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It’s not Ford’s fault!

June 12, 2013

It’s not David Miller’s fault either. It’s not the fault of Toronto Community Housing’s present Board of Director, the previous Board, or the Board before them.

I’m talking about the scathing Toronto Ombudsman’s Housing at Risk: An Investigation into the Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s Eviction of Seniors on the Basis of Rent Arrears. The report examined the files of 79 seniors evicted from TCHC in 2011 and 2012 and found, “a pattern of callous and unfair treatment of many seniors, including at least one case in which a tenant died shortly after eviction.”

Why am I so quick to let City Council and the TCHC Board off the hook? Because their purview is policy.

TCHC already has all the policy it needs. It has a first-rate Eviction Prevention Policy. It has a Mental Health Framework, a Seniors’ Strategy and a Vulnerable Tenants Protocol. For the most part, the recommendations in the Ombudsman’s report, like those in the 2010 LeSage Report following the death of Al Gosling, simply amplify these policies. There is truly nothing to say that hasn’t already been said.

So then what would enable TCHC’s CEO Gene Jones to make good on his promise of “reasonable, open, fair and helpful” service to tenants?

There are some things TCHC can do — such as training for all front-line staff in the company’s policies and protocols, and the philosophy behind them. But I believe the real solutions might be found outside TCHC.

Health problems need health solutions

In a posting last year I asked Why can’t TCHC be more supportive? The Ombudsman’s report asked the same question.

It all comes down to numbers. In 2010, TCHC employed one social worker for every 2,166 units, and one Tenant Service Co-ordinator – the person who manages leases, calculates subsidies, and sends tenant correspondence and eviction notices  — for every 539 units. Job titles and departmental structures have changed since then, but overall staffing levels have not.

These staffing levels are in line with private sector standards. But the tenant mix in TCHC buildings is far different from the average rental building. More than 6,500 tenants are over 80 years old, and 75% of seniors live alone. TCHC also houses 8,900 adults with “serious and persistent” mental illnesses. To give a sense of scale, that’s more than double the annual inpatient admissions at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Heath, Canada’s largest mental health facility.

TCHC simply does not have enough staff to provide the in-person supports some tenants need. The solution? The Operating Unit Manager quoted in Para. 217 of the report says it all:

“I would love to get a supportive housing partner . . . in all of the seniors buildings . . . [I]t’s like having your own little social service agency there. They would case manage, they would also do some education pieces and some general support for the whole senior tenant population.”

In other words, we need to break down the silos between housing and health.

Fortunately, Premier Kathleen Wynne already knows all this. When she was Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, she spoke repeatedly about the connections between housing and health. At TCHC, those silos are being broken, with several small supportive housing partnerships and small, time-limited pilot projects. But to really make a mark, much more needs to be done.

Income verification gone wrong

Many of the Ombudsman’s stories started with an income verification problem.

Everyone who receives a subsidy in public, non-profit or co-op housing, needs to verify their incomes. It’s that verification that sets their subsidies for the coming year. Fail to submit your forms and you could lose your subsidy. Send in your forms late and you could be asked to pay back-charges.

In some social housing, income verification is a pretty painless process. Tenants stop by the office in their building, hand in their form, chat with the manager, and walk out knowing their new rent.

TCHC’s approach is not so folksy, as I learned first-hand when I accompanied an entirely honest senior whose original income verification had been rejected. Together we trekked the three kilometres to the nearest TCHC office with a half inch thick packet of new documentation. My friend’s documents proved acceptable, but only after she stammered answers to questions such as “Why did you copy this legal-sized document onto 8.5 x 11?” “Why did you fill this out in pencil?” “Show me your bank book.” The entire tone of the interview was, “So, you thought you’d try to pull a fast one, eh?” No wonder my friend was afraid to go alone!

A different approach 

If TCHC’s scale precludes the personal touch, perhaps it’s time to give up on verifying incomes altogether. The Ontario Government’s 2010 Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy has already proposed a solution: an automated, income tax based system, where tenants would submit their annual income tax return, and Canada Revenue Agency would do the rest.

I know that some tenants will not want their private information shared, and I’m sure there are other logistical issues as well. But I, for one, am all in favour of tax-based solutions. (For example, my daughter gets a quarterly tax credit cheque because her income is low. She didn’t need to apply for it. It was calculated automatically from her income tax return.) To me, it’s a much better approach than the usual intrusive approach to subsidies, and could be a LOT cheaper to administer.

A new way of doing things

In her news release, the Ombudsman said, “I am glad TCHC has acknowledged its failures and committed yet again to improvements. . . but this investigation speaks to a larger problem.”

I agree. TCHC is part of the solution, and there are some problems it can remedy itself. But if it hopes to make real headway, it will need more than promises to do better. It needs new ways of doing things. And it needs a little help from its friends.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2013 12:19 pm

    I was at a Downtown Legal Services office U OF T 655 Spadina Ave. to try and find a lawyer for my eviction at TCHC on June 24TH at The Landlord and Tenant Housing Tribunal, and was refused. I am a Senior and my RGI was taken away 4 times since TCHC amalgamated in 2002. Staff that is familiar with Affordable Housing is needed.
    Eviction of tenants for loss of Subsidy and raising the rent to market causing arrears owing when a Tenant does not have an income, is not the answer and is criminal.

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