When cash isn’t the cure
If you’ve been following the lively public debate around TCHC’s stand alone houses, you might have come away thinking Toronto Community Housing has only one goal: raise money to fix up its buildings.
It’s a worthy goal. You can’t stay long in the landlord business if you don’t break even, and you can’t be a responsible landlord unless your buildings are in good repair.
But is this the City’s goal? Surely the public interest is not the welfare of any particular landlord. Instead, the City interest is the benefits that landlord gives the city: good homes for all its citizens, now and in the future; successful neighbourhoods; protection for the vulnerable; and a well-integrated city that makes the most of its transit and service infrastructure.
The real question the City should be asking is this:
How can TCHC best use its assets – not just the real estate but its buildings, tenants, staff, and partners – to provide the benefits we want?
It’s not always a matter of money
The reason I am such a strong supporter of stand alone houses is that they are a wildly successful housing form. Look up and down any Toronto street and you will see successful neighbourhoods filled with houses just like TCHC’s.
In my mind, TCHC’s stand-alone portfolio fulfills all the City’s housing goals. The only problem is that that TCHC is not set up to manage it. Turn the houses over to others – either to resident owners or to a non-profit rental manager specializing in scattered houses – and these houses will succeed.
But TCHC owns other buildings that are not so easy to save. Here’s a comparison between two Scarborough high-rises, at least as they stood in 2009. Both were built as seniors’ housing. Both share the same management. But one is a winner and the other is not.
|Number of tenants||
|Number of “community safety” incidents||
|Number of vacant units||
It may be that Building A is in better repair than Building B. But I don’t believe Building B’s problems are caused by bad repairs.
There is something else going on.
Around twenty years ago, TCHC found itself with 15 or so seniors’ buildings it could not fill. Seniors were no longer seeking bachelor apartments – at least in far-flung parts of the city with few amenities for seniors. So to keep its buildings full, TCHC opened them to those in immediate need, including younger singles with mental illness, addiction or a history of homelessness.
It never really worked. TCHC did not bring in the support agencies that might have helped these buildings succeed, and did not have the mandate or the funding to provide the necessary supports itself. The result: some seniors felt frightened by their new neighbours, vulnerable people were isolated and unsupported, and the buildings fell into decline.
Plumbing and patching won’t make these buildings succeed
Instead, we need to ask some fundamental questions:
- Do tenants see a future for themselves in these buildings? Can they suggest what might make that future brighter? Are there other organizations that could help make these buildings a success?
- Is there untapped potential in these buildings? For example, could they be converted to supportive housing for seniors – something we’ve been told will be in high demand as the baby boomers age?
- Is there anything else that might make these buildings work? Could the planned expansion of LRT or Subway lines create new potential for marketing these buildings? Or for redeveloping them?
And if the answer to these questions is no, then why are we fixing these buildings up? Perhaps it is these tenants, and not those who love their houses, that should be moved to the buildings of their choice.
Let me be clear. I am entirely behind TCHC’s desire to be a capable landlord. In this blog I have suggested ideas for raising the $100 million they say they need, and am excited by the prospect of the City’s proposed Special Working Group on TCHC.
But I also believe the City needs to grapple with the fundamental questions: What are the City’s housing goals? And do the ideas recommended by TCHC, or anyone else for that matter, advance those goals or not?
A new way of thinking
Canada’s social housing’s history has been filled with mini-revolutions. The first was in the 1950s, when Canada responded to returning veterans and a growing urban population with public housing.
In 1973, the National Housing Act ushered in a wave of independent non-profit and co-op housing – still the most successful social housing we have. In the 1980s it was the rise of supportive housing – the recognition that people with even serious disabilities were able to live independently in their own homes.
And then starting in 1993, the desert years: government’s abandonment of social housing, the rise of homelessness, and the decay of infrastructure. Today every city is Canada is dealing with the effects of 20 years of inaction.
It’s time to come out of the desert. We need a new approach to housing – one that doesn’t just patch over old problems, but goes right back to basics.
This is the challenge for Toronto — and everyone else who cares about Canada’s cities.