Keeping the “community” in Toronto Community Housing
In last Friday’s Globe, Toronto Community Housing’s outgoing Managing Director Case Ootes said,
“Fundamentally, TCHC should be a landlord. That’s it. The social services should be provided by the province . . . In fact, I have a problem with the name Toronto Community Housing Corporation. It should be Toronto Housing. Creating communities is an organic process – it can’t be mandated by government.”
I know what Ootes means. I have seen enough sad-sack Christmas parties in dowdy church basements, and strained to look merry at enough sidewalk barbecues, to know that community can’t be manufactured by so called “community building events.”
Instead, community is the by-product of our daily round. I may go to work to earn money, send my kids to school to get an education, go to church to worship God and join my neighbours every spring to pick up litter. I’m not seeking community. But that is what I receive, in the form of colleagues, friends, and a sense of belonging.
Many people who live in social housing find community the same way I do. They don’t need community developers or health promotion officers.
But what about neighbourhoods where the natural building blocks of community are nowhere to be found: where nobody is hiring local talent; the local school is weak and underfunded; parks are barren; places of worship ingrown; and the only coffee shop is known as the “Sip & Stab?”
What then? It is a bit ingenuous for Mr. Ootes to say, “it’s up to the Province.” He has already said – accurately I believe – that we can’t expect the province to rescue TCHC from its capital backlog. The current Liberal Government has not showered poor neighbourhoods with benefits; a Conservative government is even less likely to do so. And, if City Council’s service review is any sign, we can expect city-funded institutions to shrink rather than grow.
This is where social housing can step forward – not as social services, but as tenant champions.
I’m not suggesting social housing should provide one-on-one services to tenants. Ootes is right to suggest that home care and case management should be funded through our health system – not our housing system.
Being a tenant champion is quite different.
It means sounding the alarm when tenants’ needs go unmet. I myself was involved in such an exercise, demonstrating that TCHC housed twice as many tenants with a mental illness as all Toronto’s supportive housing providers combined – but with none of the supports.
It means connecting the dots, recognizing that the 17 different home care workers running in and out of the building could be better deployed as a single, 24/7 service.
It means opening up common rooms to foot clinics, exercise classes and youth programs. It means offering up your grounds for markets and community gardens. It means ensuring your building gets a polling station for every election.
It means making your budget do double-duty – hiring tenants to do renovations and making sure major contractors do the same.
It means using your muscle to attract business investment, as TCHC did when it brought RBC, Sobeys and Tim Horton’s to Regent Park and made sure they hired locally.
TCHC has been doing this work for years. So have other social housing providers. In Toronto’s east end where I live, the common rooms in Vincent Paul’s Gower Park Place are programmed by Toronto’s Parks and Rec Department. The Sisters of St. Joseph’s Fontbonne Place is the home of the Mustard Seed. Innstead Co-op painted a mural on one of its houses facing a rail line, and took over the scrap of land next door for a wildflower garden.
Making the most of social housing’s assets
These activities don’t undermine social housing’s role as a landlord and property manager. They enhance it.
When TCHC started hiring tenant animators in 2005 to educate tenants to conserve energy, it saw utility bills drop by 17 per cent. By 2010, tenant-to-tenant education efforts were helping to cut water bills by $2.25 million a year.
In fact, it would be hard to imagine a community development initiative that did not bring property management benefits. Employed tenants pay higher rents; engaged communities keep security costs down.
These initiatives also build on the assets already embedded in housing: common rooms, vacant units, grounds, on-site staff, and an operating budget that is both larger and more stable than most agencies.
That doesn’t mean this work comes free. It requires staff who can step back from the day-to-day to look for trends and patterns. It takes time to seek out and nurture partnerships, to consult tenants, to co-ordinate services or to re-think practices.
But at a time when every level of government is taking money out of the public realm – and the natural building blocks of community are shrinking, not growing — it’s work we can’t afford to do without.