Participatory Budgeting – Working together, making a difference

Seniors vote on participatory budget items

Despite a downturn in the economy that is putting the pinch on households and budgets, Toronto Community Housing tenants this year once again decided how to invest $9 million on ideas that will improve tenants' quality of life.

2009 is the eighth year for Participatory Budgeting at Toronto Community Housing, an idea which originated in Brazil, which gives tenants the power to decide how housing money is spent. They decide how to spend the $9 million in a democratic and transparent way. The theme of this year's process is "Working Together: Making a Difference."

This year, tenants have provided funding to more than 150 initiatives in buildings across the city, including:

  • Garden beautification at 123 Sackville St. (at Queen and Parliament) - $5,000
  • Playground improvements at Blake Boultbee (at Gerrard and Pape) - $25,000
  • New hallway tiles at Kennedy-Dundalk (at Ellesmere and Kennedy) - $90,000
  • Additional security cameras Finch-Brahms (at Finch and Brahms) - $30,000
  • Paint common areas at Warden Woods (at Danforth and Warden) - $40,000
  • Gym renovations at Scarlett Manor (at Lawrence West and Scarlett) - $50,000
  • New kitchen cupboards at Thistletown (at Martingrove and Albion) - $55,000
  • New bathroom vanities Jane-Yewtree (at Jane and Finch) - $50,000
  • Computer resource centre at Swansea Mews (at Queensway and Windermere) - $25,000


How Participatory Budgeting works

pbIt all starts with getting people involved. Tenants in every Toronto Community Housing building come forward with ideas for improving their community. Then they sort through the ideas and democratically decide with their neighbours which ideas are the top priorities for their buildings. Only capital projects are eligible for funding.

Tenants bring forward those ideas to big voting events, where tenants from different buildings come together to hear about all the priorities and vote on the winners.

At the voting events, tenants passionately present their ideas to their fellow tenants to garner support. There is a time to ask questions. Tenants can learn more about the ideas by examining display boards that each of the buildings creates.

Then, it comes time to vote. It's a "dot-mocracy." Every building selects a delegate. They get sticker dots which they use to vote for the best ideas. The ideas with the most votes get funding.


A garden in the city

pb2Rfifi Abdessamad lives in a townhouse complex in the area of Queen and Parliament streets. He's a big supporter of Participatory Budgeting. Last year, he and his son made a legendary presentation. It was an impassioned plea for a new playground, urging tenant voters to "Do it for the kids." He got the votes and the tens of thousands of dollars in funding he was seeking. The community got the playground, much to the delight of children and their families.

This year, Mr. Abdessamad put forward a more modest proposal at his community planning meeting. Plant a garden to make the community beautiful. Just $5,000 would mean tenants being able to grow a lush, green garden for three years.

Mr. Abdessamad makes a convincing case. His neighbours agreed to make the garden the townhouse complex's top priority at the big voting event. And at that event, Mr. Abdessamad is equally convincing. Tenants from other buildings like his idea. The project receives funding and will go ahead.

"This will make people happy. It will make the children happy. That is very important,"
a beaming Mr. Abdessamad says.


Tenants decide

pb3Participatory Budgeting is one of the key ways Toronto Community Housing ensures tenants have a real say over decisions that affect their lives. A working group made up of tenant volunteers from an October 2003 tenant forum worked together with Toronto Community Housing staff to develop this process. It is one of the most popular events Toronto Community Housing hosts every year.


Different perspectives, unity in purpose

Tenants who take part in Participatory Budgeting come from different backgrounds. Some, like Juliet Flowers, who lives in the city's northwest, are long-term participants. This year's edition is Ms. Flowers' fourth.

"It's always an exciting process," she says.

This year, Flowers speaks out for better outdoor lighting in her building's breezeways (covered passageways). She says it pays to be creative. This year, she tells a spooky story about ghosts lurking in the breezeways. The only way to get rid of them? Better lighting.

"Humour adds to the presentation. If they laugh, they remember it," she explains.

Watching on is Alonzo Howlett. The Downsview Acres tenant is a Participatory Budgeting first-timer. He doesn't have the same experience as Flowers, but he has the same goal - convince tenants to fund his idea and improve quality of life in his community. He asks for money to renovate his building's lobby.

It wasn't easy for Mr. Howlett to take part.

"I am recently out of surgery, but I think this process is so important, I had to get involved," he said.

He's glad he did. His community's idea got funding. Ms. Flowers' idea received funding too.


No matter who wins, everyone benefits

pb4Participatory Budgeting is about bringing tenants closer to the decision-making process. But it's about more than sharing power. It's also about increasing transparency, accountability, understanding and social inclusion.

In that context, when tenants take part in Participatory Budgeting, everyone benefits - even tenants living in buildings whose bids happen to fall short.

Natalie Marquardt lives in the Gilder community in Toronto's east end. It's a community of 325 housing units spread between two buildings. Marquardt is another first time Participatory Budgeting participant.

After a lively community planning meeting, where Gilder tenants put forward ideas and voted to decide the best ones, painting and plastering common spaces and installing additional security cameras were set as top priorities.

"We are a tight-knit community with a lot of seniors and youth and we're doing our best to make sure we feel safe and our environment is presentable," Marquardt says.

It's time to present her idea. It's difficult to stand in front of a room full of strangers with so much on the line, but Marquardt steps up and does a good job. She receives a warm reception from fellow tenants.

"It was a little nerve-wracking, but everybody made me feel comfortable because we're here for the same reason -- to make our community a better place," she says.

It's time to vote. There isn't enough money to fund all the ideas. Unfortunately for Marquardt, the Gilder proposal misses out on funding in a close vote.

But for Marquardt, there are no hard feelings. She has experienced first-hand the challenge of making spending decisions when resources are scarce. Through that, she has learned more about challenges in other buildings. And she has developed a new understanding of fellow tenants and the communities they call home.

"It's very obvious that some of these places need a lot of care so there's nothing to get upset about. It's more about being happy for someone else to be able to live a better life," she says.