As Toronto's social housing agency faces crises on multiple fronts, here's how their 2016 budget adds up.
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The board of Toronto Community Housing grapples with competing priorities: deliver a balanced budget, or much-needed repairs and front-line services?
The Story So Far
Over the past several years, the city’s social housing provider has had its share of damning investigations, power struggles, a “climate of fear,” the whole nine yards. It’s also taken on several ambitious and controversial neighbourhood revitalizations. Now, it’s facing a massive slow-motion disaster with no easy fixes.
Housing more than 160,000 people is expensive. Many social housing projects were built in the ’60s and ’70s during the wave of large-scale government investment; as social housing was downloaded from the federal government to the province and then to the city, funding dried up. The buildings are now getting old, and will need billions of dollars in capital repairs over the next decade in order to remain habitable.
Map by Sean Marshall
At the same time, the demand for affordable housing has continued to rise. Only a few per cent of households on the waiting list make it in. The final numbers for 2015 have yet to come in, but as of September 2015, there are more than 95,000 households on the list. So far this year,
628 1,930 have been housed.1
Things Cost Money
At the beginning of 2015, Mayor John Tory created a task force to find ways to improve TCHC’s operations and better serve its residents. Their interim report (PDF), released in July, called for TCHC to take immediate action to address poverty, building conditions, and the often-volatile relationship between residents, staff, and contractors. Two months later, TCHC responded with their own report on progress since then, as well as their plans for the immediate future.
You can check out the full 100-page report (PDF). For a
fun extremely dangerous drinking game, take a drink every time they say “contingent on funding”! Because, yes, many of the much-needed changes at TCHC would cost extra money to implement. For example:
- expanding preventative pest control to more buildings
- hiring staff to connect residents with clutter/hoarding problems with support services
- financial assistance for rent-geared-to-income tenants with unaffordable heating bills
- replacing or fixing elevators
Altogether, the TCHC board’s finance committee estimates it will cost $13.7 million to carry out the task force’s recommendations. Task force head Senator Art Eggleton says as much to budget chief Gary Crawford (Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest): TCHC can save money or fix things, but they’re not in a position to do both.
Maybe the mayor’s recent change of heart shows he can appreciate value for money.
There certainly isn’t much extra to squeeze out of the TCHC’s billion-dollar budget2. While it sounds very big, most of their revenue (about 60 per cent) comes from rent, subsidy from the City, TCHC’s line of credit, and reserve funds—none of which are exactly cash cows. This year, another big chunk—25 per cent—comes from mortgage refinancing.
Meanwhile, TCHC faces considerable operating expenses. Utility costs have gone up a whopping 35 per cent since 2012. And the pressure to improve front-line services has forced them to cut back in other areas, particularly human resources—which can constrain their ability to manage their workforce or hire people as fast as they need to.
On the capital side, building repairs, like fixing long-broken elevators, have won out at the cost of participatory budgeting. The practice of giving residents a direct voice in the budget has only recently been piloted in the City budget, but TCHC has been doing it since 2001.3 Last year, $8 million was allocated to various capital projects voted on by resident budget delegates. However, the three-year capital building program presented at this year’s budget had it cut down to $5 million.
The $3 million may seem like a small thing to quibble over when there’s a $2.6-billion unfunded repair backlog over the next 10 years. But it’s a small reminder that very soon, it won’t be residents or even TCHC that will be able to fix crumbling buildings—it will be up to Queen’s Park and Ottawa.
- Whoops. 628 households were housed in the most recent quarter, not the year as a whole. Thanks to the observant Kevin Speicher for pointing it out! We regret the error. ↩
- Operating and capital combined; it’s roughly a 60/40 split. ↩
- For an in-depth look at how the process works (and doesn’t), see these evaluations from 2009 and 2010. ↩
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