When it comes to the TCHC, there are no quick fixes, and no long-term plans.
We have some idea what the major issues in this fall’s city election might be: Transit, tax rates, and the competence and conduct of the incumbent mayor are already subjects of great debate. But a number of news items in the past few weeks point to another subject that cries out for attention: social housing. In Toronto, the housing agency responsible for our poorest residents seems incapable of managing its basic operational needs.
Some of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s problems are old news. There’s a waiting list of more than 90,000 households in line for subsidized units, which is more than the number of people who already live in TCHC buildings. And even as it fails to meet the need for housing, the TCHC has a hard time maintaining the buildings it owns. The state-of-good-repair backlog is now at more than $750 million (about as much as the cost of constructing six St. Clair right-of-way streetcar lines).
On top of those problems, an investigative report in the Globe and Mail last week points to persistent problems with gun violence: TCHC buildings house six per cent of Toronto’s population, but between 2009 and 2012 they were the site of 30 per cent of all shootings and 21 per cent of all homicides.
Meanwhile, TCHC management is the subject of an ongoing farce playing out in headlines.
A little background: When Rob Ford became mayor, he was confronted with an auditor’s report revealing management expenses for things like spa days and chocolates for staff. It seemed representative of a culture distracted from or unable to address the serious persistent problems in the agency. So Ford fired the entire board and the senior staff, and brought in Gene Jones, the former head of Detroit’s housing agency, to clean things up.
Upon his arrival, Jones spoke about needing good leadership. “Everyone thinks we piss away money, we don’t do what we say we’re going to do, there’s chaos in the management, they’re not experienced,” he told the National Post. “Now, do we need better leadership? Yes. And that’s why I’m here.”
A year and a half later, we’ve seen Jones at the centre of a leadership scandal of his own. Amid reports of various personnel and expense shenanigans, the board launched an independent investigation of his conduct. At a closed-door meeting last week, they decided not to pay him a bonus this year, and told him to accept executive coaching and take management-training classes.
While recent politics make Jones an easy target for scorn, the long-term picture of the agency shows that while he’s clearly not the solution, he is also not the problem—and neither is the mayor who appointed him. Looking back through David Miller and Mel Lastman’s years in office, we see the same problems—lack of investment, neglect of tenants, security issues—growing over time. There have been some here-and-there improvements (good new projects like the Regent Park rebuild, more tenant representation in decisions), but there are longstanding institutional problems, beginning with funding, that have festered under all stripes of political leaders.
We’ve been talking more seriously recently about how we need to actually pay for the transit we need. A similar political reality-check is in order for public housing. It’s a complex agency dealing with sophisticated, intertwined problems. There’s no quick fix. Which is all the more reason we should place the agency’s woes front and centre for discussion during the election.
It’s unclear to me why our affordable housing situation is not already as prominent an issue as transit or garbage collection—164,000 people live in TCHC buildings. The agency has a $206 million annual budget and buildings in virtually every neighbourhood of the city. Wherever you live, the quality of life for social-housing tenants is a local issue. So let’s see the plans to address it.