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Is it time to de-amalgamate TCHC?

May 15, 2014

If there is one lesson we can learn from former Toronto Community Housing CEO Gene Jones – and from Rob Ford for that matter – it is that TCHC tenants crave personal contact. They don’t want to navigate the departmental maze. They don’t want to get on the bus to visit the nearest TCHC office. They want someone to fix their taps, answer their questions, listen to their recommendations, help them fill out their forms, and keep troublemakers out of the stairwells.

So let’s give it to them. It’s what other other non-profit and co-op housing providers do. 

I have always been puzzled by the disparities between staffing levels at TCHC and other non-profit housing. Even small non-profits and co-ops typically have at least one staff person in the building, and often three or four.

Why can’t TCHC do that? It is funded by similar programs as non-profit and co-op housing, and operates in the same rental and labour market. TCHC’s buildings are older – a definite disadvantage. On the other hand, economies of scale should allow them to use staff more efficiently and negotiate better prices than a small organization can.

The difference may lie in TCHC’s head office

Just for fun, I counted up the positions listed on TCHC’s online staff directory. I removed the Operating Unit staff — the managers; the staff who fill units and calculate and collect rents; the building superintendents and cleaners – plus all the community workers that work directly with tenants.

How many staff were left over? 728. They work in HR and IT, finance and audit, strategy and communications, and all the other functions of a large corporation. They also provide services that most small landlords provide on-site: a call centre instead of just knocking on the door of the super; a community safety unit instead of hiring a security guard; on-staff trades instead of phoning a plumber.

The 2013 Sunshine List tells us that 55 of these staff collectively earned $7,079,055 in salary and taxable benefits. Now, let’s guess – because I have no real idea – that salaries and benefits for the remaining head office staff were evenly spread between $65,000 – $100,000 for an average of $82,500.

The total: $62.6M per year, or $1070/unit, for staff costs alone. This does not include the cost of operating the well-located but contentious head office, paying for vehicles or any of the other overhead costs of being Canada’s largest landlord.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a story about fat-cats or ivory tower bureaucrats. The TCHC head office staff I have known over the years are passionately committed to tenants and work long, long hours to serve them. The issue is not whether they are good workers, but where their work can have the greatest impact.

What could $62.6 M do in the field?

For $1070 per unit, a 100 unit building could afford a full-time on-site building manager and a part-time bookkeeper. A 200 unit building could add on a full-time social worker and part-time security guard.[1] The larger the building, the more it could afford. And all this is on top of the staff already working in the field.

Of course, not every building would hire the same complement of staff. A building at Dundas and Sherbourne might benefit from an on-site mental health worker. A seniors building in Etobicoke might hire a program co-ordinator.

Where big really is better

As I reported in an earlier entry, UK studies suggest tenant satisfaction is highest among providers with 750 – 5000 units. My own observation is that TCHC’s investments in corporation-wide policies and systems – an attempt to be accountable to an amorphous “public” — have missed the opportunity to be responsive to actual tenants and the neighbourhoods they live in.

However, there is one area where TCHC’s size in an indisputable advantage: development and capital financing. No other non-profit or co-operative in Canada can match the revenue stream that makes large-scale borrowing possible. No other has the expertise to manage major revitalization and development projects.

What if TCHC could have it all?

Imagine a public land trust that would own TCHC’s properties, arrange financing for major capital work, liaise with funders and lenders, and provide other back office functions wherever real savings could be realized. (I can imagine small non-profits and co-ops wanting to join this land trust, so they too could benefit from TCHC’s expertise and financial muscle!)

Imagine housing management devolved entirely to the Operating Unit level, or perhaps even smaller clusters of buildings. These units would manage their own budgets, set their own policies, and hire their own staff (who would continue to be union members, just as the staff of many smaller non-profit organizations are).

Time to put on our thinking caps

If the anecdotes are true, the Harris Government’s devolution of social housing was based on a back-of-the-envelope calculation barely more sophisticated than the one I’ve presented here. Let’s not make that mistake again.

Let’s start with a real study – not my made-up numbers — of the potential costs and benefits of de-amalgamating TCHC. Let’s test which central services are actually benefiting tenants, remembering that half of TCHC’s revenues come directly from tenants. And let’s look at where tenants are effectively subsidizing City services – the quasi-police work of the Community Safety Unit comes to mind – that other Toronto citizens receive as of right.

Let’s explore the potential of Community Land Trusts, such as the inspiring Champlain Housing Trust where anyone – tenants, neigbhours, donors, agencies, people on the waiting list – can be a member.

Let’s learn from the former Cityhome, which had far more on-site staff before they were amalgamated. And let’s learn from TCHC’s own history. When it was first created, TCHC attempted to create a “franchise model” very like the one I am describing. It started well, but over the years the centre exercised more and more control. Was it simply the irresistible belief that, when things go wrong, the solution is to bring them close? Or were there other pressures?

Let’s talk

I do not know whether de-amalgamating TCHC is a good idea. But wouldn’t it be a relief to start a discussion that wasn’t short-circuited by the opening phrase, “There is no money.”

TCHC absolutely does not have enough money. That’s why it needs to make the best use of the resources it does have.

Those of you who know the wonderful Steve Pomeroy may have seen the tagline on his letterhead, “Focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t.”

It’s obvious TCHC needs to do something. So, what can we do?





[1] These estimates are based on Payscale’s top end of the range for full-time property managers ($60,518), bookkeepers ($58,500), security guards ($37,462) and social workers (BSW) ($73,085).

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Gordon Mack Scott permalink
    May 15, 2014 10:14 am

    There are many suggestions in this blog that I feel unqualified to comment on, but the security area is one that is part of my expertise. The numbers are really suspect, and relying on Payscale for an estimate really doesn’t work. Security with the kind of skills and training that might be useful to TCH communities, comes in at 45-60K a year, not including MERCS, benefits, mandatory training (time and course cost), and most importantly, not including supervision, dispatching services, vacation replacement etc.. If we assume that these security personnel would come from a private provider, tack on a 15 % profit/admin margin.
    This takes the total cost to very close to what the Community Safety Unit currently costs, and supplies a less well trained and regulated workforce – always a concern when authority and potentially, use of force, is required as part of the job. Some things look good from far, but on closer inspection, are far from good.

  2. May 15, 2014 10:40 am

    Gordon, this is exactly the sort of knowledgeable feedback I was hoping for: good information to help us consider a wise course of action.

    As you can tell from my blog, my real hope is for a proper study to look at the pros and cons of de-amalgamation. There has been a lot of vague talk, but until we start talking about specifics — as you have done — we’ll never know. That’s why I started by throwing out numbers, even though I know they are just made up, to attract real numbers.

    Thanks for bringing them forward!

  3. Beata Domanska permalink
    May 15, 2014 10:54 am

    One of the most refreshing and innovative ideas I’ve seen in a while on the topic of affordable housing. Thanks for putting this discussion out there Joy!

  4. May 15, 2014 11:06 am

    Insightful article Joy, and it expresses a lot of the same views I’ve been hoping for years to see happen.

    • May 15, 2014 11:10 am

      Mind you, I feel that we could use some of the other city agencies to help offset some of the costs thus saving even more money, such as having a dedicated Toronto Public Health officer, a satellite Toronto Police Services station in larger developments, and a dedicated Social Services worker there to help residents connect to what they need to live.

  5. May 15, 2014 11:49 am

    The Harris government was the beginning of the end of Social Housing starting in 1995, and when Cityhome, Ontario and Metro Housing amalgamated in 2002 the end was near.
    Toronto needs affordable housing for all it’s people in need on limited incomes; the old, the single parents, the disabled on ODSP and Social Assistance.
    As the TCHC buildings are old repairs are costly, and under Mayor Rob Ford and Kathleen Wynne as Minister of Housing many TCHC houses were sold off, and Regent Park is now not so affordable anymore since it has been fixed up. Artscape for Artists is also unaffordable.

    Subsidized rents are raised to market… if one has a problem with filling out forms or if over-housed or passes away. A two- bedroom unit is $ 1,330.00 and a $ 60,000.00 yearly income is required. The new TCHC 2 bedrooms are $ 937.00 yearly income $45,000.00.
    How many people in need of housing on a fixed income can afford these rents with TCHC?

    Gene Jones was hired by Mayor Ford and the severance money given to him and the 44 employees he fired without just cause, cost millions when he was let go just recently. There are no more subsidized units in the new buildings for TCHC, the rents are controlled, for example a senior building 585 King St E. a one bed-room is $ 798.00 and one must have an income of $ 38,305.00 per year to be able to afford the rent plus hydro.

    The old TCHC buildings have no security, fire alarms sound all the time, no water, elevators,
    homeless people roam the hallways.

    This is not good at all.

  6. Cheryl Hazell permalink
    May 16, 2014 11:47 am

    I love reading your posts. You are so knowledgeable. You should be Adam Vaughan’s housing consultant. Why aren’t you on the TCHC board. They could sure use a common sense person like yourself.


    • May 16, 2014 1:21 pm

      TCHC has employee hiring issues with the dismissal of over 45 employees including Gene Jones and the HR employee that helped to fire these TCHC employees without just cause.
      Would you want to work for TCHC with these conditions in fear of losing your job?
      A common sense person should run for politics not TCHC jobs.

      I do enjoy Joy Connelly’s “Opening the Window” posts.

  7. Patricia permalink
    January 16, 2015 6:25 pm

    A reliable and skilled resource for getting ideas on “best practices” would come from former staff who have been weeded out by the current Authority – the Metropolitan Toronto Housing Authority staff (folks who where downloaded from the Province in 1998). Don’t get me wrong – the former MTHC had its problems but while the larger housing portfolios had permanent onsite staff part of their duties was to visit the smaller communities on a scheduled basis (i.e. Property Managers on Monday mornings and Thursday afternoons and Social Workers on Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings). But there was always a custodian onsite. And when issues outside of the norm arose staff were expected go to the location and address them. All the staff in the PM office answered all incoming calls on a myriad of issues and the office was open during regular business hours. Some communities had evening hours to address the needs of working tenants. Also, the number of security staff was greater and part of their job was to get out of their vehicles and patrol the buildings and their surroundings and make themselves visible in the community.
    Now it is a Call Centre for all tenant issues – the calls are then farmed out over the internet to the staff; security staff numbers have been cut back so severely they can only attend to the most critical issues occurring because there isn’t enough hours in the day to get to every community. And there isn’t anytime to get out of the car. PM staff do paper work and fulfill insurmountable expectations that percolate down from Head Office.
    TCHC’s culture has always been to have to least amount of direct contact with tenants. The onsite office hours have been restricted, tenants wanting to gain access to key head office staff would have more luck getting in to see the Prime Minister, roving maintenance staff don’t have a vested interest in the work they do because the are not at any given site long enough.
    Cutting oneself off from its client is a disaster waiting to happen. So why should the tenants have “pride of home” and want to take care of the place they live in and at if the landlord is nowhere to be seen?


  1. The case against change | Opening the Window
  2. Five ideas for the TCHC Task Force | Opening the Window

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