When Vincent Tong started at Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) as an Associate Development Manager in 2010, he realized that not only was he leveraging land to renew existing assets, he also had a responsibility to improve the lives of those who lived in the communities. Moving up the ranks over 8 years, he was appointed as Chief Development Officer overseeing the strategic direction of TCHC’s huge portfolio worth over $10 billion in assets. Today, TCHC is the largest landlord in the country with over 60,000 households and 110,000 tenants across 15 communities. “No one is building communities at the scale that TCHC is when it comes to City Building,” said Tong. “I got into planning to make a difference in the city I live in.” However, one thing that Tong wasn’t initially prepared for was the impact he would make on the lives of tenants.
With a cross disciplinary background and a specialization in planning, Tong attributes much of his success to his high level of empathy as well as a good network of mentors, who imparted him with confidence in decision making. Tong initially worked in fashion, but always knew he wanted to go into urban planning. During the second year of his Bachelor of Regional Planning at Ryerson University, he was brought on by Harold Madi to work at Office for Urbanism along with his then business partner Jennifer Keesmaat. Tong was hired full-time following graduation where he gained exposure to vision guiding documents on projects outside of Toronto. In 2007, Madi left to join The Planning Partnership and brought Tong along with him, continuing his work on masterplan studies within the GTA. However, development was always top of mind for Tong.
“When you’re a consultant advising municipalities on urban design, one of the recommendations to the public sector is to lead by example because you cannot build ugly projects and expect the private sector to do beautiful buildings,” said Tong. “I wanted to be where design matters and it’s not always about the bottom line.” When Regent Park’s First Phase was being completed during 2009, Tong was attracted by the innovation happening at TCHC and joined a year later.
Tong started at TCHC as an Associate Development Manager, working under the mentorship of Laurie Payne, who was Senior Development Manager at the time. Payne was a great motivator and through her leadership, instilled in Tong confidence in decision making. Watching her negotiate with developers, tenants and navigate through the political sphere allowed Tong to learn through osmosis.
“One way TCHC is renewing its assets is by leveraging the value of land,” said Tong. “That’s how Regent Park came about by partnering with the private sector.” TCHC partners with developers to sell condos together and share profits which are used towards TCHC’s revitalization efforts. TCHC not only focuses on the brick and mortar, but also ensures its private-public partnerships provide opportunities for tenants in the form of scholarships, jobs, training, direct employment, and among others.
Over the last nine years, Tong has been involved in all TCHC’s revitalization projects, including Alexandra Park, Leslie Nymark, and Allenbury Gardens. Though his role has evolved, his high level of empathy has always been his biggest strength and key to success when dealing with challenges. “I thought I was simply going to communities to tell them they’d be getting new housing, but it was not like that,” said Tong. “They say moving is the second most stressful situation a person goes through after a death in the family and I was dealing with people’s lives so that was my biggest challenge.” The key difference Tong faced when switching from working with private developers to the public sector was engagement with people who return to the community housing once development has been completed.
This work allowed Tong to gain a new perspective by designing communities and housing tailored to tenants who had to be relocated and transitioned back. The majority of these tenants are on rental geared to income where the rent is capped at 30% of gross income. Some of the tenants struggle with mental health issues, addiction, and systemic poverty. “Once you hear their stories, it reinforces the importance of what you’re doing,” said Tong. “When dealing with social housing, you always have to be empathic since you can’t do this job without building relationships with tenants.”
Through his role at TCHC, Tong is also improving the lives of tenants. At the beginning of the revitalization process, the team asks the community what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to change. Many of TCHC’s assets built in the 50s and 60s are reaching the end of their useful life and require numerous repairs. Additionally, the 60s tower-in-the-park typology includes random open spaces that do not feel safe. An example of how a small intervention that can improve lives is giving every building a public street address. Things people take for granted, such as ordering food delivery, becomes a challenge for TCHC tenants because your address isn’t listed and delivery people can’t find your front door. Introducing amenities to the communities also creates a destination, such as the new restaurants, parks and community and cultural facilities that bring people from across the city.
TCHC also spends a lot of time ensuring tenants understand the planning approvals and design process. TCHC’s design consultants invite tenants to partake in extensive engagement processes and workshops to ensure the needs of the end users are met. On the master-planning side, styrofoam blocks are placed at the city-scale to show where tall and lower buildings go. For example, Allenbury Gardens, located in the northeast part of Toronto, was developed over a two-year period in advance of submitting an application with the City and had over 10 workshops on massing where the tenants were able to voice what they wanted to see in the open gathering spaces. 3D renderings and scaled floor plans of proposed units are provided at the workshops to help tenants understand how the spaces work. TCHC also bring tenants to recently completed communities for walkthroughs.
As Chief Development Officer, Tong is responsible for the strategic direction of TCHC’s massive $10 billion-worth of assets. Tong is looking to launch additional revitalization in at least six communities and looking into different models for revitalization to help leverage. Some of these communities are located in neighbourhoods that don’t have strong condo markets, which means looking into partnering up with a rental housing developer, office/commercial developers, land swaps, or other city agencies.
“The most rewarding aspect of my job is serving the city’s most vulnerable population and hopefully improving their lives,” said Tong. “Making a difference means city building for all residents in the city, by building new amenities, reconnecting neighbourhoods to each other, and building developments that are beautiful, pedestrian scaled, and mixed use.” The greatest moments for Tong are getting to see entire communities transform and the tenants’ reactions when they move back and discover what has been implemented.
“If there’s no benefit to the tenants, there’s no point in doing this as it’s all about improving their lives and their social economic situation,” Tong said.