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Old Posted Apr 16, 2006, 5:01 PM
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The city's newest neighbourhood: the Rogers Centre
HOUSING | Well maybe not. But until the long-term problems of homelessness and poverty are properly addressed, here are a few creative solutions
Apr. 16, 2006. 01:00 AM

When it comes to poverty and homelessness, the long-term solutions are obvious, all the experts say: raise the minimum wage, increase welfare rates, create more affordable and supportive housing.
But until that happens, there are other ideas in circulation.
To begin with the more dreamy notions ... Graham Lee has a creative renovation idea: turn the Rogers Centre (formerly SkyDome) into affordable housing. Writing in Spacing magazine, he says it could become "a compact and eco-friendly city of the future" built within the more traditional city.
Practical elements such as plumbing, wiring and fire routes are already in place for a self-contained community. The bleachers become staged housing units with rooftop gardens, the walkways where concessions now stand become shopping arcades, and most magical of all, the playing field becomes a tree-filled park. Solar panels or windmills on the dome reduce the community's environmental footprint.
Lee argues that the building is underused, and that its value has dropped in recent years.
"Convert this urban stumbling block into a vibrant neighbourhood," he writes.
Architect Alexander Tedesco has an ingenious plan for providing comfort to the homeless who end up sleeping outdoors in the winter. He has designed an outdoor "shelter" with neither walls nor roof — the space defined by the heat it creates.
Tedesco's public square would use geo-thermal heat, drawn from 5 metres below the Earth's surface, to warm pipes just beneath the square.
"The idea is to have the square at a constant 18C, so on cold winter nights when you can't get people to go into shelters, there's a warm space for them," says Tedesco.
When architect John van Nostrand says that more people, including the working poor, should build their own homes, many people dismiss him as a 20th-century romantic.
Modern housing is dense and high, and requires sophisticated building skills and 21st-century technology, they say. And in a red-hot housing market like Toronto's, the notion of an urban homesteader seems fanciful.
But van Nostrand argues that some good ideas from the past shouldn't be abandoned.
In 1950, 40 per cent of houses were owner built (in Ontario in 2000, 8 per cent of houses were owner built, the lowest rate in Canada). Some post-war builders were returning veterans who went on with their new skills to work in construction.
"There's great skepticism about home ownership for poor people in Ontario," says van Nostrand. "Ownership is discouraged when, in the rest of the world — almost any country where I've worked — to rent is absurd."
He believes someone who can spend $350 to $500 a month on housing can afford a $30,000 mortgage. It would require a small lot — say in the port lands — where the property would be protected from speculators.
The biggest impediment would be the down payment, but that could be spread over the life of the mortgage. Or the land could be leased until it could be paid for.
"People say nobody builds houses any more, but look at the massive success of Rona and Home Depot. They sell huge amounts of building material to families. I don't think it's a different world. I think people, if given a chance, would build tomorrow."
Most people who are concerned about housing the homeless agree that Toronto needs more mixed housing that includes all income levels and age groups, retired people and career-focused 30-somethings, living in buildings about six storeys tall, built along transit lines.
Architect Jack Diamond notes that when the poor are downtown, they are more "visible" and thus more likely to get the services they need. "In the suburbs, out of sight, out of mind. We have the infrastructure, we've invested in the downtown, we don't need to build in the sticks."
The city has just bought 110 Edward St., and the call has gone out for ideas on how it should be used. One possibility is to copy the Common Ground model in New York, where residents not only get transitional housing, but receive employment training right in their building.
Debbie Field, director of FoodShare, is also concerned about buildings — well, their rooftops, actually.
Standing on the roof of her agency's Eastern Ave. building, she gazes west and sees not just the towers and mid-rises of downtown Toronto, but places where food can be grown.
Field believes half the rooftops in the city could be used to grow produce. Estimates vary, but experts say up to 25 per cent of Toronto's fresh produce could be grown within the city or very nearby.
(The best estimate is that now, about 3 per cent is grown in the city.)
Meanwhile, Nick Saul, executive director of The Stop community food centre, notes that after paying rent the average food bank user has $3.50 left over for food, transport, clothing and other personal needs.
"The government has washed its hands of the hunger crisis," he says.
One way to put more money in people's pockets, Saul says, is a food or nutrition allowance for people on social assistance.
"You need funding for food. It's fundamental to sanity."
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