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What if we brought an “applicants first” lens to Toronto’s social housing waiting list?

July 10, 2019

Toronto’s Auditor General’s June 21st report, Opening Doors to Stable Housing, confirmed what many of us have known for years: Toronto’s social housing waiting list is not an effective vehicle for matching home-seekers to social housing vacancies.

According to the Auditor General, an average of 1400 rent-geared-to-income units stand vacant, even as thousands of people languish on the waiting list. TCHC has a vacancy rate of 2.29%, twice the average in Toronto’s private market. And only 13%, or just over 6,000 of the 47,000 unit offers made, are accepted. The remaining 87% were declined or, more often, the applicant could not be reached. The result: an under-used resource, longer waits for applicants, and $7 million in annual vacancy loss.

To remedy the problems, Toronto’s Auditor General offers 28 recommendations to keep the list up-to-date, strengthen policies, tighten up procedures, improve record-keeping, and better integrate the waiting list with access systems for other City-funded services.

They’re all useful ideas. But as City Council considers these recommendations at its July 16th meeting from a “systems” perspective, I hope they will also step into the shoes of applicants, starting with a simple question: What if we treated social housing applicants like we would like to be treated ourselves?

Choice. Self-determination. Dignity.

Those of us seeking rental or ownership housing in the private market do not queue up.  Instead, we take charge of our own search, viewing available options online, or enlisting the help of friends, a real estate agent, or a housing help worker. We can set our own pace. We can modify our search as we go along.

There is a system that offers social housing applicants the same benefits the rest of us enjoy. It’s called a “choice-based” access system, inspired by systems in the UK, Netherlands and other jurisdictions. Applicants are screened for eligibility, much as they are now — rather like getting a pre-approved mortgage. And then they are free to “bid” on social housing vacancies as they are posted online. After about 3 weeks, bids are closed, and the landlord contacts the “bidder” with the earliest application date, or an amalgamated score of applicant date and priority status — a calculation made automatically by the system.

Most households on the waiting list will be able to navigate the system on their own. (If fewer than 10% of the households on the waiting list are homeless we know the other 90% found a home — perhaps a crummy or unaffordable home, but still a home — through private market methods. It’s social housing access systems that require specialized knowledge.)

But to ensure no-one is left behind, we need to divert resources now tied up managing a list to ensuring vulnerable applicants or those without internet access find a home. I am imagining housing help workers operating much like real estate agents do, scanning the listings to see if any match their clients, and then helping them bid and close the deal.

A system whose time has come

In 2013, Toronto City Council began to explore replacing its social housing waiting list with a “choice-based” access system. In 2014, City Council authorized staff to  “implement a choice-based system.” In 2015, Council directed staff to “to expand the centralized choice-based system for the allocation of rent-geared-to-income (RGI) units to also include other housing benefit options including housing allowances, rents supplements and below market rent units.”

We know the system works. In 2014, the My Choice Rental Pilot used a choice-based approach on “hard-to-fill” units in 12 TCHC buildings. The results: the average number of phone calls made to fill an RGI vacancy fell from 9 to 1.5; acceptance rates increased from 24% to 73%, and the time required to fill vacancies dropped from 45 days to 22 days.

Now after five years’ of waiting, I hear we are on the verge of implementing a choice-based system. That’s good news! — and I hope City Council will ask staff for regular reports to ensure there are no further delays.

But these delays go a long way to explaining why the Auditor General has jumped in with a series of 28 “in the meantime” recommendations. As City Council considers these recommendations, may I be so bold as to add a few recommendations of my own?

DON’T penalize applicants for the failures in the system. Applicants are told to cast their net as widely as possible to move more quickly up the list. So is it really fair to then require them to take the first unit offered as the auditor (and the Ontario Government) proposes — one that may be wholly unsuitable for them — or be tossed off the list?

DO assume applicants know what’s good for them. For example, the report questions whether applicants should be allowed to choose to live in a building with an elevator, or to live on a building’s lower floor. But I am also reminded of stories I have heard of people throwing themselves off their 12th storey balcony after begging to be offered a lower floor, women who have felt exposed and at risk in a ground floor unit, and many who feared losing their battle with an addiction if they move into particular buildings or neighbourhoods. These are not trivial matters.

DON’T put fragile communities at risk. I sympathize with the Auditor General’s desire to move those most in need to the top of the waiting list. But those of us familiar with the Province’s “points system” from the 1960s, 70s and 80s recall how a “needs-based” approach transformed Regent Park and other large public housing estates from healthy communities to stigmatized districts of “concentrated misery,” and led to the call for a chronological waiting list more conducive to a successful community.

DO continue to offer on-site community services. Most co-ops and non-profits have offices and meeting rooms in their buildings, but many TCHC buildings do not. So over the years, TCHC has made units available to enable agencies to serve their tenants. The report rightly notes that these units could be freed for housing applicants. But before they are, ensure that affordable alternatives are available to ensure these valued services are not lost.

DON’T mess with success.  The report recommends opportunities for integration with other access systems. But before doing so, ensure the integration does not mar the very things that make these alternatives successful.  For example, the Co-ordinated Access to Housing & Supports system can turn around approvals for housing allowances and other supports for homeless people within 24 – 48 hours. Many alternative housing providers offer shelter and drop-in users a seamless path to permanent housing.  These are qualities that should be preserved — not lost in a drive to create “one system.”

And finally, DON’T use the waiting list as an indicator of housing need.It is really just a list of people who thought it worth their while to apply. A more accurate indicator is CMHC’s core housing need. In Toronto, 20.7% of households are in core housing need — the highest rate of any city in Canada, and a far larger number than the waiting list.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Doris POWER & family permalink
    July 12, 2019 7:05 pm

    Choice-based should NOT be based on viewing floor plans or pictures … and applicants must retain right to visit unit in person!

  2. July 12, 2019 7:16 pm

    Agreed. But viewing pictures and a description is a good first step that allows applicants to weed out the “definitely nots.” The main point is that applicants actually get to choose, instead of being told they need to take the first offer or be booted off the list.

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