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Good rhetoric. Bad policy.

February 3, 2012

Hoisted by my own petard!

As someone who has worked off and on in communications, I know the value of the guerrilla statistic – that wham-o number that galvanizes action.

But last week’s meeting of Toronto City Council’s Executive Committee reminded me that catchy communications can sometimes lead us down the wrong policy path.

Witness the statement that Toronto Community Housing has a $650 million backlog. The outstanding work needed to repair TCHC’s buildings might indeed add up to $650 million this year. But characterizing TCHC’s building troubles as a “capital backlog” suggests the solution is “inject capital” – the kind you can raise by selling off houses.

We already know that one time fixes won’t work. In 2008, TCHC’s Save our Structures capital campaign rallied $239 million in federal, provincial and municipal investment – more than the City manager predicts will be raised by selling 675 TCHC houses. Yet by 2010, TCHC’s $300 million backlog had doubled to $650 million.

The $100 million annual shortfall

As TCHC’s Community Management Plan and the staff reports to the TCHC board make clear, the real problem is this: TCHC needs an extra $100 million every year to keep its buildings in good repair. Sell houses today, and you can patch your way through the next couple of years. But after the money runs out, what do you do next?

A $100 million annual shortfall needs different sorts of solutions. A Mayor Ford might ask, “Is this a revenue problem, or a spending problem (or both)?” I might ask, “Do we need to re-think TCHC?” I don’t know the answers. But I think these questions – and not panicky sell-offs — are the path to wise decisions.

Panicked by the waiting list

TCHC are not the only ones to be panicked by their own killer statistic.

These days it is impossible to hold a conversation about housing in this city without hearing the words: “there are 82,138 households on the social housing waiting list.”  It’s a big, scary number. But what does it mean?

It doesn’t mean that 82,138 households are homeless. The actual number of homeless people on the waiting list is 6,341. Or that 82,138 households are actively looking; that number is 69,342.

It doesn’t even mean 82,138 households want to live in social housing. They might prefer some extra money to stay where they are, or money to do the repairs their landlord has neglected. But there are no waiting lists for these choices.

But my real concern is this: when the problem is framed as “how do we house the social housing waiting list?” the solutions narrow to two:

  • Build more social housing
  • “Free up” social housing units to make room for people on the waiting list.

I’m a big fan of social housing. But if it took 60 years to build Toronto’s 93,000 social housing units, we’re not going to house the waiting list anytime soon. Personally, I think we should reserve new social housing for projects that serve multiple goals – and not see it as generic “new supply.”

Isn’t stability a good thing?

I’m more concerned by the notion that people who live in social housing are unit blockers that tie up resources that ought to be circulated. For example, at Executive Committee we heard it was “unfortunate” that social housing residents treated their home as a permanent address.

Never mind that most of us see a permanent address as a good thing. We may move often when we’re young and “finding our place in the world” (a telling phrase in itself.) But during our child-rearing years, or those (hopefully) long years between down-sizing and tottering into the sunset, most of us like to stay put.

Never mind that most social housing is explicitly targeted to healthy seniors, families with children and people with long-term disabilities – the very people who most benefit from stability and are the least likely to move every 4 or 5 years.

Never mind that only social housing tenants are pressured to move on: there is no “private housing waiting list” to make the rest of us feel guilty for staying in our homes.

Move on? Where?

Let’s remember that options for “moving on” are few. It’s not easy to raise the downpayment to buy a home when 30% of every extra dollar is clawed back. And what’s the point in moving back into the private rental market — in fact, back into the units vacated by people on the list moving into social housing?

And let’s also remember the experience with housing allowances. Housing allowances are designed as a temporary “hand up” for tenants in privately-owned buildings. Yet of the 3,800 Toronto households earmarked to receive up to $250 per month in housing allowances over the next 4 years, 2000 are people whose current housing allowance expires in 2012/2013. Their subsidies have ended, but their needs have not.

250,000. One million. 100,000. 80,000. . .

If the 82,128 waiting list doesn’t drive the housing agenda, what should?

I think we already have the answer in Toronto’s Affordable Housing Action Plan. It’s the now 250,000 households who can’t afford their home; the one million newcomers expected by 2020; the 100,000 young people entering the workforce; and the 80,000 entering their senior years.

In other words, not one number, but many. It may not make for great slogans. But it’s our best hope of good policy.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2012 11:33 am

    I think we are all somewhat good at problem identification and terrible at solution identification.

    TCH has been given virtually no options despite their standing orders to fix the problems of their stock and of the tenants they house. They can’t raise rents, they can’t issue more debt because they are at their debt service capacity and now they face the problem of not being able to leverage their own assets. What good does it do to them as a business or to their tenants by painting them into a corner.

    If the problem is supply, then we need to build more. If the problem is income or additional supports for tenants, then we should give them more. But the real problem is that government doesn’t see it as being their role and responsibility. They fail to see housing as an investment instead of just a cost. They fail to connect the dots of housing to their other policy agendas on a community-wide basis. They see their role as giving less because of the economic times. And that’s a recipe for a spiral downward not just for social housing but for all of us.

    We will all (government included) never figure out the right solutions while we look at things like housing in a piecemeal fashion. We need to cast the housing issue in the wider frame of good community development policy instead that bring in other issues like transit, health, education, environment and local economic development.

  2. Cheryl Hazell permalink
    February 4, 2012 11:23 am

    Any way you look at it, whichever $$million figure it comes out to, TCHC will still have a backlog.

    I believe that a solution has to start from a human rights standpoint. We cannot for a moment forget that PEOPLE actually live in those houses and are connected to their communities. Let’s not forget the CHILDREN. They are people, too, who have friends, attend schools and participate in various programs in their neighbourhoods.

    This is the recently updated Housing Services Act, 2011

    Housing is a human right and it is so appalling to think that this province, one of the richest in the country is having such a difficult time helping some of their citizens keep a warm roof over their heads. This is the true result of capitalism – every man and woman for themselves. The attitude and approach to poverty by those of us who are better off is loathsome. No wonder there are still hungry children across this nation and parents who still have to choose whether to pay the light bill or buy food. That will NEVER change until our attitudes do.

    I received an email this week about The Toronto Disaster Relief Committee which also believes housing is a human right.

    They have worked for several years with the Right to Housing Coalition to
    complete the necessary requirements for a Charter Challenge. Documents filed with the courts are now available for viewing at

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