It’s a vision offering better homes for the poor, more accountability on behalf of tenants and more mixed-income communities. Along the way, public housing in Canada’s largest city would finally become a sustainable operation.
The recommendations from a special task force on improving Toronto community housing are a commendable blueprint for achieving these goals. But much depends on precisely how this bold agenda is implemented. It would be tragic if reforms create a more independent and financially sound organization, but at the cost of reduced service to the poor, especially vulnerable people struggling with addiction or mental illness.
Advocates of change promise that won’t happen. “This is not about people losing their housing,” Mayor John Tory said on Tuesday as the task force published its report. “I’m not going to leave people high and dry.”
It’s vital to keep that in mind as the report goes to the city’s executive committee on Thursday, with a recommendation that it be immediately referred to the city manager for assessment. A detailed action plan is expected this fall.
There’s no denying that the six-member task force has produced an intriguing and potentially transformative plan for the troubled Toronto Community Housing Corp. (TCHC). The organization is struggling with a $2-billion repair backlog and a shakeup – even a breakup – would be thoroughly in order. That’s just what the group, headed by former mayor and current senator Art Eggleton, has prescribed.
The panel offers two ways forward. One, create a new non-profit housing provider called (appropriately enough) NewHome to manage all TCHC holdings worth keeping. The housing corporation would remain to renovate and redevelop properties before passing them over to NewHome.
Or, two, TCHC would be split into three distinct and streamlined divisions working together to carry out fixes and ultimately transfer the agency’s entire revitalized housing stock to a community-based non-profit corporation.
The city manager should have some useful insight into which is the best way to proceed. “Regardless of the transition model chosen,” the task force says, “TCHC’s portfolio must be reviewed and rationalized.”
A necessary step would be to examine all existing TCHC assets in order to identify properties to be kept and revitalized, those that should be sold and buildings that would be best demolished to make way for bigger, better public housing.
As new residential units become available, the task force recommends renting more of them at market rates. About 90 per cent of TCHC units are now occupied by people paying a rent geared to their income. The other 10 per cent of tenants pay market prices. The panel would have just 70 per cent of units going to low-income people, with 30 per cent of tenants paying market, or “low end of market,” rent. The admirable goal is to make sure lower-income tenants are better integrated into neighbourhoods.
The overall number of households receiving assisted housing should stay the same, at about 52,600. Room would be found for some in bigger new buildings while others would go to the city’s 240 additional non-profit and co-op housing providers.
Obviously, this must be carefully managed to ensure low-income renters don’t fall through the system’s cracks. Likewise, the group’s recommendation that provincial health authorities assume a much greater role in supporting “high needs” tenants, such as frail seniors and people with mental problems or addictions. Overburdened TCHC staff are not in the best position to serve those populations. But, again, care must be taken to avoid leaving vulnerable people in the lurch.
There’s a great deal more in the panel’s 83-page report. It offers a genuinely new direction for Toronto community housing. But this must be done without hurting those it is meant to help – the thousands of people who make public housing their home.