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Towards a theory of displacement

April 11, 2012

Should Toronto Community Housing tenants in good standing ever be asked to leave their homes?

It’s a question that elicits strong opinions. On the one hand you have people like the Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy commiserating with Regent Park tenants who were “duped” by “duplicitous” TCHC officials and “shipped off like cattle”  into penitentiary-like buildings.

At the other extreme you have people like Sue-Ann Levy describing tenants hoping to stay in their homes as “whiners and moaners” — “entitled individuals” who acted as if their homes were somehow “theirs.”  She said, “Nowhere is it written that any resident of a TCHC property deserves a home for life.”

Is there are approach to displacement where tenants are neither the objects of pity nor the objects of scorn – in fact, are not objects at all?

Let’s start with tenants’ rights

According to my reading of the Residential Tenancies Act, there seems to be only four reasons compelling enough to ask a tenant to move if they haven’t done anything wrong: to 1) convert, 2) demolish 3) repair the unit, or to 4) free the unit for the use of the landlord or the landlord’s family.

Note that selling the unit to raise money to repair the landlord’s other buildings – as TCHC threatened to do with its stand-alone properties — is not on the list. The landlord can appeal to tenants’ good will, offer incentives, or refuse help should the new owners want the house for their own use. But essentially the landlord is asking tenants to sign away their legal rights as a favour — something tenants might wish to remember as they consider their options.

Above and beyond

Redevelopments such as Regent Park and its predecessor Don Mount Court are on the list. To meet the letter of the law, TCHC must give tenants 120 days notice of the move, provide another rental unit “acceptable to the tenant,” or give the tenant an amount equal to three months’ rent.

In practice, TCHC has gone way beyond the law. It started by involving tenants early in the planning of Regent Park – the exact opposite of its approach to stand alone houses, where tenants  learned through the rumour mill that the sale of their homes was on the board’s agenda.

TCHC took full responsibility for relocating tenants – everything from finding the unit to managing the move to paying to redirect mail. It also committed itself to replacing every rent-geared-to-income unit either on-site or within walking distance of it, with all displaced tenants given an opportunity to return.

So far, TCHC is doing better than most.

Of the 820 Regent Park households that moved out, 416 have moved back, with another 260 expected to do so. Compare that to the big American “HOPE VI” revitalization projects, where only about 25 per cent of tenants return.

At Don Mount Court, TCHC’s first redevelopment, some tenants asked to stay onsite throughout the entire redevelopment. I can hardly imagine living on a construction site. But that’s what tenants asked for, and TCHC made it hapen.

This seems to be the key – working with tenants to figure out a plan. It’s because of this groundwork that Regent Park tenants have come out in force to support the revitalization.

But it is also worth noting that some relocated tenants did not get what they wanted. Sue-Ann Levy interviewed four women who were disappointed to be settled off-site at 501 Adelaide Street East, 60 Richmond Street East and 92 Carleton. The buildings might win architectural prizes and be only 15 minutes walk from the old Regent Park footprint. But just because a building might suit you or me, doesn’t mean it would necessarily suit everyone.

Could less be more?

It was the experience of these women, and others like them, that made me wonder whether TCHC might increase tenant satisfaction, and cut its own costs, by doing less.

TCHC’s relocation protocol seems premised on the idea that tenants need someone to manage their move. But if that was so, how did these tenants manage to move into TCHC in the first place?

My guess is that most tenants really need only three things to move successfully: early notice, cash to cover moving costs, and a portable rent subsidy (the money they are getting now to subsidize their rents) – usable either in another social housing unit or in a private rental building.

TCHC should have staff on hand — or even better, pay a tenant – to answer questions and help out those unable to manage a move themselves. But forget about needs assessments, priority ratings, moving micro-management and all the staff needed to manage the system. Instead, it would be up to tenants to make the best arrangements they can with the resources available – just like tenants in privately owned buildings.

That also means tenants get to pocket savings. For example, if TCHC spends $1000 now on a tenant move, that’s what the tenant would get. If she foregoes a professional mover and finds a friend with a truck, well good for her. She can use that money to spruce up her new place.

And then when units are ready to move back in? Tenants would have first dibs on the units, like the do now. But if they don’t move back they keep their housing subsidy where there are, and TCHC fills the spare units with market rent tenants. The result: fewer moves, and more income-mixing off-site as well as on.

Is this just crazy thinking?

It might be in today’s world of arcane waiting list and rent-geared-to-income rules.  But perhaps the time is ripe to re-think these systems too. Stay tuned.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2012 3:37 pm

    It’s interesting that one of the main complaints that private landlords have about renters is that they tend not to be as ‘houseproud’ as owners. The thinking goes that if they acted like owners, they would keep the yard tended, the sidewalk clean and would slap a coat of paint on the walls every so often.

    Now we have renters in TCHC houses that are houseproud and act, talk, and think like owners and Sun Columnist Sue Ann Levy says that “really gets to her”.

    No doubt anyone living in subsidized housing has won the lottery, so to speak, just because they got in and there is inequality among the tenant community as a result.

    By George, Sue Ann is on to something! If we had more affordable housing, then there would be more equality among people who cannot afford to own their own homes.

    Yet I am not sure if she would like this solution to the inequities she identifies because she doesn’t appear to like subsidized housing in the first place and appears to be more than a bit angry at both the tenants of the TCHC houses and elected representatives she calls “gravy-swilling socialist councillors”.

    All well and good – a lot of people don’t like a lot of other people. The world is like that.
    My question is” How much should the public pay to pacify the anger of Sue Ann Levy in the form of the the social and economic costs of eviction?”

    And she’s right about laws too….

    There’s no law that says that government can’t adopt expensive and dumb solutions so that Sun columnists can feel better about the world.

  2. Cheryl Hazell permalink
    April 17, 2012 8:33 pm

    @johnastapleton…you are so right. i couldn’t have said it better. i’m a TCHC co-op tenant and am quite “houseproud”. I’m paying for it, so why shouldn’t I be.

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