Toronto Should Get Angry About How Council Has Failed to Address the City's Social Housing Crisis
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Toronto Should Get Angry About How Council Has Failed to Address the City’s Social Housing Crisis

While politicians fight to look like budget hawks, the city's most vulnerable see their homes fall apart.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that transit is the most immediate crisis in the city—but then you take a close look at Toronto Community Housing.

Only five per cent of Toronto lives in social housing, and many of us don’t regularly interact with these homes or know that they’re in our neighbourhoods. That’s a problem because these units—mostly built in the 50s to 70s—are crumbling in the face of political neglect.

This problem will only be exacerbated by Council’s edict to cut 2.6 per cent from every City department and agency. The upshot? More units will be shuttered and fewer repairs will get done at a time when the agency’s tenants—including some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens—need the help most.

The Saturday edition of the Star explores the Grassways community located at Jane and Firgrove, where walls and brick are literally crumbling, and 22 units have already been closed down. The buildings were slated for much-needed repairs, and, in September 2015, John Tory held a press conference to tout progress at the site.

Now TCH’s CEO says that they don’t have the funding to make the necessary repairs, and more units will have to be closed if the financial situation remains the same. The Star article goes through the sad state of affairs in detail, and it’s worth a read.

In July, Council voted to reduce all City budgets by 2.6 per cent. This means a $5 million budget reduction for the agency, which is pretty manageable. But TCH was already starting from a $96 million deficit, much of it due to unfunded repair needs and increased costs as tenants can’t afford more in rent but utility bills go up. So TCH is actually dealing with a $101 million problem, not a $5 million problem. The consequences in a crisis of this magnitude mean that some of the city’s most vulnerable residents, like those in Grassways, live in increasingly deteriorating conditions or get kicked out of their homes.

This situation can be blamed, in part, on the provincial and federal governments, which have not kicked in the requested share of $1.7 billion to make up TCH’s $2.7 billion capital repair backlog (the City has set aside its share). It is true that the other orders of government don’t fund social housing like they used to or should and that low levels of funding will continue to decline until 2030 when federal contributions will disappear; this leaves the City—which has the least ability to finance debt—with an infrastructure time bomb on its balance sheet.

There is also not much political willingness to increase property tax revenue—which is in the middle or among the lowest in the province, depending on how you measure it—to make up the difference.

There should be little sympathy for local politicians who appeal to other levels of government to fund crumbling homes that the City owns while also asking that agency to make budget cuts in excess of $100 million when they need to invest more money in repairs and new units. This budget request, it should be noted, is designed to give those same members of Council political cover when they debate revenue tools sometime this fall. It buys them the ability to say that they are doing everything they can, taking the City’s budget seriously, and all sorts of other niceties, even though doing so means they aren’t addressing the underlying problems—the living conditions of tenants—with the same seriousness. If Council really were doing everything it could, its members would increase property taxes more than inflation, explain to the public why this was necessary, build a coalition of political support, and show some leadership. That looks increasingly unlikely.

It is shameful that TCH walls are crumbling and that we know this is a crisis but do so little to change it. It is also shameful that a majority of Council has effectively downloaded political anxieties about their difficult budget decisions onto TCH residents, who bear this burden in the form of increasingly unliveable conditions.

If the political calculus does not change, then the situation will only get worse—this should not be tolerated. There are 110,000 people who live in TCH units, and around 18,000 could find their homes uninhabitable by 2021 if capital repair funding is not provided. An additional 170,000 residents are on the waiting list for units, a population greater than Prince Edward Island.

Torontonians should be angry about the abdication of responsibility on social housing, the impact to our most vulnerable neighbours, and the politicians who are too weak-willed to do the right thing. It’s an unconscionable crisis with few signs that things are improving. Fuck that.

This has been another instalment in Things Cost Money