Want change? Speak up. How social-housing residents transformed their homes into a co-operative and are tackling an enviable revitalization project.
When board member Nuha Habay speaks about Atkinson Co-op, she always returns to one word: community. “We have a strong sense of community and that’s what makes it really special,” she says. A peek into the Alexandra Park Community Centre located in Atkinson Co-op is proof enough: a moms and tots drop-in, a volunteer seniors’ lunch program and an afterschool club are just a few of the activities over the course of one day.
The 2,500-strong community — diverse in ethnicity, age and family makeup — has been a driving force of Atkinson Co-op for over 50 years.
The Alexandra Park housing project in downtown Toronto was built in 1966, a mix of medium-rise apartment buildings and townhouses over seven hectares of land. By 1990, talk of tenant self-management began to swirl and the idea of becoming a co-operative was proposed in 1993. The process itself would take another 10 years, with the community participating in multiple votes. It was important to have everyone’s say about pursuing co-op status – so much so that the December 1998 ballots were made available in 19 languages. On April 1, 2003, with committed support from the Co-op Housing Federation of Toronto (CHFT), Alexandra Park became the Atkinson Housing Co-operative – the first public housing project to convert into a co-op in Canada.
But change and community engagement would not stop there. In 2009, with the brown-brick buildings deteriorating, many beyond the point of fixable repair, community leaders pitched a new idea – revitalization. “Atkinson had a strong community prior to becoming a co-op. The co-op gave the community a voice to assist in the redevelopment,” recalls CHFT Executive Director Tom Clement.
The plan includes razing and replacing 333 townhomes and apartment units and refurbishing four other apartment buildings in the Alexandra Park neighbourhood. The new mixed-income, mixed-use community will see rent-geared-to-income housing and market-value condos side by side — land sales for the latter generating funds for further revitalization and redevelopment. Also in the works, enlarging the community centre and adding new basketball courts, green space and connector streets to the insular location.
Community involvement again was key. “If something is being done that the community doesn’t like, we’ll stick together and push for change,” explains Nuha, 22, who moved to Alexandra Park at age three with her older sister and her mother, an immigrant like many of the residents. “There was a lot of back and forth between the residents and TCHF, but we always meet in the middle. It’s been a partnership.”
Forty resident families moved into their beautiful new three- and four-bedroom townhomes in late summer of 2016 and the next phase of the 12-15 year revitalization project has begun.
Tom Clement says the co-op excels at encouraging young co-op leaders such as Nuha. “Young people have always been part of the leadership of their board. CHFT’s scholarship program has created an opportunity for over 60 residents. In turn, the co-op has contributed back to the sector by encouraging young people to run for the co-op board and CHFT board.”
For Nuha, being involved is paramount. “I had knowledge of the community, but I think it’s important to know the community,” she says. “If we speak up and use our voice, things will be different.”