BY EDWARD KEENAN
Here’s the story: there was a gun murder a while back at Windermere and the Queensway. Local residents of the nearby public housing project Swansea Mews cooperated with police to help apprehend the shooter. Sad beginning, encouraging end.
Except that’s not the end. Matt Galloway has been discussing this for a couple days on Metro Morning: As a “reward” for their cooperation with police, Toronto Community Housing CEO Gene Jones announced that Swansea Mews would get $150,000 worth of needed repairs to their community. As Marcus Gee of the Globe reports, “The complex near Windermere and the Queensway will get a new fence, better lighting, an extra security camera and repairs to its laundry room. Local students will get a backpack of supplies before they return to class in the fall, as well.”
As Jones told Galloway yesterday. “We want to make sure we tell all our residents, we work together, it’s a partnership, it’s not just [Toronto Community Housing Corporation], it’s not [Toronto Police Service], it’s everyone working together and this is what rewards that we give.” He goes on to say that the benefits were drawn from a wish list residents brought into the participatory budget process. “I took that and said I’m going to reward everything on this participatory budget, and give them that, and then anything extra I can do that’s going to improve their quality of life issues, we’re gonna do it.”
Jones goes on to emphasize how residents need to see the “benefits” of reporting crimes.
My initial reaction, like that of many, was that this is a repulsive idea. To tie rewards to cooperation with police—offering bribes—just seems wrong on the face of it. Then I wondered if this was just because I have some fantasy in my head that people should be upstanding citizens and cooperate with police in fighting crime because it’s an obligation they have to their community—and that like in so many cases my “should” doesn’t line up with reality, so I get uncomfortable with incentives that might actually work.
Maybe there’s a bit of that. But I don’t have an problem with using a lot of incentive systems or market mechanisms in places where other people start feeling icky about it: I don’t understand, for instance, why we don’t allow payment for organ donation.
But there are a couple ways this is different—and not just because it fails to jibe with ideas about the proper motives of good citizens.
Many of the worst elements of this are tied to where it comes from: from Toronto Community Housing. If the police department wants to directly encourage tips that lead to convictions, by paying informants, that’s one thing (though it may create an unwanted incentive to provide false information that leads to wrongful convictions). And if the police department decides it needs to offer special protection to witnesses to keep them safe because their participation in a case puts them in harm’s way, that makes a lot of sense. But it’s not the police department acting here. It’s the community housing provider.
Our public housing system is not there to reward good behaviour. It doesn’t exist to reward anything. It exists to serve a need: to provide housing to people who could otherwise not afford it. It should be noted that it fails in many ways to meet this need adequately: there are long waiting lists for spaces, and there’s an almost billion-dollar backlog of necessary repairs waiting to be done. If you ask around, you start hearing about elevators and heating systems breaking down for long stretches, hallways and stairwells that residents feel are unsafe, basic maintenance that is neglected.
So Toronto Community Housing exists specifically to provide a baseline of decent quality of life to those who are unable to provide it for themselves. And to some it extent it is failing to deliver the basics to ensure that decent quality of life for many people who depend on it. Now here comes Gene Jones to say that basic things that will “address quality of life issues” are not prioritized according to need, but according to ability and willingness to help solve crimes. This is a bizarre criteria. Like, one building’s children will get school supplies and backpacks because someone there witnessed a crime and reported it. Meanwhile another building where no crime occurred sends their kids to school without a new backpack and may still be waiting for an elevator to be fixed.
This “reward” system also provides benefits to a community based on the actions of an individual or a few individuals living in it. If one person reports a crime, then everyone gets security cameras and fences. This is odd. And more so when you consider that a reward also, by its nature, implies that those not rewarded are being punished—or at least unrewarded. Those who cooperate get something they need, those who do not cooperate are deprived of that something. That’s a punishment based on behaviour, in a way. And so just as an entire community stands to benefit when one citizen is lucky enough (ahem) to witness a crime and tell police about it, a whole community stands to be punished when one of its members not so lucky or not so willing. I’m not sure that’s a healthy system.
And even as a simple incentive system, it’s not hard to see how it becomes odd and possibly undesirable: if a community wants to see its basic needs met, it suddenly has the motivation to become a roving squad of vigilantes and private investigators. Ad absurdum, one imagines neighbours framing someone for a crime in order to get the new basketball nets they want, or even some heroic individual committing a crime and having his friends turn him in so that everyone can benefit from the rewards. A community that doesn’t have adequate lighting in its laneways? Must be their own fault—they aren’t doing enough police work.
I guess my two main concerns are with what kind of behaviour we are encouraging with our incentives, and with the ethics of a public housing agency using basic necessities of life as an incentive in the first place.
Toronto Community Housing has very limited funds, and it needs to use them to try to improve the quality of life of all its residents. It should set its priorities according to where the needs are most severe, and where the dollars are going to be most useful. We already have a system that rewards people with improved quality of life based on performing behaviours other people want to encourage—it’s called the free market. Toronto Community Housing exists to address the quality of life—the basic needs—of those not being rewarded by the free market. It should base its decisions on need, not on a system of punishments and rewards.
PHOTO: JACQUES GALLANT/TORONTO STAR