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What housing practitioners can learn from tenant leadership and participation at Lawrence Heights

Published on 27/03/2019

For the second piece in our blog series on rights-based participation, we reached out to Carmen Smith, Toronto Community Housing’s former Manager, Community Renewal and Revitalization in Lawrence Heights. She writes about how TCH worked with tenants to ensure tenant leadership, engagement, and participation at all stages of the revitalization process. 

Many of you working on housing in Toronto will know that 2008 saw the launch of Toronto Community Housing’s (TCH) most extensive community revitalization project yet — the redevelopment of Lawrence Heights, a social housing community located in North Toronto with a population of approximately 3,500 tenants.

The revitalization process was launched with the aim of transforming the 100-acre site into a mixed-income, mixed-use neighbourhood. That meant the existing social housing units would be demolished and then rebuilt in phases, along with new market units, public and retail spaces, and new social and economic opportunities for tenants.

From the first community meeting in Lawrence Heights, tenants made it very clear that their participation in the revitalization process must come with the assurance that they would have the right to remain in their neighbourhood during construction and be meaningfully engaged in the revitalization process.

And the revitalization has indeed seen unprecedented tenant leadership and participation at all stages: community planning and design, social and economic development planning, relocation, building social inclusion, and developing new models of community governance. For housing providers and practitioners taking a rights-based approach to community renewal, Lawrence Heights offers important lessons on fulfilling tenants’ rights to participate.

As TCH’s Manager of Community Revitalization and Renewal, I was part of the staff team that worked with tenants and the City to ensure tenant leadership and involvement at every stage of the decision-making process. In this post, I will outline the mechanisms created for tenant engagement and participation, and share some of the lessons learned.

Supporting tenant leadership

Following the launch of revitalization, TCH staff worked on an extensive engagement strategy to support tenant involvement in the process and build a foundation for tenant leadership that would continue throughout the process.

Our engagement strategy was grounded in the belief that tenants want to be engaged in the community renewal process, and have assets, skills, and strengths to bring to the table. Drawing on our experiences in Regent Park, a key piece of our strategy was hiring a team of Lawrence Heights tenants as community animators and creating tenant leadership opportunities to work collaboratively with our staff team and other stakeholders.

Working with this community animator team, we undertook an annual planning process to determine our engagement goals and work plan together. We also developed a diverse range of activities to engage the community, including large community forums and smaller discussion groups.

Working with staff, the animators designed and conducted outreach and surveys to determine tenant priorities, concerns, and hopes for the future. Tenant leaders also received training and participated on agency network tables, advisory committees, design teams, and review panels.

In addition, youth-led arts-based activities such as photo voice projects, video productions, and community murals helped to give voice to the large youth population in the community. We even built an outdoor pizza oven and a community stage to hold youth-led talent nights.

It’s important to note here that the engagement and collaborative planning process started in 2008 and is ongoing — investment in the long term, in people, and in communities has been an important part of the success of this strategy.

Tenant participation in planning, approvals, and developer selection

One direct outcome of this engagement process was that tenants began to feel that they were playing a significant role in the future of their community. I saw hope blossom in the community. And I saw that our processes and outcomes were stronger because tenants were invested.

For instance, as part of the approval process, City Council required that a Social Development Plan (SDP) be developed to guide the transition of Lawrence Heights from a social housing community to a mixed income, mixed use neighbourhood. “Shaping Our Community Together: Our Social Development & Action Plan for Lawrence Heights” is a tenant-led and -driven plan which aims to maximize social and economic opportunities throughout the revitalization and build a socially inclusive community.

Tenants played a key role in developing the plan, which includes action recommendations in six key areas they identified as critical to their future: Neighbourhood connections, services, community safety, housing, green space and physical infrastructure, and employment. For instance, during the visioning process for the community plan, tenants strongly advocated that they wanted the two sides of their neighbourhood (split in half by the Allen Expressway) to be united. After the animator team rejected several potential versions of community greenspace, planners came back with a central park model, spanning across the Allen and uniting the two halves of the community.

Tenants continue to remain involved as part of the SDP Committee to monitor implementation of the recommendations.

As the stakeholders who would be most impacted by the process of redevelopment, tenants were very clear that they also wanted a voice in choosing the developer who would be responsible for shaping the future of their community. To ensure this participation, TCH engagement staff worked together with tenants to secure internal approvals, develop evaluation criteria, choose tenant representatives, and organize a community-wide meeting.

The first step was to secure internal organizational approvals to ensure tenants could play a role in selecting the developer partner. Once we had the approvals, engagement staff discussed with tenant leaders and animators how they wanted to be involved.

Following a number of discussions with the community animator team, the tenants elected to have one community animator as a full member of the RFP (request for proposal) Evaluation Committee, and to further form a Tenant Advisory Committee that would review and rate the developer partner submissions on their proposals.

For the Tenant Advisory Committee, tenants wanted to ensure that opportunities were open to the community at large and not restricted to tenant leaders, so we agreed on a six-member Advisory Committee ­— four community animators and two tenants at large.

Staff would distribute postings throughout the community, asking interested members to put forward a written submission demonstrating their goals and interests in participating in the process. Members would be selected for participation by a panel comprised of a resident who was not participating as a member of the RFP panel or Advisory Committee, a member of the TCH engagement staff team, and a member of the TCH development staff team.

We agreed that once the RFP Evaluation Panel had completed its process, the developer partners achieving the three highest rated submissions would be requested to attend a community-wide meeting. At the meeting, the developers would have to present their proposals for overall vision for the revitalized community, community economic development program, and community engagement. Tenants would be able to ask questions after the presentations.

The presentations would then be evaluated by members of the Tenant Advisory Committee, using criteria developed collaboratively with TCH staff and tenants. The results would be added to the overall ranking process to select the successful developer partner for the revitalization process.

Insights and lessons learned

Ongoing tenant participation in the revitalization has made for better processes and outcomes for the community. Because they had direct roles as participants in critical community planning and development processes, tenants were empowered as decision-makers in their own lives and became strongly invested in the community renewal process. I saw Lawrence Heights tenants who became community leaders through this process begin to share their learning experiences with other social housing communities. Some tenants moved beyond their community to post-secondary and employment opportunities in planning and community development.

This was also the first time that TCH tenants had participated in a developer selection process for revitalization.

It would not have happened without two key components:

  1. A history of deep tenant leadership and involvement in the process.
  2. Strong internal staff advocacy throughout the process.

It was quickly evident that tenants knew their community best and could contribute important voices and perspectives. The challenge for me as a practitioner was to finely hone my advocacy skills to ensure those voices were valued and respected within the corporate context.

From the outset, the selection process sent a strong message to potential developers that tenants were key stakeholders in the revitalization project, that they had power and should be considered leaders and partners. Throughout the process, they contributed critical perspectives based on lived experience as well as a cross section of diverse ideas and challenges that would have otherwise been overlooked. This also helped tenants and the developer partner build a relationship before the redevelopment process started, an important dynamic as revitalization moves ahead.

While tenants saw this process as positive, there were also some lessons to be learned. Once the developers were selected, there was strong anticipation from the community around social and economic development progress — particularly employment opportunities — and we learned that clear information and communication is critical to balance expectations. This highlighted the importance of building trusting relationships, the need to be open and honest with tenants about what would be possible and what wouldn’t, and the importance of demystifying and simplifying processes where possible.

To build a deep community engagement and development practice, it’s critical that housing practitioners facilitate conditions for tenant involvement in meaningful ways. We have to work with tenants as true partners in the process.

I hope the strategies and lessons from Lawrence Heights will serve as a resource for other housing practitioners looking to ensure rights-based participation.


Carmen Smith was Toronto Community Housing’s Manager, Community Revitalization and Renewal in Lawrence Heights from 2008 to 2013. She is currently pursuing other community development interests in Southern Ontario.


[Series: Rights-based participation] For housing providers and practitioners taking a rights-based approach to community renewal, Lawrence Heights offers important lessons on fulfilling tenants’ rights to participate. This is the latest installment of our blog series on rights-based participation.