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No villains here!

January 8, 2014

Is Toronto Community Housing CEO Gene Jones a villain?

That is the contention of Torontoist contributor Desmond Cole. According to Cole, Jones is on a “blame crusade” to shift responsibility for TCHC’s neglected buildings onto tenants.  He notes that Jones rewarded Swansea Mews with a $150,000 maintenance grant when tenants reported criminal activity leading to charges against three men.  In the following week, Jones “called for a ‘partnership’ between his staff and residents to fix long-neglected properties.”

Cole is absolutely correct in saying tenants are not to blame for TCHC’s poor state of repair. Chronic underfunding for capital repairs, extending back to the days when the Ontario Housing Corporation funded TCHC’s oldest buildings, is the real villain here.

But I also believe TCHC has no hope of repairing its buildings without tenants’ help. Why?

Tenants pay the bills

According to TCHC’s 2014 Operating Budget, residential tenants will contribute $291.5M to TCHC’s operations this year, plus an additional $17M in parking, laundry and cable fees. By way of comparison, total annual government subsidies are budgeted at $224M.

What does this mean? It means when tenants don’t pay rent, their buildings suffer. At last report, a whopping 11.1% of TCHC tenants collectively owed TCHC $4.4M in rents. Imagine the repairs that money could buy.

But it also means the tenants who do pay rent bring more to the table than all levels of government — with all their rules and regulations — combined. In most organizations the ones who pay the piper call the tune. Time for tenants to assert themselves as callers-in-chief!

Tenants are the front-line maintenance team

Tenants are first to see the dripping tap or the crack forming in their ceiling. They alone can tell whether a stove repair really fixed the problem. And without their prep work, successful bedbug treatment would be impossible.

TCHC has systems in place to receive repair requests and I gather there are ways for tenants to report on the quality of repairs. But I wonder if more could be done to allow tenants to take charge of their homes.  Just for a bit of inspiration, I looked at the UK.

  • Across the UK, “right to repair” schemes allow tenants to demand a different contractor if repairs are not completed within a set timescale.
  • In Northern Ireland tenants can apply to do repairs themselves, or hire a contractor of their choice, and invoice the landlord. The landlord inspects the work, and then pays for repairs based on a scale. Tenants risk paying the difference if the job costs more than the scale. On the other hand, they get to choose the contractor (including being paid to do the job themselves) and can fast-track work that might not otherwise get done at all.
  • Anywhere in the UK, tenants in private or social housing can carry out their own unit improvements, and be compensated by their landlord when they move out. Tenants need to get their landlord’s permission before doing the work, but that permission cannot be reasonably withheld.

The UK has also piloted schemes to pay tenants to do their own repairs. The results have been uneven, with all pilots struggling with insurance, legal and logistical issues. But one interesting approach was to pay tenants – through rent holidays, grocery vouchers or cash – for maintaining their properties to an agreed-upon standard, whether or not any actual repairs were done.  To use the example cited, if a list of agreed repairs included re-hanging kitchen cabinet doors as a tenant’s responsibility, then cabinet doors will be checked at the annual unit inspection. It doesn’t matter whether the tenant fixed the cabinet doors herself, got someone else to do it, or simply kept them in working condition, the reward is the same. If the inspection shows the cabinets are broken, then the landlord does the fixing and it’s business as usual.

I’m not sure any of these schemes would work at TCHC. And of course we are only talking about unit repairs; TCHC must take responsibility for major building components.

But, as the UK’s Tenant Participation Advisory Service spokesperson says, “I am a big fan of anything that encourages people to do things for themselves, because I think it delivers value for money.” It’s the approach that all homeowners – and many tenants in private buildings – have used for years. Why not TCHC tenants?

Tenants control the community

There are all sorts of people who can contribute to healthy TCHC communities: police, security guards, community organizers, superintendants and cleaners. But when the paid workers go home, its tenants themselves who make the community what it is.

To recognize the tenants’ role in keeping their communities safe and healthy is not to blame them. It’s simply the reality that community organizers such as Desmond Cole (a cracker-jack organizer!) know well: any initiatives that fail to tap the strength of tenants – their leadership, their insights and their support — are simply doomed.

Not blame. Credit!

I thoroughly admire Desmond Cole and his commitment to TCHC tenants. He is right that too many have blamed tenants for problems that are not of their making.But Gene Jones is also right to recognize tenants as partners.

In fact, my only quibble with the term “partnership” is that it under-plays the importance of tenants. Tenants are more than partners. They are the success-makers. Its time they were credited for the role they play, and assumed their rightful role as funders, front-line experts and community builders.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Yvette permalink
    January 8, 2014 3:12 pm

    My mum raised 4 kids renting a small house for 30 yrs. And her and I from the time I was 11 did most of the painting, dry walling and minor plumbing repairs that had to get done because we knew our landlord never would or he would in his own sweet time. Its your home. If you can fix it fix it. its the people who live in buildings and who also piss in stairwells and elevators that are obviously not going to be showing respect for their aprtments and expect someoe else to clean up their messes for them. They need to be evicted. I think tenants who report crimes or who work together developing community patrols should be rewarded and shown respec for their efforts. But all in all the city is the biggest slum lord anywhere.

  2. January 8, 2014 3:14 pm

    Desmond Cole is an agent for local “left” interests. This includes the “housing social worker” cult, which makes such a mess of TCHC and which is very threatened by Gene Jones. Jones is largely getting things right. There should be enough money to run the housing right, it is all due to total incompetence and corruption.

    And yes, dear, the “left” is as much a cause of corruption and abuse of authority as is “right” partisanship.

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