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Why can’t TCHC tenants move like everyone else? 

May 15, 2018

This month Toronto Community Housing is consulting tenants on ways to make its internal transfer process – the process that enables tenants already living in TCHC to move from one home to another – fairer, more consistent and better resourced.

It’s a high stakes discussion. Right now, the only way tenants can move to another TCHC unit for any reason – they need an extra bedroom, they can’t climb stairs, the man who raped them has just moved into their building – is to join TCHC’s Internal Transfer List.

The catalyst for this discussion was the Toronto Ombudsman’s investigation into the complaints of two TCHC tenants who urgently needed to move but whose applications as a “medical and safety risk priority” were denied. The Ombudsman found TCHC’s system was “broken,” “inconsistently applied” and “fundamentally unfair,” She directed TCHC to re-order the categories on the waiting list, create a new and more tightly defined category for households deemed to be “in crisis,” develop procedural rules, enhance staff training in fair adjudication and decision-writing, and improve communication with tenants.

Getting to the heart of the problem

It was an order consistent with the Ombudsman’s mandate to promote fairness and equity.  But I’m not sure it got to the heart of the problem: that many TCHC tenants are unhappy in their homes but must depend on TCHC staff to decide where, when and whether they move.

Under the new system proposed by the Ombudsman, tenants will still be competing with each other to demonstrate why their circumstances are more desperate than their neighbours. Tenants will still have to scurry around to collect police reports, doctor’s letters or other documentation to prove to a TCHC staff panel they are “in crisis” and need an early move. As for tenants who want to move for the same reasons the rest of us move – to be close to our jobs, our schools or our families, or because we want more space, or because our neighbours are bugging us? They will always be bumped by someone “the system” deems needier than them.

Self-determination. Inclusion. Happiness

But what if “fairness” – as important as that is – was not the only goal. What if the chief goals were self-determination, inclusion and – dare I say it – happiness? In other words, what if TCHC tenants enjoyed the same opportunities as the rest of us?

Unlike TCHC tenants, we homeowners and tenants outside of social housing do not have to prove to a panel we deserve to move. We do not queue up. We do not have to figure out, years in advance, the buildings we might want to live in.  We do not forego the option of finding our ideal home by choosing an “okay for now” alternative.

That doesn’t mean we have limitless choices. Rents are high, vacancies are few, and many of us have to make hard trade-offs. But the trade-offs we make are our own. We do not need to justify them to others. Despite the hardships of finding an affordable home on the private market, I have never once heard a home-seeker say, “If only we could queue up in a giant waiting list, with a government panel to decide who gets to move first.”

Where tenants get to make their own moves

In 2012 I wrote a blog asking, “What if tenants could organize their own moves?”

In the UK, social housing tenants can arrange their own unit swap, directly contacting other tenants looking for a different unit. They simply log on to websites such as HomeSwapper, House Exchange or Exchange Locata. Tenants can review listings available across the country – just as homebuyers can see what’s available on realtor.ca (such a great model of a nation-wide co-ordinated access system!) or tenants can find apartments on View-it or Kijiji -– look at photos, talk to tenants, and arrange not just which home they want, but when they want to move.

Early experience at House Exchange – the first of the social housing home swap sites — found that 80% of tenants got a home of their choosing within six months, with many moving in only six weeks. They also found tenant-arranged exchanges cost the landlord around 1/3 the cost of a regular transfer. That’s partly because the system cuts out the middle-man – no need to process applications, manage a waiting list, hear appeals or show units. But it’s mostly because units are exchanged “as is.” That means tenants who are eager to move have an incentive to spruce up their units as best they can.

Are there limits? Sure. Landlords can refuse a transfer if the tenant is in the midst of eviction proceeding, or if the new tenants will be overhoused, underhoused or occupying a unit adapted for a special need that no-one in their household has. But within that framework tenants have the freedom to move where and when they want.

An expanded vacancy pool

Unit swaps are one way to create more opportunities to move. The Mayor’s Task Force proposed another approach: a portable housing allowance that would enable tenants to find a unit outside TCHC without losing their subsidy.

It was an idea that was received with caution by many tenants and tenant activists, who noted that tenants would be more vulnerable to rising rents or subsidy cuts outside of TCHC. We also know that affordable vacancies in the private market are not easy to find. But might it be an additional option for tenants who truly could not wait for the next available TCHC vacancy?  And would it work if tenants accepting the housing allowance could stay on TCHC’s internal waiting list to keep their options open?

What’s stopping us?

When I first raised the concept of a unit swap in 2012, several TCHC Board members responded with enthusiasm. And then . . . nothing happened, and I have no idea why.

But I would like to resurrect the idea now. Tenants are unhappy. TCHC needs to save money. And I can’t imagine anything more depressing for TCHC staff than having to choose among people desperate to move, knowing each decision will only hurt everyone else on the list.

Instead of tightening control over tenants let’s open up the possibilities. What have we got to lose?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 15, 2018 8:31 am

    I appreciate your work on this blog, Joy. I have experience living in public housing as a child, as an adult in co-op housing both at market and subsidized housing charge, and as a housing manager.

    My experience in public housing in Nunavut was the opposite as to what you describe. Since there were never any eyes on the units regarding the moves, our “as is” house swaps were some of those in the worse condition.

    In housing based on a needs priority system to get into, it makes sense that internal moves are made on the same system. The internal moves priority just needs to be administered in the same way. No decision required by the middle person.

    However, as a humanitarian, I like the idea of more autonomy for public housing tenants. I like the idea of tenants arranging their own swaps. TCHC still needs to have an eye on managing the asset in that process however.

  2. May 15, 2018 9:53 am

    John Stapleton writes:

    Well done. Inevitably people who swap will be watched by others who found themselves unable to swap.

    Although fraught, still worth it. Introducing liberty into a structure like TCHC that likely needs a liberty statement with broad application, not just swaps.

  3. Missy permalink
    May 15, 2018 10:42 am

    You use to be able to swap units in TCHC. I.e one tenant is under-housed (needs a 2 bedroom and has a one), could switch with a tenant in the same building who was over-housed (has a 2 bedroom but only needs a 1). TCHC has since stopped this policy (around 15 years ago). Instead, tenants are now often forced to relocate out of their community to meet their housing needs vs switching units.

  4. Kathleen permalink
    May 15, 2018 11:43 pm

    That’s an excellent and realistic policy! Financially smart! It is good that tchc is doing what the Ombudsman proposed, however it is faulty. I have been in my home since 1989 and I am now ovehoused. I received confirmation of being on Central Waiting. I provided 5 addresses that are safe for me as I have depression, am a recovering addict with stage 4 cirrhosis (hep c) and prior to this home we were homeless. Housing Connections phoned me to say the offer is 121 Humber where I often purchased and used there. She was very stern on the phone that if I don’t take that 1 I will have 2 more offers and if they”re similar I would lose my subsidy. They are certainly enforcing the policy at a high cost to us. Being overhoused feels like we did something wrong and that we’re BAD! I have called cleo and I have to find support and advocacy. My God I can’t take this anymore! As a tenant of tchc I have been hanging by my fingernails and my anxiety is through the roof. Besides the repairs and floods I fell backwards down the basement stairs and hit my head on the floor and doc said post concussion. There was a massive bruise covering the back of my head. I was trying to pull the door closed and the handle came off! It was ok too that we were drinking water from leeching leaking lead pipes up until 3-4 yrs ago. Anyway what I am saying is that tchc is finally working on other peoples transfers by pushing overhoused out! What you are proposing is seriously needed!! The list of homes I provided are not “impossible” and are much more safer. If we were allowed to do the swaps ourselves empowering. If tchc is only concerned with completing tranfers the causualties like me will be homeless. Kathleen

  5. homelessguide permalink
    May 16, 2018 12:42 pm

    Love your suggestions! It seems obvious that TCHC pays lip service to its tenants when it comes to accommodating their needs, let alone what should be their rights.
    The fact that TCHC withheld from their Regent Park tenants that they had ended their relationship with the Daniels Group and had put the continued redevelopment of Regent Park out to ‘open’ tender, only reinforces their long-standing
    culture of keeping their residents in the dark about things they should have been the first to know about, let alone have a say in!

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