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There ain’t no rental housing if there ain’t no rent

February 28, 2012

Last week Toronto Star columnist Joe Fiorito offered his reflections on TCHC’s eviction prevention policy:

“The point of TCHC’s eviction prevention program is to prevent the poor, the elderly, and those people who are unable to look after themselves, from being tossed onto the street.

All you really need to know about this is contained in one simple sentence, in the letter accompanying the LeSage update: “Good eviction prevention programs cannot be implemented at the expense of rent collection.”

Those are the words of Len Koroneos, the interim CEO. You know what that sounds like to me? Your money, or your life.”

You know what that sounds like to me? Good housing management.

Toronto Community Housing is rental housing.  Over half TCHC’s revenue – the money needed to heat, insure, clean and fix its buildings – comes from rents.  When tenants don’t pay their rent, or fail to fulfill any of their other obligations under their lease, they hurt their buildings and their neighbours.

Should tenants living in poverty be expected to pay rent? That’s what subsidies are for. Over 90% of TCHC tenants have rents set at 30% of their income. When incomes go down, so does the rent.

What about tenants who are ill or disabled? Like every other service provider in Ontario, TCHC has a duty to accommodate people with disabilities.Under the Ontario Human Rights Code tenants have a legal right to request support or other accommodations to help them meet their obligations under the lease, and TCHC has a duty to work with tenants to find practical ways to meet their needs. The watchwords are dignity, integration and full participation in the community – not lowered standards.

Eviction prevention doesn’t mean letting tenants off the hook. It means enabling tenants to meet their full legal obligations. That means prompt, personal attention when anyone falls into arrears. It can involve “pay direct” schemes that ensure the rent is paid even if a tenant is ill or hospitalized; flexible re-payment plans; linkages with support agencies – whatever will help tenants to pay their rent.

A 0.16% eviction rate

A few well-publicized cases might lead you to think TCHC is an eviction-happy landlord. That’s simply not the case.

According to TCHC’s most recent quarterly review, arrears are down. Nonetheless, over 5,600 households – 10% of all TCHC households – are still in arrears, owing TCHC a staggering $4 million.

You might imagine, then, that 5000 households were in the midst of eviction proceedings. In fact, in the first nine months of the year TCHC had evicted only 91 households – 89 for arrears and 2 for behavior that had a negative impact on their neighbours. That’s an eviction rate of 0.16%.

Good for business, good for tenants

I am the co-author of TCHC’s 2009 Mental Health Framework. The report made 23 core recommendations to promote healthy communities and successful tenancies. But fewer evictions are not among them.

Our research showed TCHC’s eviction rate was half that of Ottawa Community Housing (TCHC’s closest comparator), lower than Toronto’s private landlords, and even lower than some supportive housing designed specifically to help vulnerable people. In fact, we heard from tenants who saw more evictions as the solution to drug dealing, prostitution and other disruptions in their building.

However, we did observe delays and dithering that allowed small problems to turn into big ones. Part of the problem was that front-line staff  were already stretched thin, and lacked the training and confidence to put TCHC’s eviction prevention policies into action. But I also saw staff who hesitated to act because they believed TCHC was somehow “the housing of last resort.”

That’s an attitude that can make tenants more vulnerable, not less. Allow tenants to fall into arrears and they end up with debts they can never repay – debts that ruin any credit rating they may have, tarnish their rental record (the tool private landlords use to screen prospective tenants), and prohibit them from moving to other subsidized housing.

More tenant power, not less

And besides, who wants to live in “the housing of last resort?” In Canada there are residential institutions where costs are paid by the state and the inhabitants have no obligations. We call them hospitals, care facilities or jails. They are not places most of us would choose to live. And it’s not what TCHC is all about.

When I meet TCHC tenants I see people who are smart and resourceful, contributing time and energy to make their homes a better place to live. I am hopeful the City of Toronto’s proposed TCHC Task Force will explore ideas that tap tenant initiative, from affordable home ownership to governance models that increase tenant leadership.

Treating tenants as if they can’t be expected to manage the basics does them no favours. And it doesn’t get more basic than paying the rent.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 29, 2012 10:34 am

    I am mystified to read that 90% of tenants pay 30% of their income on rent. OW recipients pay rent on a special scale as do ODSP recipients – they don’t pay anything like 30% of their income on rent unless their income goes above the non-benefit thresholds – and that rarely happens – and even then, the rent is seldom 30% of income.
    I must admit to having met the odd senior citizen in TCHC that paid exactly 30%.
    There is a 225 page TCHC manual on RGI rents that one would need a fifth degree black belt in Housing rents to even begin to understand. Presumably if the rule was 30% – there would be only a need for a one page manual consisting of one line: rent is 30% of income. At the hearings for Bill 140 and at the regulatory meetings, I think I annoyed people when I said “RGI rents are a good idea…. you should try them some time”.

  2. Hugh Lawson permalink
    February 29, 2012 3:49 pm

    The RGI manual is the City’s and not TCHC’s. Most tenants, except for those receiving OW and ODSP pay 30% of their income for rent. There are some minor adjustments depending on source of income and whether the tenant pays for their own utilities or not.

    The calculation of the 30% is not difficult. The difficulty is in determining what is income. That is what makes the determination of RGI rent difficult.

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