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Five Task Force ideas that will change tenants’ lives

January 29, 2016

This week news outlets were buzzing about the “transformative changes” recommended in the Mayor’s Task Force on Toronto Community Housing: a transition to a new non-profit housing corporation, increased income-mixing, accelerated development.

These are the “meta-changes” that will be the focus of discussion at City Hall and will require careful analysis from City staff. But tucked into the report are recommendations that have generated far less media coverage but will, quite literally, reach tenants where they live.

Here is my list of the Task Force’s “top five for tenants.”

Portable housing benefits

The recommendation is on page 60 of the report, but in my opinion it is the ticket to changing the lives of tenants, and the entire culture of TCHC.

What better way to create a “customer service culture” than turn tenants into true customers who can take their business elsewhere? Right now, TCHC tenants must join the back of the queue if they want to move into other City-subsidized housing, or lose their rent-geared-to-income subsidy if they want to live in a privately owned apartment. So unhappy tenants can do little more than complain, or wait, for things to change.

Portable allowances would allow tenants to “vote with their feet.” Because vacancies will be increasingly filled with tenants who can pay market rents, TCHC will have to “up its game” to avoid vacant units. And market rents will give TCHC more resources to bring the buildings up to a competitive standard. That’s good news for everyone.

These changes won’t happen overnight. The Ontario Government will need to change legislation to permit the conversion of rent-geared-to-income subsidies into portable shelter allowances. The City of Toronto will have to permit the 52,600 RGI subsidies now locked into TCHC to be provided in other non-profit or privately owned housing – something it has the power to do now. The good news is that the Province – with municipal officials at the table – are already discussing these ideas as part of the Province’s review of its Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy.

Staff where tenants live

TCHC employs 1,600 people. That’s one staff person for every 37 units. So why doesn’t a 200-unit TCHC building have, say, five staff permanently assigned to the building?

If might if it was an independent co-op or non-profit housing provider. I looked at the budget of one 200-unit Toronto co-op that wishes to remain anonymous. In 2014 its monthly operating costs were $854 per unit – one dollar less than TCHC’s monthly per unit costs. But for that $854 per month the co-op was able to cover all its bills – mortgage payments (which were $17/unit/month cheaper for the co-op), taxes, insurance, utilities, maintenance – and still have five full- or part-time staff on-site. The administrator knows every resident by name, the property manager can inspect contractors’ work before they leave the building and a weekend cleaner can respond to after-hours emergencies.

In the co-op’s case, the entire budget is poured into the building. At TCHC, resources are divided between centralized services, a development arm, and the field. TCHC has already taken steps to bring more services to the front lines, redeploying Community Patrol Officers to 20 local patrol zones and hiring 60 new cleaners. But the Task Force’s call for a more decentralized model is a giant umbrella step towards fewer staff at head office, and more staff where tenants live.

Tenant input where it counts

For over a decade TCHC has tried to create a good tenant involvement system, but it has never really worked. It’s partly a problem of scale. The two tenants on TCHC’s Board represent as many households as most City Councillors, but with neither the staff that would allow them to communicate effectively with their constituents nor the majority needed to control the vote. As for the tenant rep system, there are communities where no tenant reps have come forward, and yet these same community include many tenants with good ideas but no avenue to turn those ideas into action.

The Task Force has proposed decentralized decision-making that would give local staff more flexibility to respond to local needs and more responsibility for quality service. And that is where tenants can make their mark, with Tenant Advisory Committees that coincide with the boundaries set in the decentralized structure.

These committees will all have tenant majorities, but can include local agencies where they might be helpful. I see a particular role for the local City Councillor. Most City Councillors are not housing experts, but every Councillor is a neighbourhood expert who is ideally placed to link up resources that will benefit both TCHC tenants and the entire neighbourhood.

Supports wherever vulnerable tenants are concentrated

The on-site supports at 291 George Street and 220 Oak Street have turned around buildings that many believed were unsalvageable. It’s a recipe that has worked in other TCHC buildings and right across Ontario: individualized supports for those with particular needs, an open door, expertise from a partner agency, and community activities for everyone.

The Task Force has called on Toronto’s five Local Health Integration Networks and the City to continue to work closely with TCHC to extend these successes to the many other buildings where vulnerable tenants are concentrated. It’s a money saver for the City and the LHINs. Why wouldn’t they say yes?

More money

There seems to be a strange notion that there are tenant issues, and then there are money issues. But let’s just say it: money issues are tenant issues. Tenants are the chief beneficiaries when TCHC can borrow more money for repairs, or get a better deal on interest rates, or finally develop a sustainable funding model – a topic I plan to delve into in a separate post.

Three yeses

Last September I listed seven questions I hoped the Task Force would ask before it recommended changes to TCHC. My top three:

  • Does the change increase responsiveness to tenants?
  • Does it promote self-determination?
  • Does it lead to stronger neighbourhoods?

I believe the answers are, “Yes, Yes and Yes.” As for the other four questions on my list? That’s the topic of the another blog entry.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Philip Gillies permalink
    January 29, 2016 11:38 am

    Wonderful Joy!

  2. mrwensleydale permalink
    January 29, 2016 4:57 pm

    Lots of great points here.

    I agree the idea of portable shelter allowances will be crucial. Knowing they can move, I think, will help reduce tenants’ feeling of being trapped.

    There must be more money. Either the City has to step up and change the funding formula for TCHC or TCHC needs to be able to attract more market-rent tenants. Better service will surely make the latter easier to accomplish than it is right now.

    More on-site staff is a great idea. From the get-go, this ought to increase tenant involvement since interaction between tenants and TCHC will increase right away. The current “formal” way of tenant involvement has not succeeded as much as people hoped, but giving the front-line staff more resources and a way to interact with local tenant committees seems like a promising way forward.

    I haven’t seen anything in the report about the scattered units, but spinning them off entirely to a new non-profit, instead of selling them just to try to make up for operating shortfalls, would be a great thing. I hope that’s still on the table.

    Looking forward to seeing future blogs on this….

  3. January 29, 2016 5:21 pm

    Sounds like TCHC is becoming more like Non-Profit Co-Ops; with portable shelter allowances and being able to move so a tenant does not feel trapped is a great idea.
    I have lived in City Home and TCHC for over 33 years and we used to have the Superintendent in the building, but tenants were always banging on his door all hours of the night. The Super now is not on site and takes a lot of time off. When we call TCHC for emergencies they do not respond on time and it is hard to get through especially on off hours and weekends.

    There are many tenants in our building with mental and substance abuse problems creating it very difficult for others and we do not feel safe. I have lived for 2 years with a screaming Spanish alcoholic right beside me that has made passes at me… I have called the TCHC help line many times and the police many times but nothing can be done!

    Like the Goodwill closing because of the CEO Keiko Nakamura that used to be TCHC’s CEO in 2011, let’s see what happens with Our Mayor’s new Task Force for TCHC.

  4. January 31, 2016 12:31 pm

    I can’t help but think that one of the many 800 pound gorillas (or elephants) in the room are the artificially low rents charged to social assistance recipients on both ODSP and OW. No landlord could survive on them and do any sort of upkeep. $109 a month for the typical ODSP recipient is ridiculous but any raise in rents up to about $420 a month would be completely funded by the province and would be a pass-through windfall to municipalities. This is why the rents never go up.
    But that’s just one part of artificially low rents. Poor seniors often face 100% recovery rates on their GIS and GAINS-A incomes meaning that seniors who try to work and raise their incomes face confiscation of their incomes which almost always exceed 50% for anyone who is a senior in RGI housing. This policy nightmare tends to depress rents because the rental authority gets 30% of income and those incomes are much lower as there is no little incentive to work at a time when there is almost a revolution in the workforce where many more seniors are working.
    How long can we use out of date policy tools to keep rents depressed? This issue is more important than most people think!

    • January 31, 2016 1:55 pm

      You’re absolutely right, John.

      The Task Force recommends TCHC tenants on social assistance get the full shelter allowance they would get if they lived in private housing. That alone would save Toronto roughly $60 Million per year and make no difference at all to tenants.

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