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A Neighbourhood Saving Itself

Q&A with the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust

Moderated by Sarah MacLean

In the face of a national housing crisis, many communities across Canada are coming together to form land trusts: organizations who secure available land as housing and other community assets. The first instance of this in Toronto was the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, and Ground’s Sarah MacLean sat down with Executive Director Joshua Barndt, Community Development Coordinator James Partanen, and architect Monica Hutton about how the trust works, and how landscape architects can align with their goal of healthy, sustainable, affordable neighbourhoods.

National Housing Day demonstrators in Parkdale. IMAGE/ Courtesy of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust

Sarah MacLean: Could you tell us a bit about the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust mandate and its history?

Joshua Barndt: The Parkdale Neighborhood Land Trust (PNLT) was incorporated in 2014. After years of discussions between community members, resident associations, and nonprofit organizations in the neighbourhood, all the interested parties were concerned about gentrification in the community and, in particular, how increased real estate costs and the connected development trends were leading to the loss of important community spaces and assets—and in particular the loss of affordability. Those organizations came together to look at the community land trust model. As land values go up and markets become more heated, low-profit land uses are naturally pushed out of a neighbourhood and are usually replaced by more high-profit uses. Low-profit land uses are important to communities: things like space for nonprofits such as legal clinics, food banks, and settlement agencies, and even local community-serving businesses like local stores that sell culturally specific foods, restaurants with affordable food, et cetera. But, also, affordable rental housing is a low-profit land use, as it doesn’t maximize the profit it extracts from its renters. As gentrification occurs, land values go up, and speculative real estate activity increases in a community. The community identified this was an issue because there was a lot of land that was not owned in a nonprofit model or something that could preserve affordability. We had very little control over that change.

A land trust study and annual report. IMAGE/ Courtesy of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust

We needed to address ownership and put community members and organizations in control. In 2014, an interim board was created, the land trust organization was incorporated, and the interim board had representatives from the different organizations and resident groups that had been part the original discussions. They all came together with a mandate to identify important community assets at risk of being lost due to market trends, acquire those properties, bring them into the land trust as community-owned properties, and ensure those properties were used to meet community benefits in the long term.

Our mandate right now is to acquire and own property for affordable and supportive housing and uses that relate to community economic development, under which quite a few different things are included. One is non-profit space for community-serving agencies, another is social enterprises, and there are other uses. And then, of course, is affordable housing. The underlying mandate for the trust is creating a structure where community members are in control of the organization by way of membership. Anyone who lives or works in the community can become a member, or part of our board of directors, or elect board members—which is the decision-making body of the organization. So, we bring the land into community ownership, but residents who register as members have agency to collectively make decisions around how we use that land and how we operationalize our goals.

It’s differentiated from other non-profit models where the board is generally appointed, or has volunteer appointees who are either experts willing to provide some support around governance, or who have a specific expertise related to the mandate. A supportive housing organization may have people with expertise around support services, or mental health and addiction issues. But we seek to have a broad set of stakeholders who have a place and voice on the board. Not just experts, but community members with different interests.

Myself, I’m a long-term resident in the community. I grew up here and I live here as a renter. My relationship to the work we do is that I also experience some of the issues we’re seeking to address and have a long-term commitment to the community. I participate as a resident and a staff person.

The Tibetan Experience in a Gentrifying Parkdale, Jane’s Walk Festival, 2016. Organized by the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust. IMAGE/ Courtesy of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust

James Partanen: Our mandate is to hold land, in perpetuity, to serve the community’s needs. We do that by engaging with community members through our land trust board and PNLT’s committees to specifically create space for as rich and broad a discourse as possible around what those needs are. Currently, our community is articulating that we should maintain our resources to maximize access to low-income housing. In 15 years, maybe that problem will be solved and we’ll have had such a political impact that we’ve substantially helped de-commodify housing for all Canadians and that won’t be our community’s priority anymore and it will articulate different priorities. Right now, however, this is what our community said is important about our structure.

We actually have two legal organizations: the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust, and the Neighbourhood Land Trust (NLT). The Neighbourhood Land Trust is a registered charity. Its purpose is to be the interface between commoditized real estate and our community benefit ownership model. The NLT legally holds onto property to make certain land is always safe and secure from the public market and available to be used for the community benefit. The Parkdale Neighborhood Land Trust is the broad organization with a board of 15 different members with any level of governance experience whatsoever specifically meant to maximize diversity and equitable participation and articulate what the community needs, not only in terms of the use of resources, but also in how we use them. For instance, we now have 84 different properties. That’s a lot of property maintenance, upkeep, and capital work that needs to be done. How are we going to do that in a way that maximizes add-on social benefits to our community? How do we make certain we’re doing the best job of providing equitable access to the housing we can provide, or the gardening space? Those are the types of values-based, community oriented questions the PLNT has, which is relayed to the NLT charity, which takes that into account as it executes its fiduciary responsibility to own and maintain these resources.

Parkdale—High Park MPP Bhutila Karpoche, speaking at a housing rally. IMAGE/ Courtesy of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust

Monica Hutton: My work started aligning with the land trust as it started bringing more properties into collective stewardship. Considering the land, the existing buildings, and homes contained within those, it requires a lot of coordinated programming for both the maintenance and improvement of those buildings—what’s required to bring them into a good state of repair, but also thinking of added benefits that can come with those required improvements, like increased energy efficiency, or accessibility. A lot of my work with the trust has been making plans for those improvements and coordinating that with the governance structure.

My personal background is in architecture and urbanism. There’s a necessity with this many properties within a portfolio to look at multiple scales. On one hand, looking at particular buildings and units and the land for a given property, but also thinking about what that means within a broader, more holistic approach to how they can operate together collectively and be maintained across a larger geographic area that has its own considerations for operating at a more urban scale. That is a really key part of the work.

National Housing Day demonstration. IMAGE/ Courtesy of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust

JB: The first property we brought into community ownership was 87 Milky Way. It was a vacant parcel of land located on a landlocked site that’s almost behind the public library. We acquired that property specifically to secure it for equity-seeking community members who wanted access to land to grow food for their own use, and then hold events about food justice and related issues. It was vacant, and a traditional developer or landowner might think what its highest and best use is. That’s the type of discourse most landowners look at, and that would generally equate to high density, high profit land uses. In this case, we’ve preserved the site as urban agriculture in downtown Toronto—one of the goals communicated by equity-seeking community members. The community members who were on the site before we bought it were a number of primarily refugees who moved to the neighbourhood and were part of and adult ESL program operating out of the Parkdale Library. Living in Canada as refugees with generally very low-income, people found it hard to afford organic food, and had no access to land. Most of the students were renters in high rise and other apartment buildings. So they negotiated temporary access to this land to grow food from a private owner. The private owner decided they needed to sell the property, and the land trust was invited to step in and preserve that site. When we planned for the future use of that site, we included the students in that process to develop a plan to increase its use for what they needed. We developed the site plan, as well as business plans, to redevelop this parcel and maximize its potential for growing food, and community programming related to growing food. Subsequent to that process, some of the gardeners have joined our board, and one of the lead gardeners has been a longstanding board member. People can benefit, but also contribute to the work.

Land Trust community event. IMAGE/ Courtesy of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust

The second parcel of land we acquired was a 15-unit rooming house which was for sale. Many rooming houses in the community were being sold and upscaled. In the process, many low-income folks were being pushed out, becoming homeless. So we acquired that building, in partnership with the City, to preserve the affordable rental housing for existing tenants and to ensure the units that become available over time through natural turnover continue to be available for people in the community, on a low or fixed income, who need support. The existing tenants suddenly had a landlord who wanted to make sure their rent stayed affordable, was working to make it more affordable, and was able to bring in support services through a partner agency where they were needed. We also renovated the building.

It’s an example of eviction prevention and a homelessness prevention strategy, because we’re actually intervening in a market process which often leads to people being evicted, displaced, and becoming homeless. We’re curbing that, but we’re also creating a long-term housing solution.

Land Trust community event. IMAGE/ Courtesy of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust

JP: We’ve also done a lot of community-based research, and the results have been great. For instance, our research has contributed to the creation of the City of Toronto’s Multi-Unit Residential Acquisition Program (MURA). Which itself is one of the mechanisms by which social housing agencies can help to secure and preserve at-risk affordable housing and make certain it stays affordable. We have also been able to use that program as a result to further our core goals of securing affordable housing in perpetuity. Also, as a result of that community-based research, we’ve helped some of our members and tenants in Parkdale gain skills around community development and leadership, and they’ve gone on to help organize other tenants in their buildings and been able to therefore negotiate with their landlords from a position of more power, rather than almost no power.

Another concrete way we’ve been able to improve people’s lives is through our rent relief program. We had a donor come forward and contribute a nice big check to us, specifically earmarked for our rent relief program. Then we developed it, did some engagement with tenants around what a rent relief program should look like, and implemented it earlier this year. Since then, we’ve been able to make 18 disbursements averaging around $500 to tenants who need support paying their rent.

Land Trust community event. IMAGE/ Courtesy of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust

JB: And to give some context to the rent relief, it was developed in the context of COVID 19 pandemic shutdowns. And while it’s not only about that, it was obviously a moment where we recognized more tenants than normal were having economic challenges. And so, the rent relief we offer is for tenants experiencing some form of temporary economic challenge that means they’re having trouble paying the full rent, and they can disclose those challenges to us and request some support. We want to make sure there’s a transparent and collaborative relationship between us, as a landlord, and the tenants.

Sarah MacLean: How has the Parkdale Neighborhood Land Trust work influenced the shape and feel of Parkdale? What type of neighbourly interactions, new relationships, or community events have been facilitated through your work? How do you see it impacting the neighbourhood in the future as your network expands?

JB: In securing 87 Milky Way as community-owned space, we made space for people to grow food, but also where people can gather. It’s accessible space where the community can come together, hold events, meet each other, and move their own initiatives forward. We’re constantly losing those types of informal social spaces where people can gather. So that’s one of the things we offer. Another is, when we’re planning our work, we’re often bringing residents together to talk about the issues they’re experiencing and to identify shared goals.

SM: Regarding the Milky Way Community Garden, what role do you see community-owned public space playing in nurturing, affordable and diverse neighbourhoods? And how can landscape architects and other designers help to support community land trust initiatives?

MH: The people living in the homes and on the land that is part of the trust influence any design process, unlike in a more speculative or market-driven atmosphere. When you’re trying to identify benefits that are important to the community and tying those into the design, I think you end up with something quite different. There are a lot of great ideas that come through tenant consultation around shared public space and how the space around buildings is used. Overall, that really benefits and adds to enhancing the design process. The land trust is very generative in thinking through what alternate design processes could look like and how different consultants and professionals get involved in projects and take a different approach to the relationship with the people living there.

The Milky Way community garden. IMAGE/ Courtesy of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust

JB: When the land trust owned only the garden, at that very early stage, we worked with a landscape architect to design it to become a more productive space, to go through the site plan process, and the Committee of Adjustment. We found landscape architects can support our work as we become an organization that owns 84 buildings. We increasingly need the support of landscape architects and other professionals to ensure we are able to improve our buildings and properties. But we also have power. We are purchasing a lot of services. One way we’re discovering we can use that power to benefit the community, beyond just working with great landscape architects and consultants who are going to give us good advice and support, is finding ways to use our money to support professionals who are equity-seeking, who buy from local businesses, and who are supporting the training of BIPOC and other equity-seeking residents. We’ve developed a social procurement plan through which we are prioritizing companies and vendors, including landscape architectural firms, that are taking concrete actions to ensure equity-seeking people in our community are getting work in those sectors and benefiting from the investments we make. By spending money on our buildings, we can create economic benefits for people and businesses we want to support. We want to meet more socially minded, BIPOC-owned and run social enterprise firms, or co-op firms, who share some of our values. It can be a mutual relationship.

The Milky Way community garden. IMAGE/ Courtesy of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust

JP: One of the main discourses for land trusts is around the commodification of land and how it makes it expensive for people to rent. We have a bunch of other de-commodified resources in our society like schools, hospitals, parks, roads, and sidewalks. It’s interesting to think about what happens if you take housing and put it into a park setting. Immediately, it starts to look less commoditized, it look less natural when you see a “for sale” sign in front of it. Landscape architects can find ways to make housing look more like a park and less like something you would sell.

SM: How can an existing public realm of streets, parks, and open spaces support neighbourhoods like Parkdale? Is there a better way to balance affordable housing needs with spacial needs by improving or even expanding the local public realm? Are there any systemic or organizational obstacles that need to be addressed beforehand, and who is best positioned
to address these?

MH: It comes back to the idea of scale. There are certain things that can be considered for a particular site and the area around buildings. How can we rethink that, either to support existing tenants in a different way and make improvements that could increase accessibility to the building, and maybe breaking down some of the barriers of private space? The other thing to think about is how, as land trusts grow and bring more land into collective stewardship, the network and connections between those can be thought about as well, and how you make connections across a larger community. So, as soon as you start looking at a number of sites being aggregated, the connection points between those within the public realm, as well as the businesses they’re connecting to, and all of those neighbourhood relationships—they are the strong piece in tying those sites together. Speaking to social procurement, as well: how everything cycles through the larger network, extending beyond the actual land trust sites, but is very much supported by it. It’s not just about the strict delineation of the land within the trust, it has a capacity to operate, influence, and be generative on a much larger scale than just those individual properties.

The Tibetan Experience in a Gentrifying Parkdale, Jane’s Walk Festival, 2016. Organized by the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust. IMAGE/ Courtesy of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust

JB: One thing we haven’t dug into much is, in the construction industry right now, everything is very expensive. We’re trying to produce and maintain affordable housing and we don’t have unlimited money, so the way the design industry has pivoted to support very high-end, expensive approaches to improving space, is unattainable to us. We can’t participate in that. We can’t do things on the same level. We’d be interested to learn from folks in your sector about ways to improve landscape, the space between buildings, and exteriors that are mindful of the material, labour, costs, construction, and maintenance costs. If it gets too high, it takes away from the affordability and the sustainability of the community asset. We would love to improve our spaces, but we need to do so in a way that’s mindful of cost. We need all of our partners to be thinking about that, and their practices to evolve to be able to accommodate that.

MH: That’s a really key point, especially over the long term. Because the more conventional approach would be a short turnaround, and not necessarily thinking about the life of land and buildings over the long run. Tying more of the initial design activities to how it will be operated and maintained over the long term is something that isn’t thought about as in depth over the full lifecycle of material.

A Parkdale community gathering. IMAGE/ Courtesy of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust

JB: The average private owner expects to sell the property, so there’s a time length by which an investment is reasonable or not. The land trust expects never to sell the property, so we are very cognizant about the long term challenges of operating the building, and we want to make good investments that maximize those investments.

SM: There is a common misconception that you need to spend a lot of money to do good design, which is not necessarily so. From a landscape architecture point of view, we’re a bit more poised to understand how things evolve over time because of the nature of our medium and work—plants and landscapes inevitably change.

To end, how have your interactions with the City worked, historically?

JP: We have Councillor Gord Perks here in Parkdale, who has been historically politically aligned with our mission of empowering local residents, and has supported a bunch of our initiatives in council and worked with us closely. In fact, our second property, 26 Maynard, was acquired basically because Gord Perks put forward a private member’s motion to operate a pilot of the MURA program I mentioned earlier as research at the City level to see whether or not a multi-unit residential acquisition program made sense. So he’s been quite supportive of
us in the past and that’s great.

And the City partnered with us in the transfer of the 84 residential properties from Toronto Community Housing to the land trust. So they do seem to recognize we’re a valuable part of the social housing horizon in Toronto and they do take us seriously. We have a great relationship, as well, with the housing secretariat, which is the City department specifically working to make things better for the under- and marginally-housed. But the City’s bureaucracy can also get in our way at times. As a land trust, it would be great if we could have a little more flexibility than exists in the current policies. But, by and large, we consider the City on our side. The province and the federal government are, of course, different.

A Jane’s Walk to explore proposed actions, 2016. IMAGE/ Courtesy of the Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust

BIO/ Sarah MacLean, BA, MLA, is a Full Member – Inactive of the OALA. Sarah recently returned to Toronto and is a Ground Magazine Editorial Board member. She is interested in the role landscape architects can play in progressing equity and environmental sustainability.