City councillor Pam McConnell says she is the victim of a smear. On Sunday, the Toronto Sun published a front-page story on the Regent Park housing redevelopment. Ms. McConnell featured prominently.
Although she has been a leading cheerleader of the project for years, columnist Sue-Ann Levy wrote, never did the "30-year councillor declare she might have a pecuniary interest in the development." It turns out that – gasp – Ms. McConnell and her husband bought a two-bedroom condominium in Regent Park in 2010. "Suite Deal," the Sun trumpeted. "Insiders landed condos in taxpayer-funded Regent Park revitalization."
There is only one problem with this breathless revelation. Ms. McConnell never made any secret that she was buying a condo in Regent Park. In fact, she boasted about it. She told residents in her newsletter and in person that she was proud to be moving into the neighbourhood.
She insists she paid the market rate and received no special consideration. Her only insider advantage was membership, through her real estate agent, in the developer's "inner circle," a list of interested potential buyers that anyone could get on by putting down a $250 deposit.
As a scandal, it falls somewhat short of Watergate. If Ms. McConnell had covered up her condo purchase, if she had bought at a special cut rate, if she had moved into a plush penthouse suite, if the developers had given her an advance pick as a reward for helping them out – if any of this had happened, then the Sun might have something. But unless former chief justice Patrick LeSage comes up with some new dirt in his review of the purchases, it is not clear that anything remotely untoward took place.
Ms. McConnell says she never declared a conflict of interest on votes concerning Regent Park because she didn't have one. The votes to approve the project came long before she bought her unit.
Executives of The Daniels Corp., the developer, bought in too, as condo developers often will. So did executives of Toronto Community Housing Corp., Toronto's low-income housing landlord.
When TCHC asked David Mullan, the city's Integrity Commissioner at the time, if buying in would be a problem, he replied that "provided that there is no preferential access or priority, there can be no objection to any employee of TCHC … purchasing a condominium in the Regent Park revitalization at the price at which that condominium is available to the general public."
Part of the idea in Regent Park is to use the revenue from condo sales to rebuild the low-income housing. Daniels vice-president Martin Blake says that the buy-in by developers and officials built confidence. At the time, the world economy was in trouble, the real-estate market was sagging and many doubted Daniels could sell condos in an area with a "significant stigma."
Ms. McConnell, though, had faith in the project. She moved out of her rental co-op, gave up her garden, took out a big mortgage and bought at One Cole St. in Regent Park. "I've never regretted it. It's a wonderful place to live because people have a future and hope that they didn't have before. And we've been able to provide that by selling condominiums to people like me where the profits build people new homes."
Far from doing something shady, she contributed in a small way to the success of Regent Park. The project is a model of private and public co-operation. It is being watched around North America as an example of how to transform isolated housing projects into something more livable. Good on Ms. McConnell for believing in it.