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The case against change

May 22, 2014


When I wrote what I thought was a provocative call to de-amalgamate TCHC last week, I expected a deluge of counter-arguments (at least in my email box) from my housing colleagues.

But except for Gordon Mack Scott, whom I have enjoyed meeting via the comments section of my blog, the counter-case didn’t materialize.

It looks like I’ll just have to write it myself. Here are the difficulties I see in de-amalgamating TCHC.

Change is awful

Toronto Community Housing is just 14 years old. Yet it has already withstood the amalgamation of three very different organizational cultures, at least two major departmental re-organizations, a trashing, a purge, a turnaround, another re-organization, more trashings, and now me.

How much “turning around” can one organization stand? The staff must feel like contestants in that old game Blind Man’s Bluff, twirled around so many times they lose all sense of direction and begin walking into walls.

Perhaps it would be better to simply leave TCHC alone so staff can get on with their jobs.

The goodbyes and hellos

De-amalgamation would create literally hundreds of new jobs in the field: property managers, social workers, mental health workers, security staff, and so on. But they are unlikely to be filled with TCHC’s head office staff.

That means some of the smartest, most hardworking people at TCHC – the ones my heart ached for as I wrote my last entry – will lose their jobs, and the housing sector will lose some of its brightest lights.

It also means a scramble to find the right people to fill those hundreds of new jobs. Personally, I can think of few jobs more satisfying than joining a team of like-minded people to create a great community. My first real job after grad school was managing a co-op. I couldn’t have asked for a more exciting role: buying and renovating houses, supporting a community, and testing out new ideas.

Housing management wasn’t just a starter job for graduates either. I’m thinking today of artist and development consultant Adam Czerechowicz, who culminated his career by becoming a property manager of a small Parkdale non-profit, and led its Green Phoenix transformation until his untimely death.

But I also know few people see the these jobs the way I do, and many small co-ops and non-profits are finding it difficult to recruit on-site staff. The TCHC jobs will avoid two challenges the small non-profits face: they will pay union salaries and they will involve staff teams rather than one-person offices. Nonetheless, I think finding the right talent to fill these jobs might be the single greatest obstacle to de-amalgamation.

Conflicted leaders

The conundrum of decentralizing TCHC is that the people in a position to do something are the very people who don’t want to.

TCHC’s senior staff are the best positioned to recommend organizational changes to the TCHC board. But how can they be expected to eliminate their own jobs? It might be different if most senior staff were close to retirement. But one of TCHC’s successes in the last decade has been the recruitment of young, bright employees into policy positions. They are not ready to move on.

It’s not just a matter of self-interest either. Most head office staff I have met are devoted to TCHC’s well-being. They see how hard they and their colleagues are working – in some cases harder than the front line – and no doubt would like to see more resources, not fewer, at the centre.

The TCHC Board has the authority to determine its internal organization. But it is also responsible, legally and in the public eye, for everything that happens at TCHC. It’s a big leap to reduce the board’s control and give power to local operating units. And would the board be satisfied with leading a public land trust – rich in assets but with far fewer staff — instead of North America’s second largest social landlord? Possibly. The current board actually has more directors with real estate experience than housing management experience. But it would be a brave move.

If TCHC doesn’t lead, then who can?

The City of Toronto is the natural choice. It is TCHC’s sole shareholder, its chief funder (next to tenants) and its regulator.

But if City Councillors and City staff want to make real change they too will have to resist the lure of control. Many regulators – not just the City – chafe at independent agencies, boards, and commissions of any type, and would rather regulate one big corporation than many small ones.

In yesterday’s Globe I saw Doug Ford musing about bringing TCHC, TTC and Hydro into a single City real estate division. l’ve heard others muse about making TCHC a city department. There may be merits in these proposals. But it takes a rare detachment to cooly evaluate the pros and cons when the results affect your control over every decision that comes afterwards.

As for the federal or provincial governments, I can’t imagine them wading in. “Get involved,” they will think, “and the next thing you know people will be expecting us to fund the darn thing.”

Returning to where I was

In my last entry I called on us to “put on our thinking caps” and begin to explore the pros and cons of de-amalgamating TCHC. Today, I’m making the same call.

Almost everyone I know – from the housing sector’s most respected veterans to friends who just know what they read in the paper – think TCHC needs fundamental change. Many think TCHC is too big. But I have not yet heard a serious proposal for what that change might look like.

Isn’t it time to stop muttering about change, and actually start talking and thinking in earnest? And if our government leaders are conflicted or reluctant, are there civic leaders ready to come forward?

I believe there are few initiatives that could have as great a city-wide impact – or do more to help Toronto’s lowest income neighbourhoods – than making TCHC work.

Who will lead?



5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2014 10:32 am


    Congratulations on presenting both the pros and cons of the TCH issue in terms of de-amalgamation. I am sure as well that there may also be some hybrid options of keeping some parts more centralized and other de-centralized.

    I think a key issue, and perhaps the reason why you didn’t get responses, is that the housing sector is largely confused by such a big organization like TCH. And it certainly would seem that City Council, which itself has varied appreciation for social housing to begin with and which generally makes municipal decisions largely on a ward-by-ward basis, is equally confused by it.

    As you have pointed out, no other landlord in North America comes close to TCH’s size, Only the New York Housing Authority is bigger. And in Ontario which only has about 24 other housing providers between the size of 500 to 14,000 units, we are a province largely made up of small providers. (ONPHA’s membership for example has 750 non-profit housing providers who have less than 500 units with the City of Toronto itself having more than 250 small providers.) So we understand small and mid-sized, not super large bordering on behemoth.

    As well, from a tenant population standpoint, smaller providers even with smaller staff are better equipped for more one-on-one servicing of tenant and community issues. I’m sure the staff-to-tenant ratio of TCH is far from being manageable for the organization. And little in the way of support is available to them at that size.

    If TCH were in the UK or the US where there are other similar-sized housing organizations and where the political, regulatory and financial support are commensurate with those larger organizations, I’m sure it would do better given its size. It would certainly be amongst other elephants in the room.

  2. TenantDisengaged permalink
    May 22, 2014 11:32 am

    A suggestion for TCH is that the Province step in to remove the City as stakeholder, instead spinning off TCH as a Crown agency. The City is a poor stakeholder, with councilors playing politics and ideological arguments rather than addressing practical concerns of the residents, as one would for other citizenry.. Toronto City Council is a big mess. We see why the City is failing, just look at the elected officials. Too much electioneering, not enough governance.

  3. May 22, 2014 12:42 pm

    As you pointed out in your blog, TCHC is not going to solve the problems it has in its current form. In short, nobody is happy with it. It is too expensive for politicians, too complicated for tenants, and incapable to provide in the city’s needs for affordable housing and the services that are related to them. I think your call for a proper investigation into the efficiency of TCHC is needed and really enjoyed your idea to decentralize the staff over the buildings. In this response I would like to add some more ideas to the discussion

    To keep it relatively short I want to suggest two things. The first is to take TCHC out of politics by making it an independent non-profit housing association and the second is for the city to shift from its sole focus on TCHC to other housing associations as well in order to create a more balanced system.

    Lets start with he first. How is it possible that the mayor has influence on the appointment of a CEO for TCHC? As a newcomer to Canada this completely baffled me. Let the board of directors make that decision for itself. This would at least lead to a more stable course in which there is no need for a major overhaul of the long term strategies as soon as a new wind is blowing through city hall.

    I also think that as an association, TCHC would have a lot more financial possibilities. I dived into the budgets and according to the 2010 balance TCHC’s net-worth was $3 billion. Furthermore, it has a large cash-flow (661 million in 2014). As an association it should be possible to leverage this in order to attract money from the capital market so it can finance large parts of its backlog in repairs.

    In your previous post you suggested a land trust, and I honestly think this has a lot of merit. Especially if other housing associations join in. At the moment Toronto is too dependent on one sole provider of affordable housing. If other housing associations were able to grow under the umbrella of TCHC that could lead to a more stable and independent system in the long run.

    This relates to my second idea. It is important for the city to start funding affordable housing in a different ways. By giving housing associations first pick on land sales, and sell that land below market price there could be a possibility for them to grow again. The city could also guarantee their loans in order to repress the interest they pay. Furthermore, the planning department could identify key areas in the city where affordable housing is most needed and the city or the province could provide low interest loans for developers and housing associations who want to develop them into affordable rental housing. In Germany and the Netherlands this works very well, and I don’t see why it is not possible in Toronto.

    I realize I am quite young and inexperienced with the realities of Toronto, but I think that these two measures could increase the creation of new affordable housing in Toronto as well as improve the services they provide to their tenants.

  4. May 22, 2014 1:37 pm

    TCHC will never de-amalgamate as it stands now. The City of Toronto should take over and subsidies should be restored to those who need it. Whether the TCHC buildings are old or new the waiting list should be upheld, as tenants are moving, passing away and moving on with their lives after TCHC. The biggest housing corporation is still worth billions as well as it’s properties. We just need the people to run it properly and without corruption!

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