Participatory Budgeting in Toronto’s Public Housing – Canadian Conference on Dialogue and Deliberation

Millions of dollars are collaboratively allocated each year according to the priorities of residents in Toronto’s public housing units. This participatory budgeting process was invented 20 years ago in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and is now transforming budgeting processes in cities around the world.

The Canadian Conference on Dialogue and Deliberation presented a panel on Toronto Community Housing’s experience with participatory budgeting from academic, management and participant viewpoints.

How Participatory Budgeting Works
Dr. Daniel Schugurensky, University of Toronto professor, outlined five stages of participatory budgeting: (1) diagnosis to identify community needs, (2) deliberation to understand, (3) decision-making, (4) implementation of agreements, and, (5) follow up, including monitoring and evaluation.

Each year, Toronto Community Housing spends $9M on capital projects (infrastructure, improvements, etc). Twenty per cent of this budget, $1.8M, is allocated by residents according to their priorities. Once a year, tenant representatives from each social housing project attend a day-long session to dialogue and deliberate about how the money should be spent. They present proposals to each other, about important projects their housing unit needs. After hearing all the options, these residents vote on which projects to approve, collaboratively allocating almost $2M in landlord spending. [Note that the TCH website doesn't distinguish what portion of the $9M is allocated via participatory budgeting.]

Decisions By Priority or Charisma?
Technically, decisions are made by weighing proposals according to their priority. For example, drinking water quality would outrank a basketball court renewal. However, a 22-year old tenant representative has seen it work otherwise – and in his favour.

Abdulle Elmi is a charasmatic, articulate and confident young man, who arrived in Toronto seven years ago from Somalia. Two years ago, Abdulle joined the tenant’s association because he “wanted to take responsibility and help initiate change for his community.” His 36-unit townhouse complex sent him to this year’s participatory budgeting day with the priority of improving their playground. If his presentation was anything like the one he gave at Saturday’s conference, the crowd loved him – who wouldn’t support the efforts of a young man taking leadership in his community?

Charisma, articulateness, and comfort with English are all challenges to the process. As Abdulle warned, “participatory budgeting relies on your ability to convincingly articulate an idea.” This means that language barriers afford speakers less opportunity to ‘win the crowd over’.

Schugurensky isn’t as concerned about this tension in the long run. Being a part of community leadership experiences, like participatory budgeting, build civic capacity. For example, a woman in the audience asked a question, prefacing it with the admission that she never would have spoken up in front of 300 people before she got involved in tenant leadership. Schugernsky pointed to the work of Seville, Spain, for an example of online resources to help individuals build their civic capacities. Clear rules of engagement can also help participants rank priorities.

Sharing Power in an Organization
Derek Ballantyne, former CEO of Toronto Community Housing admitted out that the participatory budgeting process contains a high level of confrontation, but he thinks that’s a good thing. The process of sharing, listening and coming to agreement together achieves creative results.

Toronto Community Housing is the largest social housing provider in Canada and the second largest in North America. Founded in 2002, it amalgamated a number of preexisting community housing organizations and began set new directions for community health, inclusion and engagement and accountability. Participatory budgeting was chosen as one way of improving the association’s engagement with the community, and shift the power balance between landlord and tenants.

This community housing corporation is using participatory spending decisions to set a precedent for democratizing a wider set of the organization’s behaviour and activities. According to Ballantyne, this is a work in progress.

Worldwide Examples
Canada is doing participatory budgeting with Toronto Community Housing, in one district of Montreal, in the municipality of Guelph, and a pilot project in Edmonton. The United States’ experience with participatory budgeting includes Washington DC and San Francisco. The United Kingdom has passed a new a policy to implement the process in all municipalities by 2012. For more, check out the Participatory Budgeting Project.

Here’s an introductory video from Toronto Community Housing:

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One Response to “Participatory Budgeting in Toronto’s Public Housing – Canadian Conference on Dialogue and Deliberation”

  1. Susanna Haas Lyons said:

    Oct 28, 09 at 9:59 am

    Josh Lerner sent out this message to the members of a Participatory Budgeting site on Facebook:

    Subject: PB in Chicago – Neighborhood assemblies start Nov 3

    Alderman Joe Moore, of Chicago’s 49th ward, has just announced the initial neighborhood assemblies of the ward’s participatory budgeting process. There will be 9 assemblies, starting November 3rd and running till December 3rd. The process will then continue till March or April, when residents will decide which projects to fund. Here’s an excerpt from the official announcement:

    Dear Neighbor,

    Around the United States and here in Chicago, city leaders are increasingly asking residents for suggestions about budget spending. Here in the 49th Ward, we’re going one step further. Through a novel experiment in democracy, I’m not just asking for your opinion–I’m asking you to make real decisions about how we spend our money.