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BC Housing received an award last year for heritage conservation for renovation work on the Rainier Hotel in Vancouver. (JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail)
BC Housing received an award last year for heritage conservation for renovation work on the Rainier Hotel in Vancouver. (JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail)

Rick Hall

Repair heritage homes, even for social housing Add to ...

Among the many properties in Toronto Community Housing Corp.’s portfolio are 40 significant heritage buildings that have been allowed to fall into severe disrepair. Both the city and TCHC need to give priority to repairing these buildings before they fall into further decay.

The TCHC response thus far has been that these heritage buildings will not receive repair priority despite being highly valuable – and irreplaceable historic properties. There is no doubt TCHC is facing financial challenges, but this decision misses the key fact that if these properties are not stabilized now, they will become ever more costly to repair, particularly as the city’s own heritage guidelines direct that external repairs should be completed using era-appropriate material and techniques. By not repairing these homes, the city is running a real risk of demolition by neglect. Doing nothing is not a viable option.

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The city and the province designate certain buildings and neighbourhoods as “heritage” because they are deemed to contain rare examples of past architectural styles or are reminders of our social history. As a society, we also value public housing in the city core to create and maintain a diverse and inclusive city.

But are social housing and heritage preservation incompatible civic goals? A look at how some other cities have handled the heritage issue illustrates that there are alternative solutions.

In the West, BC Housing is a provincial Crown agency whose role is to provide a range of affordable housing. In partnership with the City of Vancouver, it also views preserving important parts of the city’s heritage as a responsibility. As a result, the organization last year received a Vancouver Heritage Award of Honour, given to projects that demonstrate an outstanding contribution to heritage conservation, for its single-room occupancy Park Hotel residence.

It also won two further awards for restoring similar buildings back to their original beauty after purchasing them to provide additional social housing. The hard decision? Funding was allocated from BC Housing’s construction budget, and a portion of the City of Vancouver’s heritage façade budget.

In Sheffield, England, Park Hill is a council housing estate. Built in the late 1950s, the development was designated by English Heritage in the 1990s, and it is the largest listed building in Europe. The hard decision? After considering how to pay for much-needed repairs to the building, city council decided to partly privatize the estate. A private-sector developer is now working in partnership with English Heritage on renovations to convert the building into a combination of market-price apartments, business units and social housing.

And on the other side of the world, the housing ministry in New South Wales, Australia, has decided since 2006 to divest itself of high-maintenance, expensive-to-repair heritage homes. The hard decision? Heritage has gone under the hammer in cities such as Sydney where listed houses, as they become vacant, are sold on 99-year leases, with the money raised put toward the construction of new public-housing units. The new leaseholders, meanwhile, are required to restore the heritage properties.

Three different cities, three different decisions made, but with the common thread of valuing heritage preservation and sustaining social housing in the city core for a continued inclusive community.

What will be Toronto’s hard decision? It is for the politicians to decide, but grappling with the issue cannot be delayed any further, as the past will not wait and may very well slip through our fingers.

Rick Hall is past chair of the Cabbagetown heritage advisory committee.

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