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Five ideas for the TCHC Task Force

January 16, 2015

How exciting to see Mayor Tory make good on his election promise to form a Task Force to improve Toronto Community Housing – and how good to see Senator Art Eggleton and five other thoughtful leaders ready to commit themselves to the task.

Until this moment, most public attention has been focused on TCHC’s massive repair backlog, and that surely is a topic the Task Force must consider. But it shouldn’t be the only one. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to truly improve the lives of the 160,000+ people who live in TCHC now, and prepare TCHC to meet the needs of generations to come.

Here are five outcomes I’d love to see on the Task Force’s agenda.

1. Public – not politicized – governance

How do we protect 50+ years of public investment in TCHC and ensure homes stay affordable forever — without the hyper-politicization that has served TCHC so poorly?

In the UK and Australia, the solution has been stock transfers of municipally-owned housing to independent non-profit corporations – much like the over 230 successful non-profit housing providers we have in Toronto. These non-profit organizations are accountable to government funders, without turning their residents into fodder for the comments section of every media outlet.

In the US, land trusts create a sort of “United Way” of housing, bringing together everyone – residents, people on waiting lists, donors, agencies, businesses – who has a stake in good affordable housing. In Toronto we have our own land trusts on Bathurst Quay and Toronto Island. Let’s do the research and find out what would work best for TCHC.

2. Staff in every building

Even bitsy 50-unit co-op and non-profit housing providers manage to have on-site staff who are accountable for their building’s success, keeping it safe and providing convenient services to tenants they know by name.

I believe TCHC could do the same if it redeployed resources from its head office to the front lines. I’ve already offered my own first thoughts. Now I’m hoping the Task Force will do a proper analysis.

3. A sustained development capacity

TCHC’s revitalization initiative – its chief strategy to replace crumbling buildings in old-style public housing estates – depends on its development expertise and capacity to borrow money. Whatever changes we make – and I, like many observers, wonder whether TCHC should be split up into smaller management units – let’s make sure we don’t jeopardize this work.

4. Confidence that public investments will pay off

Everyone has a theory about why so many TCHC building are, to use Tory’s words, in “unacceptable” condition.

I don’t know the reasons myself. I do know it’s not just because the buildings are old. According to CMHC, 39% of all Toronto housing is over 50 years old,[1] and the vast majority of Toronto’s rental stock was built between 1960 and 1990 – the same years that most of TCHC’s buildings were constructed. Yet most of these buildings are in better shape than TCHC’s.

If the Task Force can identify and fix the problems that led to the decline of TCHC’s buildings, it will go a long way to increasing public confidence that further investment will not simply be throwing good money after bad.

5. Happier tenants

Through my work I have interviewed people who are homeless, in shelters, in rooming houses, housing co-ops and privately owned rental housing. And I can honestly say that few are more frustrated than TCHC tenants.

My own guess – but the Task Force should ask them! – is that TCHC tenants lack what even homeless people enjoy: choice, freedom and control over their own circumstances.

I’m not just talking about tenant involvement. Tenant elections and committees all have a role to play, but only a few service-minded tenants will have the time and the inclination to get involved in governance.

I’m talking about having more control over everyday life: moving into an apartment you actually like, and being able to move when your home no longer works for you. Getting the landlord to repair your unit, or doing it yourself. Starting a home business. Getting a job without losing 30% of your new income right off the top. Sub-letting your home to take a seasonal job out of town. Returning home after graduating from university.

There are lots of ways to help TCHC tenants get ahead – some tested in other jurisdictions, others piloted in Toronto. It may be beyond the purview of this Task Force to explore these solutions – some of which will require changes in provincial rules – but the liberation of tenants to control their own destiny should always be uppermost in the Task Force’s mind.

Beyond the back of the envelope

When TCHC was formed 14 years ago, it was created on the simple premise that amalgamating three housing organizations would save money. We know now how flawed that “back-of-the-envelope” thinking was. Let’s not make the same mistakes again.

I hope the Task Force will have a modest research budget to determine the most effective scale for successful management, and the functions that are best served at the building, neighbourhood and Toronto wide level. This issue has been researched in the UK – tenant satisfaction is highest among providers with 750 – 5,000 units — and I’m sure there are private sector benchmarks that can inform this discussion too.

I also hope the Task Force will assess the strengths and weaknesses of governance models used in the UK, Netherlands, Germany, US and Australia. And I hope they interview former senior staff in TCHC, its predecessor companies, and Toronto’s private rental, co-op and non-profit housing – housing of similar vintage or with similar funding to TCHC — but with fewer building woes.

A solution to our problems – not a problem to be solved

Above all, I hope that the Task Force will go beyond seeing TCHC as a problem that needs to be solved, and instead ask, “How could TCHC help solve Toronto’s housing problems?”

Think of it: 58,500 homes, many of them family-sized, most of them subsidized, in all parts of the city. Think of what this housing could be: a launching pad for immigrant families; a home for young people stuck in low-wage or erratic jobs; an alternative for seniors who don’t need Long-Term Care, but do need an affordable home with some supports at hand. The list goes on.

This is the vision I hope the Task Force will embrace. I wish them well.

[1] CMHC, Canadian Housing Observer: A comprehensive report on the state of housing in Canada, 2011.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. mrwensleydale permalink
    January 16, 2015 3:11 pm

    Looks like the outline for the committee’s report.

    >

  2. Moira Dunphy permalink
    January 16, 2015 3:13 pm

    Thanks, Joy – a good, to-the-point read.

    Moira Dunphy
    Program Manager, Communications, Ontario Region

  3. January 16, 2015 3:23 pm

    I have been with TCHC for 30 years Nov 1985-2015 and with Cityhome 1982-1985. I was an abused single mother of a 2 year old boy and Cityhome was a God Send. I moved 2 times in 1985 to a two bedroom and again downsized to a one bedroom in November of 2013. Now they are saying I must downsize my possessions as I am a fire hazard like the 200 Wellesley fire in 2010. I am an Artist and can not afford storage or even a studio.

    So many have passed away and apartments are fixed up for new tenants. The woman that took my old 2 bedroom apartment where I lived with my son for 28 years, had had two apartments in the same building. I cried when they fixed up my old apartment, that I had complained about for years. Pictures were taken of the conditions that these apartments were in. Including the one bedroom I moved into, before and after.

    The buildings are now old and in bad repair. The rules and regulations for rent- geared- to income are not available for the new units as they are rent controlled being that an income of $40,000 a year is required to pay the rent plus hydro. An unemployed person, disabled or Senior does not make that much a year.

    I am glad John Tory is going to address the TCHC challenge, we will see how it goes!

  4. Antoinette Schokman-De Zilva permalink
    January 16, 2015 5:26 pm

    Far too many housing organizations taking salaries for no real work done. WHY IS THE CITY OF TORONTO GIVING MILLIONS TO EACH PRIVATE CONSTRUCTION FAMILY AND GETTING JUST A HANDFUL OF BOGUS ‘AFFORDABLE’ UNITS? The rent numbers used are from Canada Mortgage whose numbers INCLUDE UTILITIES, but the millions of dollars go to companies who charge those same numbers MINUS THE UTILITIES AND PARKING for just a handful of units!!

    IF THE CITY OF TORONTO IS EVEN ATTEMPTING TO BE HONEST, WHY DID THEY REMOVE THE INVESTMENTS NUMBERS FROM THE HOUSING WEBSITE where it always was, WHEN I POINTED THESE DISHONEST DEALINGS to the Ministry of Housing, the Mayor’s Office (Rob Ford), and Maureen Houlihan?!!

    John Tory is just going to continue giving private companies our tax dollars. If anyone really cared, find out what all the Councillors of the City of Toronto are getting ‘under the table’ for this huge interest to give away millions of dollars as gifts to already wealthy private construction families.

    Antoinette Schokman-De Zilva Toronto, Ontario, Canada aschokman@icloud.com

    >

  5. January 19, 2015 2:34 pm

    Last Friday. Patricia left this comment on my entry, Is it Time to De-Amalgamate TCHC. It was so pertinent to the Task Force’s work that I am copying it here so more people can see it. Joy

    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?

  6. January 19, 2015 3:04 pm

    The $175,000 TCHC is asking the Province, needed for repairs to TCHC is not enough.
    The tenants in my building are terrorized by transients in the stairwells, drug dealers and fire alarms from our 3 level parking at 55 The Esplanade. In the past year, there have been suspicious deaths like Jose at 523 who was found dead in his flooding bath on December 15TH, 2014. The tenant in who is a drug dealer and lets all these drug dealers into our building from apt.#703 tried to break into his apartment to steal beer a week later and succeeded.

    I have called the police twice because of the wife abuser next door in #518 who also banged on my door at 2:00 am drunk. The woman who lived in my unit could have been murdered in July of 2013. I was offered this apartment because I was over-housed in my 2 bedroom apartment I had for 28 years. I have been terrorized ever since I moved in last year. Now I have too many paintings and possessions according to TCHC, I am a fire hazard!

    So much for my problems, I am lucky to have a roof over my head as a Senior on no income.

    We should not have to live in fear at TCHC either.

  7. homelessguide permalink
    January 22, 2015 9:37 pm

    Thanks Joy as always for your insights – which ever seem so doable. Tenant empowerment is huge here and my thinking is that it is best accomplished with de-amalgamating TCHC. It seems naive, but what about coupling the regeneration of the buildings with the people who live in them.

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  1. Mayor’s Task Force Recommends Big Changes for TCHC | politics | Torontoist

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