A look at solutions and recommendations that could be on the mayor's TCHC task force final report tomorrow morning.
It’s been a year since John Tory assembled his six-person task force charged with providing solutions for Toronto Community Housing.
For the social housing authority—the second largest in North America—the last few years have been marked by scandal, a degrading housing stock, and dwindling funds coupled with an ever-elongating waitlist for low-income residents. Add to that a capital repair backlog swollen to $2.6 billion and 7,500 units at risk of condemnation, and it’s little wonder the city is finally mobilizing, or at least gesturing, to restructure the corporation in attempt to rescue its $9 billion social infrastructure investment.
The mayor’s task force released an interim report back in July, offering a taste of some of the potential changes to the TCHC. On Tuesday morning they’ll reveal the final report, which will likely offer suggestions on broad structural changes.
Here, we consider some of the items the report could address.
Split up the corporation
Early on in the process, Tory seemed keen on deconstructing the mammoth of a corporation into several smaller housing authorities. The approach was previously championed by David Soknacki who lent his advice to Tory after running against the now-mayor (and eventually dropping out) in the latest election.
Proponents of splitting the TCHC proffer that the corporation is too unwieldy to deal effectively with Toronto’s diverse low-income populations. Perhaps there should be one organization for seniors; another for people with disabilities, for example.
John Sewell, who was mayor of Toronto from 1978 to 1980, has long been vocal on dividing the TCHC back into its pre-amalgamation parts. Before 2002, subsidized housing was handled by three separate entities: Metro Toronto Housing Authority, which managed over 100 public housing project; Cityhome, a non-profit with about 9,000 mixed-income units; and Metro Toronto Senior Citizen Housing Company, a city-owned organization with 15,000 subsidized units. The three entities merged as a way to save money after the provincial government, which previously funded MTHA, downloaded housing responsibilities onto the city.
“It was just a disastrous mistake,” Sewell said about the housing merger. “The [MTHA] buildings are basically unmanageable. They’re in extremely poor condition, and the cost of trying to deal with them drags down the Cityhome projects and the senior citizen projects.”
It’s improbable the task force will recommend restoring the former social housing trinity, namely because it would cost too much, but they may find other ways to decentralize that make sense for the tenants and the city. Granting non-profits and other social agencies a larger role in social housing could be one way.
In British Columbia, for example, non-profit organizations own and operate about 90 per cent of the social housing stock. And last year, BC Housing, the provincial housing authority (there are no city-owned housing corporations), started transferring land ownership to some of these non-profit property managers. The province is supposed to feed money from the sales back into social housing, and remains responsible for subsidizing rents. Toronto already has 240 small non-profit and co-op housing providers–the task force may recommend entrusting them with a larger share of social housing.
Add more market-rent units
Currently, about 93 per cent of TCHC’s 58,000 units are rent-geared-to-income, meaning tenants pay a portion of their gross income (about 30 per cent) on their rent, and the city kicks in the rest. Having so few market-rent units, however, means the city generates very little income from rent. And while their income from market rentals grows by about 1 per cent annually, the cost to maintain the units grows by 7 per cent, as they reach the end of their lifespan.
The task force may recommend adding more market-rent units to offset the cost of the RGI ones. It’s unlikely they’ll suggest converting RGI units into market rentals, given that 92,000 households are currently waiting for subsidized housing. Instead, they may use funding from the federal government (if they get it) to build market housing on TCHC land. Of course, the feds haven’t guaranteed any money at this point, but the Prime Minister hinted at throwing the TCHC a bone during his meeting with Tory earlier this month, saying: “The infrastructure investment the mayor is counting on are not a problem. They are part of the solution to the challenges that Canada has been facing and that is exactly what we’re serious about tackling.”
Depoliticize the board
The TCHC board of directors gets a lot of flack. It’s been accused of being too big, and politicized to the point of losing sight of tenants’ needs. While some of the criticism is the legacy of corrupt governance of yore, some is of legitimate concern and may well be raised by the task force.
Among those concerns is the number of politicians on the board. Right now, four of its 13 members are city councillors (two are TCHC tenants), and their purpose for being there isn’t entirely clear. (To compare, New York City Housing Authority, the only social housing corporation in North America bigger than TCHC, has a six-person board with three resident members and zero politicians.)
Are councillor board members there to relay information back to council? Are they representing low-income tenants? Their own constituency? Certainly, their responsibilities are ambiguous and, as housing advocate and consultant Joy Connelly has put it, the structure provides the potential to turn the agency into a political football. “Toronto Community Housing has become an arena where left- and right-wingers take sides, with the CEO acting as a stand-in for Toronto’s mayor,” wrote Connelly (who advised the mayor’s task force) in a blog post following the Ombudsman’s scathing report on TCHC’s dubious management practices. “In reality, housing management is mostly a nuts and bolts operation. Everyone agrees that clean, safe buildings are good and waste is bad. There may be different opinions on the best way to get results, but most solutions don’t fall neatly on one end of the political spectrum or the other,” she adds, noting that the politicization of the TCHC has interfered with what should be a fairly smooth process.
Give more autonomy to building staff
We’ve heard the horror stories: leaky roofs, burrowing squirrels, incessant bed-bugs, rampant crime. The TCHC has a bad reputation when it comes to building maintenance. One explanation for the slumlord status is that there isn’t enough building staff, and the staff that is there doesn’t have sufficient autonomy over operations.
For instance, most non-profit and co-op housing organizations have a small staff in the building to address things like maintenance and security. While TCHC buildings do have superintendents, they often manage multiple properties and share responsibilities with a fleet of more than 700 employees at the TCHC central office who “provide services that most small landlords provide on-site,” Joy Connelly wrote in May 2014. “A call centre instead of just knocking on the door of the super; a community safety unit instead of hiring a security guard; on-staff trades instead of phoning a plumber.”
Navigating the bureaucracy can be confusing and tedious.
Connelly crunched the numbers and estimated conservatively that the TCHC spends just over $1000 per unit on staff per year, excluding building operators. What could the TCHC do differently with that $1000 per unit, you ask? “A 100 unit building could afford a full-time on-site building manager and a part-time bookkeeper. A 200 unit building could add on a full-time social worker and part-time security guard,” Connelly writes. “The larger the building, the more it could afford. And all this is on top of the staff already working in the field.”