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Tent and temporary shelter, with the words: Someone Lives Here Do Not Move written on the side

Houselessness in Tkaronto / Toronto has been an ongoing problem only heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. It has become impossible to ignore how the prioritization of private development, the commodification of public land, and a labyrinthian city bureaucracy have all contributed to massive inequality in access to housing. Within the architectural profession, there is little incentive to critique developer-driven housing projects as they represent a massive portion of work in this city; as of July 2018, 90 per cent of the most active developers in Toronto were heavily involved in condominium projects. The Architecture Lobby’s Tkaronto chapter is working to reverse these trends by encouraging architectural workers to become educated and politically engaged around housing issues. 

We believe that this education occurs on three fronts; (1) forming an understanding that housing is a human right, otherwise known as the “housing guarantee,” (2)  encouraging political participation and education amongst architects, and (3) working with the public towards these aims. As architectural workers, we must be well-equipped to make a compelling argument for an approach to housing that restores safety, dignity, and stability to the public.

Demonstrators holding up a sign that says: Pandemic SOS Hotels or Housing Now!

In our third book club discussion, TAL-TO was joined by Kellie Chin from WORKSHOP. Chin is a project lead with an interest towards promoting social responsibility and invigorating local communities, and has direct experience in working as a designer and facilitator on shelter and housing projects with various stakeholders in Tkaronto. Along with her research partner Naomi Shewchuk, Chin has also contributed to several publications, including her Spacing article posted on C-A-L-L #3. 

Demonstrators in front of a Parkdale house, advocating for community control

Chin says it is essential to use policy and design guidelines to the benefit of the project. As well, she notes that the revision of standards and guidelines for publicly funded shelter and housing is an area where designers can assert agency over the quality and dignity of projects. As she progresses through her career, Chin is able to navigate city policy increasingly, discovering opportunities to improve projects for both the operator and the occupant. Chin also acknowledges WORKSHOP’s alignment with public work, a rarity in Tkaronto’s architecture industry; not only are new-build shelter projects rare, they are financially challenging for the city and uniquely logistically complex. 

Diagram comparing the cost of maintaining one shelter bed over 10 years, with the construction costs of building affordable housing

In fighting for the equitable provision of housing, architectural workers can look for ways within the design and planning discipline to address the gaps in our capital-driven housing system, pushing themselves and private developers to adopt more sustainable practices. Designers can also look towards additional resources through grant programs or alternative fundraising opportunities, to build higher quality of design into projects with an equity focus.

Shelter beds separated by glass partitions

Those in the profession can also explore modes of building housing other than those executed directly for profit, further extending the architect’s interest in the project as a financier or stakeholder. Michal Rozworski provides an excellent glimpse into the history of the Canadian Mortgage Housing Corporation, its role in the current housing crisis, as well as policy alternatives to challenge the dominance of neoliberal approaches to housing provision. Jamie Bradburn’s article A Century of ‘Homes for the People documents the origins of Toronto’s early co-ops,  depicting a time when the city, private industrialists, and designers worked together to create publicly-owned housing, primarily for workers, in which all parties had a practical and vested interest. Developers at the time were quite open about their motives for providing co-op housing; retaining labour pools with the incentive of local housing was a profit-driven strategy. However, we can evolve these early models to incorporate more inclusive and equitable processes, such as participatory design or co-design with communities.

View of houses in front of an apartment complex

When we consider what organized political efforts in the profession could achieve, small measures make big differences. Starting conversations within workplaces, forging relationships with those in allied disciplines, and approaching potential partnerships in good faith, are all steps towards a unified and broad advocacy front necessary to call for holistic and lasting change. Getting involved in other volunteer or advocacy efforts outside of architecture are also learning opportunities to bring that knowledge and experience back into the profession. 

Demonstrators in front of an apartment complex holding a sign that says: May 1st Rent Strike

As Avi Friedman discusses in his article “Rethinking Housing Education in Architecture Schools”, embracing the architectural worker’s political role shifts the perspective of education at its root. Educating ourselves about advocacy, and filling the conversational gaps in traditional architecture pedagogy is crucial if we want to affect change as designers. When it comes to housing, we need to work to propose alternative modes of thinking within the profession that allow for direct and blunt advocacy. Encouraging and promoting tools for discussions on policy and social issues within the profession becomes even more timely.

The Architecture Lobby Tkaronto thanks Kellie Chin for her contributions to the virtual book club and this written piece.

The Architecture Lobby Toronto / Tkaronto (TAL-TO)  is a chapter of
The Architecture Lobby. All views expressed here are our own. For more resources, check out this list compiled by TAL-TO in 2020.

TAL-TO is a volunteer-run collective working to improve the current state of architectural advocacy in Canada by promoting socially sustainable design practices and advancing the rights of architectural workers. Find us on Instagram.

R-E-S-P-O-N-S-E # 3: Architects For Housing Education

Architecture Lobby Tkaronto proposes an educational framework to combat burgeoning housing inequality.

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