Three cheers for the Bailão report
It was a big job, but somebody had to do it.
That somebody was Councillor Ana Bailão, who stepped forward last spring to help Toronto Community Housing find money to repair its 58,500 homes – without losing 619 of Toronto’s most integrated and versatile social housing units.
On September 17th, Councillor Bailao and the Special Housing Working Group announced Putting People First: their recommendations for transforming TCHC. The report is going to the Executive Committee on October 9th, and then on to City Council. Let’s look at three reasons to cheer it on its way.
Huzzah #1: 564 homes saved
At last Monday’s media conference I, along with dozens of others, snapped open the report with one question in mind: “Will the houses be saved?” The answer, for 90 per cent of the houses originally slated for sale, is “yes.”
The Working Group recognized what so many pundits have failed to grasp: that TCHC did not have a one-time repair backlog. It has an annual $100 M operating shortfall that a one-time sell-off just can’t fix.
And the future of these 564 houses? Potential partners are already lining up.
- Habitat for Humanity has brought forward a proposal to convert up to 100 houses for affordable home ownership. There will be no lack of demand: 54 per cent of tenants in TCH houses want to own the home they live in, and behind them are thousands of tenants in TCHC and elsewhere in the $30 – $60,000 income bracket that Habitat for Humanity typically serves.
- The Co-op Housing Federation of Toronto has submitted a proposal for a Community Land Trust. Land trusts have proved successful across North America, from the world-renown Champlain Housing Trust in the US to the Bathurst Quay Trust here in Toronto. And if anyone doubts that scattered unit housing can be managed well, consider Toronto’s quiet successes — from Wigwamen, to Innstead Co-op, to Ecuhome – that weave houses for low income people seamlessly through Toronto.
- There are also over a dozen supportive housing providers willing and able to own and manage the TCH houses their clients already live in, and perhaps expand their reach to other houses as they become vacant.
The partners are there and willing to work. Full steam ahead!
Huzzah #2: Options for long-term success
The report suggests a bundle of ways to plug TCHC’s $100 Million annual repair deficit.
I don’t altogether understand some of the recommendations, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work. For example, I had thought the report’s REIT proposal would be a non-starter until I saw a serious discussion of the idea in the Globe’s Report on Business.
The good news is we don’t need every idea. We only need one or two good ones. My own faves?
- Re-negotiating mortgages. It offends me that lenders are charging Toronto’s lowest-income citizens, along with Toronto taxpayers, up to 13% interest rates. CMHC and other lenders may argue that those rates were bargains when the deals were signed, but I suspect they have made their money back and more since then. Infrastructure Ontario is now offering long-term loans to social housing at 3.84% or less. Time to re-negotiate.
- Fixing the subsidy glitch. Tenants in social housing receive less social assistance than those renting from private landlords. That costs Toronto $81 Million a year and growing — enough to solve TCHC’s deficit in one swoop. With buildings deteriorating, we can’t afford to subsidize the Ontario Government any longer.
TCHC can’t make these changes on its own. It will need the muscle of Toronto City Council behind it, and public support as well. Count me in!
Huzzah #3: A model to build on
In a media quote that I recall but can’t seem to locate, Councillor John Parker described the Working Group as a model for solving civic problems. I agree.
The debate at City Council might have boiled down to a simplistic “Sale vs No Sale,” clash. But whatever the outcome of that debate, TCHC tenants and the City would have been the poorer for it. The Working Group had a better approach. It brought together civic-minded leaders with no axe to grind, sought out the views of tenants, consulted experts in Canada, the US and UK, called for ideas (and got them!), and produced 19 do-able recommendations – all at a cost of under $20,000.
Now we need to keep on working together
Many recommendations in the report start with the phrase, “Council request Toronto Community Housing” . . .to report, to facilitate, to work with the City Manager, and so on.
In other words, it is not enough for City Council to approve the report’s recommendations. With0ut TCHC’s full commitment to carrying out those recommendations, little will happen.
I do not imagine it is easy for an organization to shift gears. In October 2011, the TCHC Board told tenants and advocates that it must sell houses. After that meeting I know a number of people (including me) urged TCHC to bring together a group of experts and community reps to explore other options. But nothing happened until City Council stepped in.
Is it a new day? I have high hopes. I was very heartened to see TCHC Chair Bud Purves’ signature on the report. CEO Gene Jones has spoken of his own commitment to “work more closely with the City and other partners to pursue as many new approaches and opportunities as we can.”
If TCHC can pick up where the Working Group left off, consulting with tenants, seeking external partners and working with them, Toronto will be a better place to live – not just for TCHC tenants, but for us all.