Toronto Community Housing must make sure new money is well-spent
For far too long now the only news coming out of the Toronto Community Housing Corp. has been beyond bad.
Tenants have had to deal with crumbling walls, drafty windows, a lack of heating, cockroaches and bedbugs. Conditions in some buildings were so bad that hundreds of the agency’s units were shuttered as unsalvageable — even as more than 100,000 individuals and families languished on the waiting list for subsidized housing.
Now, at long last, there is positive news that could bring relief to the agency’s 110,000 tenants.
The federal government has committed $1.3 billion over 10 years for badly needed repairs such as replacing leaking windows and broken boilers, upgrading roofs and improving accessibility for residents. This is on top of the $313 million the City of Toronto had set aside for capital repairs this year.
That’s great news considering that TCH said back in 2017 that fully half its developments would be in “critical” condition within the next five years without additional funding for repairs.
As Sheila Penny, TCH’s vice-president of facilities management, said of the federal cash: “We are giddy over here.”
That’s understandable, given this is by far the single largest investment by a senior level of government in social housing since the feds and the province downloaded the responsibility onto the city decades ago.
But more money doesn’t mean that all is well. Much more than that is needed.
The country’s largest social housing provider needs strong and effective leadership from the top down to its building managers to ensure the money is used effectively.
This is, after all, an organization in serious turmoil.
Last year, for example, it had to call in a law firm to investigate complaints that it operates in a “culture of fear.”
And in the past eight years it has gone through four CEOs. (The last one was fired in late February for allegedly influencing the awarding of a $1.3-million contract to a management consulting company. She denies the charge and is suing for wrongful dismissal.)
It bears repeating that the agency’s tenants, 94 per cent of whom live below the poverty level, deserve a decent place to live.
But that will be impossible to create and maintain if the agency continues to be mismanaged.
Now all eyes are on Kevin Marshman, the agency’s former chairman who just took over as CEO.
He must make sure all the new money for repairs is well-spent. Not a penny of the desperately needed and long-awaited funding can be wasted.
He must also ensure the safety of his tenants, who have had to deal with criminal activity within some buildings.
That won’t be easy.
Under provincial legislation the agency does not have the right to ban tenants who have been evicted for committing serious crimes from reapplying for a unit — and even being prioritized on the waiting list because they are considered “disadvantaged.”
That has to change, as Mayor John Tory says, “to protect all the other people who live in those buildings.”
As it stands, the situation is so dire that in December the corporation asked that the number of special constables patrolling its properties be doubled.
Finally, Marshman should move ahead with a number of recommendations contained in the Tenants First plan passed by city council in 2017 that were aimed at making TCH more manageable and focused on the needs of residents.
Among them: Setting up an independent entity for senior tenants that would manage 14,000 units of social housing, creating a more even income mix in Toronto’s social housing communities, and forging better connections with independent non-profit housing organizations and service providers.
While TCH has made some progress on these recommendations it still has a long way to go.
What’s needed now is strong leadership, throughout the organization, to get the job done. If TCH fails to reform how it operates, it risks wasting the extra money it’s receiving from Ottawa.