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Is Toronto Community Housing too big?

January 17, 2012

Toronto Community Housing is Canada’s housing giant.  At 58,500 units, it is the second largest social housing landlord in North America, second only to the New York Housing Authority.

In Canada’s social housing world, no-one else comes even close. Ottawa Community Housing is next at 15,000 units, followed by BC Housing and Peel Living with around 7,000 units apiece. After that only a handful of other Canadian social housing providers break the 1,000-unit mark.

It’s also big by private sector standards. According to their company websites, CapREIT owns 30,821 units across Canada; Greenwin manages 20,000 (and some of these are at TCHC); Minto manages 14,000.

So it is no wonder some people are asking, “Is Toronto Community Housing’s size a good thing, or a bad thing?”

To explore this question I turned to the UK, where social housing dominates the rental housing scene and large providers are more common – and discovered the fascinating 2005 report, Is big really best – or can small and friendly deliver?, published by the Chartered Institute of Housing.

Best size? It depends what you’re trying to do

The report concludes there is no clear evidence that bigger (or smaller) is better.  But it does suggest that 1,000 – 5,000 units may be the best size for overall housing management and maintenance.  (I understand that in Australia, now contemplating transferring state-owned housing to community ownership, 500 – 2,000 units is seen as the ideal.)

The report finds that:

  • tenant satisfaction is highest among providers between 750 – 5,000 units, and lowest among those with more than 7,000 units
  • repairs are performed best by providers managing 5,000 – 10,000 units, and worst among very small or very large providers
  • vacancies are filled fastest among providers with fewer than 750 units, and most slowly among providers with more than 10,000 units
  • rent arrears are lowest among providers with 1,500 – 5,000 units, and highest among those with more than 7,000 units.

But there are functions that are best performed at the large scale. The report recommends that new housing development is best managed by large providers, and that managing capital repairs, procurement, and “back office” functions such as financial services, risk management, IT, and communications all become more effective in providers with more than 5,000 units.

What does this mean for TCHC?

One foreign study should not control our thinking about TCHC’s future. But I can’t help noticing the match between this study and my own observations.

A smaller organization would never have been able to leverage the funding to revitalize a Regent Park or a Lawrence Heights. And look who is leading affordable housing development in Toronto these days: big companies like Verdiroc, Medallion and Minto; multi-service agencies such as the YWCA and WoodGreen Community Services; and TCHC itself. It’s not impossible for a small organization to create new housing (congrats on your opening, 40 Oak Street!), but most don’t have the money or the expertise to bring new housing on-stream.

However, TCHC’s size has worked against them on the management side. It can take years for policies developed at head office to be fully adopted at the front-line. In fact, any corporate activity requires a major effort. A small non-profit can organize a tenant election simply by posting a notice beside the elevator and opening up the meeting room. At TCHC, tenant votes operate at the scale of a municipal election. (Interesting factoid: TCHC is Canada’s 23rd largest city by population – bigger than Guelph, Kingston or Sudbury.)

To my knowledge there is no mechanism to compare TCHC’s performance, costs or tenant satisfaction with other social housing, although much of the data is there. But I have heard enough from tenants, staff, community agencies and neighbours to suspect that TCHC is not meeting the standards set by smaller non-profit landlords.

Dream small

If you were to divide TCHC into smaller, more manageable chunks, how would you do it? Hiving off TCHC’s houses to someone who could manage them better might be a first step. But the next step is not so obvious.

  • Would you create a separate corporation for the seniors’ buildings? They definitely have different needs from TCHC’s family buildings. But it’s worth noting that over 40% of seniors living at TCHC don’t live in seniors-only buildings.
  • Would you create neighbourhood-based corporations? When it was first formed TCHC tried creating 27 neighbourhood “franchises,” but it slipped back into a much more centralized approach. Does that mean this approach can’t work, or only that TCHC didn’t go far enough in creating local autonomy?
  • Would you turn the clock back to 2001 and restore the three legacy corporations: Cityhome, the Metro Toronto Housing Corporation and Metro Toronto Housing Authority? It would liberate the Cityhome downtowners who have been paying to repair the underfunded MTHA buildings. But would it also contribute to suburban poverty?

And what are the functions that you would vest with a central office? Would you even need TCHC’s central office?

Or would you turn Toronto Community Housing into Toronto Community Housing Trust – a corporation that would own the land and be responsible for development and renewal?

Would TCHC’s policy staff migrate to Ontario-wide associations, where their talents could benefit other housing providers as well? Would we see new businesses — Toronto Housing Accounting Services, or TC- IT — opened up to serve small non-profits and co-ops? Or . . . ?

Faithful readers:

For the past ten years TCHC has struggled with the tension between mighty vs. responsive; centralized operations vs. empowered local communities. How would you find the sweet spot? 

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2012 9:27 pm

    At 58,500 units, it is my opinion that TCHC is too big to succeed. Maybe car companies or banks are “too big to fail” but the opposite applies in non-profit or co-op housing.

    I would say that TCHC is 20 to 50 times too big to succeed. Joy’s recent blog Is Toronto Community Housing too big seems to favour projects of 750 to 1,500 to 2,500 as the most functional. I say, they are “too big to succeed”.

    I propose that 75 to 150 units is conducive to good management. That would reduce the 58.5K TCHC units to 780 projects.

    People will say, “That results in creating 780 general managers and maintenance co-ordinators and related staff and sub-contractors, etc. for each project.” I say, “Great”, it is cheaper than one centralized administration of 58,5K family homes, builds community, participation and smaller projects are better managed.

    I would be interested to know how the adminstrative cost of 780 projects compares with the current TCHC centralized admin. budget.

    Common sense says the decentralized approach is not only cheaper but more sustainable, participatory and democratic; especially over the long term.

  2. January 17, 2012 10:31 pm

    Oops. I should have said “TCHC is 500 to 1.000 times too big to succeed”

  3. mkrowat permalink
    January 20, 2012 10:53 am

    Bigger is not better. As a 26+ year participant in co-operative housing, which is guided by the principles of open membership, democratic control, economic participation, independence, co-operative education, co-operation among co-operatives, and community, I say we need to build more not for profit housing co-ops, not housing projects. Housing co-op’s build diverse communities, unity, and cooperation, while housing projects just build developments that de-humanize and alienate.

  4. January 20, 2012 7:28 pm

    Joy: What is that video at the bottom of your blog entry? I can’t get any sound out of it?

    • January 20, 2012 7:34 pm

      I didn’t add a video to this entry. Is something showing up when you view the blog?

      • January 20, 2012 7:59 pm

        I’m trying to find the video but it’s gone. I swear when I followed your notification to your latest blog, there was a video at the bottom of the message. Did anyone else see it?

  5. January 22, 2012 8:56 pm

    Bertrand Russell once said that there are two ways to deal with a problem: you can avoid it or solve it. The addendum was that it’s always better to avoid a problem if you can.

    Avoidance would mean keeping TCHC as a big umbrella but breaking it down from within to optimum size autonomous units within the larger umbrella, all the while farming out all the decisions that suit smallness and keep all those that suit a larger size.

    Not impossible………..

    • January 22, 2012 9:08 pm

      What is “optimum size” under the umbrella? How many units?

  6. Brian Davis permalink
    January 25, 2012 4:00 pm

    I agree and disagree with the comments regarding TCH’s size.

    First of all I agree that TCH is too big to be locally responsive to varying community and building needs. One example that stands out was the installation of a new security access system in a building in desparate need of one. The system required everyone of the 396 households to have phone service. However since 40% of the residents couldn’t afford one, the the building was even less secure than the original system.

    IN the beginning there was an attempt between 2003 to 2007 to completely decentralize operations. The challenge however is to fully decentralization resources along with local control. If this doesn’t take place, it leads to significant frustration and giving up resources is not easy.

    I do believe there is no correlation between TCH’s size and it’s inability to implement policies. This is a management issue, not a size one. Many organizations ten times their size do it all the time. After a policy is developed in consultation with the field and the customer, you create protocols and resources so the policy is not left to 1,500 interpretations. Then you train, support, and direct your staff to follow these protocols. After this takes place, you ensure an internal auditing function to ensure each department and/or staff person is following procedures and you take corrective action when necessary.

    Of course there are lots of variations on this process and there’s many principles that need to be considered (ie. management cohesion, organizational buy-in, labour relationships, change management and organizational development principles, etc). Last but not least there needs to be coordination, recognizing that 95% of your field’s staff’s time is in service delivery. You simply cannot push out a policy every few weeks or at the same time.

  7. April 14, 2012 4:50 am

    I applyed to Cityhome when it was just a thought in the 70’s , and low and behold I found myself needing housing as an abused single Mother in 1982 and was offered a Jr. One bedroom at Henry Lane Terrace. Three years later when my son turned 5, I was offered a two bedroom at 55 The Esplanade, built in 1982. Twenty-six years later, after many repair complaints and three Toronto Housing Tribunal court cases since TCHC was formed in 2001, there has been nothing but trouble and harrassment to tenants from the “new” organization;That TCHC controlled 164,000 units and over 700 rental properties, of which 675 are up for sale to pay for over 722 million in repairs to buildings that are old and falling apart! Now I am a senior and so called “overhoused” and have lost my subsidy because I refused 3 offers to move into worse buildings than where I am now. Now there are complaints about my balcony that is full of pigeon poop and I must pay to clean this unhealthy situation up. TCHC has never even painted the walls in my unit in the 26 years I have lived here and my bedrooms are used for storage of my artwork. Ineed believe cleaning up the staff of TCHC in 2011 was a good thing, but it does not help my housing situation and the 2,200 tenants that will need housing when TCHC sells off properties!
    So maybe they should not have amalgamated Cityhome with Ontario Housing and Metro Housing…and I could afford to live in my own apartment that I have basicly paid for paying rent to TCHC for 26 years.

  8. September 3, 2013 9:22 am

    I am so happy that I found this little niche on affordable housing on the internet..

    I honestly do not know what TCHC falls under, does it still consider itself somewhat of a municipal non profit housing corporation like Cityhome?

    I live in Crombie Park Apartments, also known as 25/49 Henry Lane Terrace. I am convinced that forcing the Cityhome buildings into the MTHA and MTHCL property portfolios is what may have caused some alienation of the Co-ops and Condominiums with the Cityhome now TCHC buildings as well as the deteriorating state of repair for the still existing Cityhome buildings.

    The amalgamation of the six municipalities of Metro into the megacity created an amazing public library system, but on the other hand created a throughly dysfunctional city housing corporation…

    At times the conduct of staff at the district offices to the present CHU offices can sometimes be less than stellar. I showed up at the office at 400 McCowan expressing my concerns only to be asked, “Why don’t you move out?” I am not always good at confrontation, assertiveness or good responses, but I think anyone’s response could easily be “Why should I be obliged to pay the rent on my housing unit?” That is the fundamental element that grants TCHC a quasi dictatorial power over it’s customers, that is right, their CUSTOMERS.

    The first step right away should be to break off immediately the former Cityhome buildings and newer mixed income buildings, as they have a more fiscally healthy arrangement for raising funds for the day to day maintenance and operations, as well as whatever capital repairs that have to be made..

    Perhaps someone reading this writing of mine could perhaps pay a visit to my home at Crombie Park Apartments.. Only what’s absolutely critical gets fixed here, and things are really starting to break here in this building. Now the shared school gym under the apartments has cracks in the walls. The grounds and the building are certainly getting into a shabby state, and I even wonder if TCHC at times replaces market renters with more rent to geared income households that could drag the building down further…

    When I first moved into any kind of affordable housing it was back in June, 1993, it was a then less than two years old Cityhome building. The superintendant lived in the building and there was an office in the lobby for a social worker who served any tenants needs in the building. This arrangement applied to all Cityhome properties and having the building social worker staff kept those vulnerable from slipping through the cracks. Even on weekends the superintendant was there for his building community, keeping his eye on the building for any trouble. Even the garden work was taken care of by professional workers. With the cut backs starting in 1995, under Mike Harris, carrying on well into the 2000s, it took little time for the buildings to fall into disrepair and uncleanliness. Cityhome buildings were nearly like quasi private housing, since the majority of residents were and hopefully still are market renters, only now their market rent money is swamped by the rest of housing lumped in. And we had building cleaners in Cityhome that were practically like maids, and were very detail oriented and through. That is exactly what you do to make it work. Hire the same kind of workers that maintain the condominiums and bank towers and you can’t go wrong through an actual competitive selection process that would be throughly analyzed; not through some labour monopoly. I suppose saying that would make me more of a left leaning Progressive Conservative like David Crombie, although the PC moviement in this country is now is anything but, so who’s to say what I am…

    But yes, Cityhome truly does deserve better, to be brought back to the awareness of the people of this city that may have forgotten, as well as younger ones and new arrivals who may have never heard of it. Cityhome was the BEST and it was one of the best run non profit housing providers in this city, even at times better than a few of the co ops back time the day, with the likes of mayors like David Crombie, John Sewell and Barbara Hall channeling their passion for social justice into the fabric of this city…

    Take a trip back to the early 1970s, when the critical mass of progressive minded baby boomer youth started to have to voice and and achieved the impossible (younger people will always be more open minded than the older establishment). Metro Toronto wanted to keep building ghettoized housing for the poor with no end in sight. In such a brief time from the late 1960s into the 1970s things changed dramatically. Trudeau gained power and was then forced to work with the NDP under a minority parliament around the early 1970s (wonderful things always get done under minority governments), and in turn Non Profit housing in all it’s forms was born. Municipal Non Profits, Non Profit Co-Op housing (as well as For-Profit Housing Co-Operatives), Privately owned and managed Non Profit Housing Corporations, as well as Senior’s Non Profit Housing, and even including things like Older Women’s Non Profit Housing. The list goes on and on, that gave birth to a whole broad spectrum of creatively concieved and thought out affordable rent geared to income and affordable market rate hosing, mixed with the luxury condominiums in a beautiful planned out downtown neighbourhood that is the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood; a neighbourhood that comes with all the amenities, including being situated in an established and improved tourist district, as well as being steps from the financial district and the many other benefits of vibrant downtown living. And of course, by bringing in the wealth from influential interests, the job gets done even better and more effectively; with the well to do and whatnot helping to pay for decent, safe affordable housing for all residents including lower income community members.

    Toronto Community Housing still has a flavour and somewhat of an attitude of the former Metro Housing, with many of the ill planned post war housing buildings still standing; buildings that continue to drag the former Cityhome buildings further down along with them… From an urban planning point of view, that SO much why we need to ensure the present financial welfare of the current state of the private housing market especially including the ongoing momentum condominium development and construction; while at the same time nurturing even further growth; including condominium construction growth that is helping to fund the latest generation of new affordable mixed income housing being built and managed by TCHC in partnership with a various group of private Condominium developers…

    By protecting the general city planning agenda set by former mayor David Miller though his plans to revitalize the troubled priority neighbourhoods according to the nearly decade old Official Plans tabled and approved by this amalgamed city of Toronto, shall ensure future prosperity for this cityl; along with his plans for suburban light rail also known as Transit City, in order to usher in a new era of city living for ALL of the residents of this still new megacity-as well as beyond into the 905. An aggressive and rapid deployment of light rail and some heavy rail rapid transit will make life for all residents ANYWHERE, more sustainable, neighbourly and urban friendly. Socially isolating and environmentally/financially unsustainable suburban developments will give way to give priority to going back to the older ways of town and neighbourhood planning, as it was done by all municipal governments up until the late 19th/early 20th century; a world where rail moved everything. After all, the private automobile only causes congestion, pollution and waste of natural and financial resources and is truly the epitomy of true greed and selfishness; just imagine how much light rail and inter city rail travel you could build with the wealth devoted to the automobile; as well as the deep subsidies given to highways and air travel, and not just mass transit and intercity transit that are so prone to being singled out supposedly that they are a financial burden on the public, WHEN IN FACT THE OPPOSITE IS TRUE…

    When you start having more light rail and urbane style communities all over the place tied together by inter city, and by the grace of good will global intercontinental rail travel, you can attract newer denser commercial and real estate development to help pay for all of the community’s costs; covering all services from transit as well as repairing, refurbishing, revitalizing and building newer affordable housing. That is until, as former Cityhome/TCHC head Deark Ballantyne put it so well, until ALL affordable housing in the country and the world is sustainable, mixed income, in a state of good repair, preferably and hopefully ALL non profit and as safe and prosperous as the homes, neighbourhoods ,and many urban regions of this shinking world/global communtiy, that is starting to tie together by this new far flung digital global collective consciousness known as the Internet, where progressive thought, open thinking and open communitcation is open to many, as it spreads further to all corners of the globe…

    Let us never forget about the once far flung dream that would become Cityhome, a dream that was up against the odds as well as up against the regressive post war modernist forces of Metro and Toronto City Hall… Never forget that then as now, high rise development was flying out of control. Under our current mayor, he is the second out of three mayors of this new amalgamated city that is of the old conservative subruban idelology, a failed and dying and political idelology, that is and never was as environmentally/fiscally/or earth rescourcefully sustainable as the more sustainable optons available…

    Take what you read from this little rant/rambling and make the difference, and perhaps some day all the people of the world will live as comfortable, prosperous, and modern lives in communities as nice as the St. Lawrence neighbourhood; in physically, and virtually through the internet, integrated communities, tied together with the best post modern urban planning, transportation, and utility services at our disposal; with the best and most affordable telecommunications services; services that we know we have always know have been within our collective reach…

    Anyways I think I have talked more than enough. Thank you for reading this far to the end. And of course, as Doc Brown at the end of the Back to the Future trilogy put so well “The future is un-written. No one’s future is. So make it a good one, all of you!” : )

    Until next time…

    ~ Jordan DredWolf Scott Kerim

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