As City staff wraps up a series of public consultations, the public is still divided on what Toronto's new community housing model should look like.
Robert Frederickson is ready for change. Last Saturday, he, along with more than 100 other tenants, gathered at the 519 Church Street Community Centre, eager to have their thoughts heard about changes to Toronto Community Housing.
Over the last two weeks, Toronto City staff has been meeting with the public in different communities to gauge how they feel about the recommendations put forth by the Mayor’s task force on Toronto Community Housing in January. The last of the consultations took place Monday, and for most of the community, particularly TCH tenants, there’s no question that social housing is past due for an overhaul.
What that change should look like, however, is still a topic of debate. At the 519, some tenants were frustrated with what they saw in the report, while others were anxious about the unknown outcomes of the proposed changes. Perhaps Frederickson was the more optimistic of the bunch, relieved that any change was on the horizon.
“We’ve been trying to get real changes, and we’ve been promised stuff before but nothing happens,” said Frederickson, a Scarborough resident who’s lived in community housing since 1997. “This report is the first time I’ve really seen something that shows they’re serious about improving the system. I’m just waiting to see what the City comes up with.”
The mayor’s six-person task force has already spent more than a year mulling over the changes necessary to fix Toronto community housing, long tainted by a lack of funding, limited housing stock, poor living conditions for tenants, and a history of scandals within the corporation. In it’s final report, the task force outlined 29 recommendations and five “transformative ideas.”
Now it’s up to staff, with guidance from the community, to offering council advice on the feasibility of their report, and what next steps should look like.
“The most important piece now is that the City has an opportunity to hear from folks that live in TCHC, and the public,” said City of Toronto strategic and policy management lead Todd Orvizt during an April 24 consultation at the 519 Church Street Community Centre. “There’s going to be an opportunity for [staff] not to just be accountable to the people who have assigned us to do this work, but also to you…today and moving forward.”
Among the hot topics of discussion at the recent public meetings was the proposition to turn TCHC, the City-owned landlord controlling the lion’s share of social housing, over to a new non-profit organization.
Under this model, the current TCHC stock would be managed more like the other 240 social housing non-profits that already exist in Toronto. The model is meant to be more community involved, and while it would no longer be governed by the City, the City would still offer funding and could intervene if the non-profit wasn’t operating according to plan.
The non-profit model would also have the capacity to borrow more funds than the City, which is restricted by a 15 per cent debt ceiling.
For Frederickson, the most appealing suggestion is transferring TCHC properties to a new non-profit (or several of the existing non-profits). “It’s about changing the culture, and making it more about the community,” he said.
But not all tenants agree that removing TCHC, and by extension the City, from the picture is a good idea.
Doris Power has lived in Toronto community housing for 47 years, and is concerned that without the City holding landlords accountable, the situation will become worse. “I want the City to be responsible for affordable and secure social housing in Toronto,” said Power, whose single-occupancy home was under threat of being sold off by the City in 2013. “We need to keep this City involved in the ownership and management of our affordable housing.” She added: “Who’s to say a non-profit or co-op would be better—they aren’t safe either.”
Along with the proposed non-profit model, other recommendations on the table include creating more mixed-income communities by changing the ratio of subsidized and market rent housing. Right now, 90 per cent of TCHC housing is rent-geared-to-income (RGI), while 10 per cent is market rate. The City is considering changing that to closer to 70 per cent RGI and 30 per cent market.
The task force also suggested “better buildings, and more of them.” This would involve tackling the $2.6-billion capital repair backlog, and significant funding from Ottawa and the province, which is yet to be secured.
Another recommendation, popular among tenants, is decentralizing operations to have fewer managers in the head office, more staff in individual buildings, and greater tenant involvement in decision-making.
And finally, the task force suggests reforming the RGI system to simplify the process of applying for housing, as well as childcare subsidies and Ontario Works. The City may also create (if the province permits) a portable housing benefit which would let renters take their subsidy outside of community housing and into the private market.
This final recommendation was another point of contention at the 519. Frederickson liked the idea of having freedom to move around the City, and out of public housing, without needing to apply for a transfer to another subsidized unit. Power, on the other hand, was concerned about slumlords in the private market and having even less recourse than she does with TCHC.
During the meeting, Rob Cressman, manager of shelter support and housing at the City noted that the TCHC’s decay did not happen overnight. “This is something that was 30 years in the making,” he said, “and the solution is not going to happen overnight either.”
City staff is set to present its directions report, a response to the task force recommendations, at executive committee on June 28. After that, they’ll rally the public yet again for another round of community consultations before drafting another report, due out in the fall, outlining a specific plan for Toronto’s new social housing program.