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De/centering the ‘community benefit’ in Toronto’s inner-suburbs

De/centering the ‘community benefit’ in Toronto’s inner-suburbs

Graduate Affiliates - The City Institute at York University (CITY)
Sophia Ilyniak

In Toronto, Canada, core-periphery relations have shifted through re-mappings of city boundaries and districts over the past seventy years: austerity-led amalgamations resulting in new peripheralizations, with subsequent attempts at addressing disparity with an emphasis on place. Publicly disinvested, the now inner-suburbs of Toronto are driven into new competitive relationships, and therefore becoming vulnerable to private exploitation of the state-made rent gap. The effects of the retrenchment of the state as an actor in redistribution can be most prominently seen here. In its place, the third sector, an uneven patchwork of charitable material or therapeutic interventions, is also increasingly defining the modes of social change. Emerging as a key player in public-private partnerships, the non-profit organization is centered as the ‘community benefit’ of inner-suburban redevelopment plans.

As attempts to ‘manage the periphery,’ what are the consequences of place-based, philanthropic (read: private) investments in place of redistributive state investment? Earlier this month, geography doctoral student, Sophia Ilyniak, brought attention to this question at Peripheral Centralities: Lost, Past, Present and Future. This seminar hosted by York University in partnership with the University of Melbourne and University of Western Australia, explored global cases of ‘centering of the peripheries of cities.’ Sophia presented insights from her MES Major Research Paper, which tracked ‘the geography of gifts’ to reveal exploitation of the ‘neither public nor private’ status of the non-profit sector in sub/urban governance, and its often-overlooked role in gentrification.

Weston Rd. and Lawrence Ave., the main intersection of the inner-suburb of Weston in north-west Toronto, 2015. Photo: Sophia Ilyniak.

The presentation looked back on fieldwork from 2015-16, on the case of Weston, an inner-suburb of north-west Toronto whose new municipal designation of ‘Neighbourhood Improvement Area’ brought on pressure to recapture its historic town centre for private investment. The focal point of the revitalization plans, targeting the living space of Weston’s majority racialized, immigrant, working-class residents, was a large residential-commercial redevelopment governed by a complex public-private-non-profit partnership (PPNP). However, the face of the project was the non-profit partner, Artscape, who played a double role of providing the ‘community benefit’—a small community hub space and 26 provincially-subsidized housing units for artists inside the redevelopment—and building local consensus for revitalization.

Importantly, the redevelopment had no direct impact on the City’s budget. Rather, it contributed through facilitation: targeted requests for proposals; public land sale to the private developer of which proceeds were redirected back into the development; gifted expropriated private property; brokering of a density-bonus agreement; and, waived development charges, permit fees and property taxes. Clearly benefiting the private partners of the PPNP, the above was made possible on the basis that this was a non-profit-led development understood to be operating ‘for the benefit of the community.’

Overall, the non-profit partner in the PPNP allowed for maintenance of state cost-cutting agendas, re-direction of public funds and resources and the legitimization of private capital flows. The latter was achieved by Artscape via community programming and consultation, where the concept of ‘community benefit’ (and others such as ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’) was mobilized to drown out local concerns citing privatization, racism and gentrification. They were dismissed for being ‘opposed to change.’

The Artscape Weston Common redevelopment in Weston's 'town centre', October 2022. Photo: Sophia Ilyniak.

Sophia followed up on this fieldwork and the construction of Artscape Weston Common through informal observation of Weston 2017-22 and its residential tower communities as a health outreach worker and supporter of locally-organized tenant actions. As expected, new, higher-paying tenants have moved in. More large private residential redevelopments are underway, also making use of non-profit partnership. Property values have increased, and many ethnic-oriented shops are being replaced by new or chain businesses. The result of Weston’s revitalization has been further peripheralization: racialized, working-class residents are experiencing displacement pressures, or have already been displaced. At the centre of the redevelopment, the private partners of the PPNP have applied multiple times to raise rents of existing, long-term tenants. In clear contrast to ‘community benefit’ Weston residents have been organizing against such attempts to push them out of their homes.

Toronto’s trend of socio-economic polarization continues, in which a number of the inner-suburbs remain publicly-neglected. They have suffered the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The highest incidence of eviction has been detected in these neighbourhoods, disproportionately affecting racialized communities. The combined issues made the periphery the site for ‘Keep Your Rent’ organizing earlier in the pandemic, which also was complicated by the betrayal by local non-profits partnering with displacing forces.

Weston residents, including those at the centre of the Artscape Weston Common redevelopment (22 John St. and 33 King St.), protesting rent increases in May, 2022. Photo: York-South Weston Tenants' Union.

Globally, the urban periphery has become a key site of neoliberal, deregulatory experimentation, including sophisticated public-private partnership arrangements and non-democratic forms of governance. Demonstrating this trend, PPNP or non-profit-led governance in place of public redistributive approaches is not only insufficient, but as in the case of Weston, has correlated with the decentering of people’s homes and lives along class and racial lines. It also has the double-edged effect of their political displacement. As PPNP revitalization plans proliferate across the inner-suburbs, it is critical to identify residents’ challenges to the predominant negotiations of core-periphery relations.

“Everybody says ‘change’ as if that is good in itself, but what are we changing? … We mustn’t be frightened to think, to feel, to inform and to investigate, and it doesn’t mean that you don’t want change.” – elder Caribbean resident of Weston

Sophia Ilyniak is a PhD student in human geography at the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University. She is interested in the political economy of the third sector, its intersections with sub/urbanization and neoliberal restructuring, and the possibilities of political and social change outside of it. Her work is critically informed by experiences in frontline social services, housing policy research as well as neighbourhood-based organizing. Currently, Sophia is shifting focus from Toronto’s inner-suburbs to the context of post-Soviet Ukraine, where she will study civil society and governance of post-war rebuilding of the periphery.