At the very end of last month, Rob Ford had a problem. New revelations were breaking almost daily in the ongoing crack and drug scandal tied to the mayor and his family, and the press was hounding him for a detailed response he refused to give. So as long as they were all standing around waiting to broadcast anything he said or did live on TV, he’d use them to change the topic.
On May 31, he kicked off this strategy by giving a long speech about the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC). He recounted the details—$1,000 chocolates! Spa days!—of a two-year-old spending scandal. “I moved quickly and decisively to clean up this disgraceful mess,” he said, to emphasize what he considered an important policy success story. “Folks, I am so proud to stand before you today and tell you that we have turned the corner at Toronto Community Housing.” Then, in a scene that’s now become somewhat infamous, he greeted all questions about the drug scandal by asking, “Anything else?”
Well, there was something else, it turns out. One week later, Toronto’s ombudsman, Fiona Crean, issued a shocking report detailing some ways in which the TCHC has decidedly not turned a corner. Her report dealt with the evictions of senior citizens, many of them suffering from mental health problems. In case after case, Crean enumerated how people were thrown into the street or the shelter system with little or inadequate notice and no personal contact.
One developmentally disabled tenant was wrongly evicted after 30 years at TCHC and continued trying to pay off her rental arrears while living in a homeless shelter. When an 88-year-old man disappeared, staff declared his unit abandoned and then continued to withdraw payments from his bank account for months without trying to find out what had happened to him. Still another tenant saw his balance owing jump from $45 to $3,000 because of a paperwork error. He died of a heart attack in hospital weeks after being evicted—and staff continued attempting to collect his outstanding balance for seven months after his death.
Even before the report, everyone acknowledged that the nearly $1-billion repair backlog in city social housing urgently needs to be addressed. Suddenly, we had further evidence of gross mismanagement that ranges in seriousness from callous to life threatening.
In a telling session of city council, Ford attempted to deal with this problem by screaming at the messenger. He said he disagreed with the report, though it soon became clear he hadn’t even read it. He said he wasn’t aware of any problems with seniors being evicted, since no one called his office to complain about it. He added, “I don’t care if you’re two years old, 20 years old, or 200 years old, you’re not going to live for free.” And then, in a sputtering rage, he accused his council opponents of being “the problem.” He concluded by saying, “Nobody supports Toronto Community Housing more than I do.”
Ford skipped the vote on Crean’s recommendations for improving the eviction process. His brother and his deputy mayor were alone in voting against them.
The same week, Ford’s budget committee met to discuss what to do with the $248-million surplus left over from last year. Some councillors suggested applying it directly to TCHC’s repair backlog, but the committee members refused to consider such a motion, and voted to accept staff’s recommendation that some of the money be used for capital works projects and the rest be squirreled away by topping up the city’s reserve funds.
Toronto continues to be captivated by Ford’s alleged ties to the massive gang-and-murder-related police raid carried out last week. But the mayor’s attempt to turn the focus to a policy issue has shed a different light on the problems Toronto faces under Ford. Because he treats policy issues as personal ones, phone calls to his office are the only evidence he accepts and personal constituent visits from the mayor are the only form of service to residents he considers important.
Meanwhile, real people continue to suffer. Anything else?