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Making bad buildings better

November 23, 2012

I called it a beacon. A reader called it the “light at the end of the tunnel.”

We were both talking about New York City’s fabulous Prince George building – an old-world jewel housing 208 formerly homeless men and women and another 208 low-wage earners.

Could we create a similar success story for Toronto Community Housing’s most problematic buildings? We must! TCHC has more than a dozen “high need buildings,” that are failing the people who live in them.

Think of 200 Wellesley – site of the 2010 fire that made over 1200 tenants temporarily homeless and cost millions of dollars in damage. From the outside, 200 Wellesley looked much like any other apartment building. But the fire brought to light a host of internal problems: over 50 fires between 2005 and 2010 – some accidental and some deliberately set – over 200 apartments with illegally-changed locks, widespread hoarding, infestations, and crime.

I’m mentioning 200 Wellesley because it’s become famous, but it’s not the only or even the first high-need building that deserves attention. Although every building is different, most share a high incidence of people with a mental illness addiction or history of homelessness, trauma or abuse.

TCHC has already worked hard to make these buildings better. But tinkering around the edges has not been enough. What is needed is a complete transformation – one building at a time.

We’ve got a lot to work with

Common Ground, the owners of the Prince George, marshaled federal, state and municipal funding, partnerships with agencies, and political goodwill to make their building and others like it succeed. But New York City is not the only city with assets. Let’s count up the assets Toronto brings to TCHC’s high-need buildings.

The biggest player in the room. TCHC is Canada’s largest service provider for people with mental illness.

According to a 2010 study, 8,900 adults with signed TCHC leases have a serious and persistent mental illness. To give a sense of scale, that is more than double the people admitted as inpatients each year at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Canada’s largest mental hospital.

In the past two years, TCHC has begun to participate at mental health tables. But frankly, it deserves to set the table. If Toronto wants to address mental illness and poverty, then it needs to go where the people live. And that’s TCHC.

The case for funding.  The Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Turning the Key has already laid the groundwork. They’ve shown us the costs when housing doesn’t work: up to $1,115 for a day in hospital; up to $785 for an ambulance trip; up to $820 for an emergency room visit; $457 for a night in jail and up to $69 for a night in a shelter. [1]  Compare that to the $27 – $50/day cost of social housing, or even the up to $115/day cost of “high-support supportive housing.”

If housing and health were funded by one government department, we might have seen action on high-need buildings long ago. The problem is that costs – and savings – are divided between five Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs) responsible for health while the City of Toronto shoulders the costs of TCHC, shelters, homelessness programs and city services.

How can we make the link between the high-needs buildings the City funds, and the savings LHINs will reap if these buildings are turned around?

It ought to be easy for Toronto hospitals, emergency rooms and mental health agencies to match their patient or client database with TCHC addresses to spot the buildings that are costing them money.

Or what if a sample of tenants in one building were tracked, to find out how much they were costing “the system?” That was how Common Ground made their case for funding. TCHC has already begun this work, but more needs to be done.

More assets

Engaged tenants. Tenants fought TCHC’s plan to sell houses and won. Now it’s time to win another victory by working with TCHC to keep high-need buildings on the agenda.

Tenants living in high-need buildings have a particular role to play. They’re the ones who know the building inside out, and know what needs doing. They can often point to simple changes that can make a world of difference.

Low cost buildings. The Prince George succeeded partly because it was bought cheap. Many TCHC buildings are cheap too, with mortgages that carry for a fraction of the cost of a new building.

Like the Prince George, many of these buildings need complete overhauls. These renovations will not be cheap, but they may be better value for money than a hundred routine repairs that do nothing to address the building’s root problems.

Portable subsidies. Common Ground has found that success depends on mixed-income buildings. In most TCHC high-need buildings, 100% of the tenants receive deep rent-geared-to-income subsidies.

TCHC can change that mix by moving subsidies to other buildings, or to other Toronto non-profit, co-op or private landlords. At a time when TCHC may want to balance its communities, and many private and co-op landlords are losing their federal subsidies, this flexibility could be a win-win for everyone. .

Provincial leadership that “gets it.” I’m excited Kathleen Wynne has thrown her hat into the Premiership contest, but I’m sorry to see her leave her post as the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing. Every time I heard her speak to a housing audience, she made the link between housing and health.

I hope that other provincial decision-makers heard that message, and now know what the research shows: that investments in housing yield savings in health.

Thinking big

A strong organizational leader. A case for funding. Engaged tenants. Cheap buildings. Portable subsidies. Political leadership. These are the elements TCHC needs to turn around its high need buildings.

The fundamentals are there. But until now, the elements have not coalesced into concerted action, and so TCHC has been able to find only piece-meal solutions.

I believe the time for half-measures is over. For tenants and for taxpayers, it’s time to turn these buildings around.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2012 10:51 am

    Joy– thanks for this post! the Prince George is a great example– and this approach has worked with similar buildings in San Francisco. It’s an approach that really does work! It does take health and housing working together– with staff on the health side dedicated to working on housing, and with staff on the housing side dedicated to working on supportive housing. Thank you for presenting this issue and its solutions in such a comprehensive and persuasive way!

  2. jsmooke permalink
    December 3, 2012 10:54 am

    Joy– thank you for this post! We have seen similar successes in San Francisco using the approach you argue so effectively for. There are many buildings like the Prince George that are highly successful. TCHC can and should do the same– and it would, as you note, take health staff who are dedicated to working on housing, and housing staff who are dedicated to working on supportive housing and coordinating with health. It can and should be done!

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