’t see construction beginning until at least 2028, Musabimana knows the hard work and long-haul are worth it. 

“As a newcomer in Canada who has experienced homelessness, I would have greatly benefited from an affordable housing project like this, which focuses on community and connection that offers resources to navigate a new country,” Musabimana said last February in an interview in the Brandon Gomez Show. 

Working with government officials, locals and stakeholders, the members of the ACHS are now trying to put their playbook to use after months of consultations with community stakeholders.

African Village model

For 18 months, the ACHS and the CMHC collaborated to design the AfriCanadian Affordable Housing Playbook. The playbook is part of a five-phase process the ACHS completed in the spring of 2023. Through surveys, interviews and workshops, the ACHS engaged members of Toronto’s East African community in its decision-making process. The outcomes of those engagements have helped the lab design a community-specific plan. 

Two specific priorities of the plan include: a focus on multifamily units and holistic social amenities — two things that members of the East African community say their neighbourhoods lack. Systems of social organization indigenous to Africa, unlike the West, put particular emphasis on family structures like clans and kin. 

Before the advent of colonialism, political communities in Africa like the Somali sultanates were clan systems where their economic, home and political lives were linked to their extended families. Coming to the West, the separation of families and activities can be dissociating, especially for older generations used to more communal living than the individualized culture of the West.

Since most new buildings in the city are condominiums and single-family homes, immigrant communities, which tend to favour larger families, are having issues finding homes. A study by the City of Toronto corroborated multifamily renters are indeed having this problem. 

The second priority called for services that account for the holistic experience of living. Holistic amenities mentioned throughout the playbook include seniors' social centres, daycares and parks. One of the key findings of the playbook is the need to provide services within a 10-minute walk to increase accessibility of services to the young and old.

After the completion of their roadmap report, the ACHS graduated from the CHMCs’ Solutions Labs. While the final document provides a framework for how to design the community, they still need to work out technical issues. Now that a plan is in place, the ACHS is shifting towards actually building the community, according to the playbook's timeline.

But thanks to the increased attention to housing, governments are starting to pay attention. The Federal government has tried reducing house prices by barring foreign investors, the provincial government is exploring transit-oriented development zones, and the nation's largest housing provider, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, a city agency, is planning a tenant-first strategy to improve housing conditions.

But is all this too little too late?

A city of challenges

Johnathan Okubay, from New Nakfa - Eritrean Canadian Community Network and an ACHS team member and housing development expert, has been with the project from day one. As happy as he is to have completed the playbook, he knows that implementing it will not be easy.

“We've been in touch with the City and the housing secretariat to start discussing implementation after we made our final submissions to the CMHC on designing such a model,” Okubay told The Media Co-op.

With the playbook created, the ACHS is now looking to purchase land for development. However, due to a lack of resources, the ACHS is forced to go outside the East African community to fund the construction of their village. 

To help fund the implementation stage, the ACHS spoke with the city secretariat and mayor about finding a site, but they have yet to receive any substantial financial help. This leaves many questions up in the air, says Okubay.

“Do we have any potential partners? Who are they? What do they want out of the project? There are so many unknowns,” he says. 

The ACHS will be forced to rely on financiers, which Okubay says could potentially change project outcomes for the worse if any of them choose to reduce the scale of the project to cut costs, which would fly in the face of the ACHS’ vision.

Musabimana says he hopes the City of Toronto can help fund the project's implementation phase, which includes buying and developing land. 

In the most recent update, Musabimana told The Media Co-op that the City of Toronto has approached the ACHS with a land acquisition proposal which would have the ACHS provide homes to their community on city land. 

But Musabimana says the proposal does not align with the community's vision. 

"We love it, but I don't think it is for us,” he says. “We are looking for something we can have ownership in."

While the team continues to collaborate with city staff on land acquisitions, the ACHS has been granted an extra $70,000 for an impact funding model to develop an investment fund and model for the community-owned and operated village. At the pace things are moving,  Musabimana estimates construction can begin by 2027 or 2028.

Alternative solutions

Many cities globally manage their housing issues with a mix of private and public markets for housing. Vienna has a history of a mixed housing model that is community-led, meaning nonprofits and social groups are funded to build and live in social market housing. Having the City fund the development of the ACHS’ playbook would be a dream come true, says Okubay. 

The City of Toronto’s new Mayor Olivia Chow has started to invest in social housing by building 300 affordable rentals in partnership with a local charity. However, the municipality needs to commit to a city-wide social housing mechanism to make a real effect on the city's housing crisis. Without a commitment from government officials, the ACHS is still a work in progress, says Okubay.

As the City of Toronto continues to be divided through zoning and affordability, the ACHS’ plan manages to put African values in the driver's seat. 

A big lonely city like Toronto could use neighbourhoods that allow grandparents to live with their grandkids, or a child doctor to be beside their daycare — ideas that were shared by the members of the East African community.  

As the City looks for ways to build better housing faster, the ACHS may just have the roadmap to solve Canada’s housing crisis.

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