Stepping down as chair of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) board last week was not easy for David Mitchell.
As a Lawrence Heights tenant for seven years, he was fully aware of the challenges associated with public housing. He was exposed to the crime and drug problems that plague these neighbourhoods and cognizant of the increasing waiting list for affordable housing due to an increase in homelessness and new immigrants.
The first social housing tenant to be appointed chair, Mitchell proudly accepted the role and vowed to bring a new vision and fresh focus to the board.
With new Mayor Rob Ford using the media to call for the resignation of TCHC board members in the wake of auditor-general Jeffrey Griffith’s investigation that revealed inappropriate expenses and purchasing practices, Mitchell felt he had no other option but to resign.
He and six citizen board members tendered their resignations last week. The 13-member board comprises four city councillors and nine citizens, including two TCHC tenants who have chosen to stay on.
“It was a very difficult decision for me to step down, but it’s one that was needed to be made in the context of the current political reality which is that my view and those of the other civilian members of the board were not consistent with that of the mayor with respect to privatization,” Mitchell told Share this week.
“He made a call and obviously we were going to respect the rules in relation to that call. At the same time, I wasn’t prepared to have that distraction further impact on the tenants or the staff. In order for us to be able to move forward and look out for the best interest of the tenants, it was appropriate that I resign.”
Ford plans to replace the board and possibly privatize North America’s second largest landlord that houses almost 165,000 tenants in 59,000 households, including seniors who are on a fixed income.
Mitchell does not agree with Ford’s privatization plan, fearing it will not work in the best interest of tenants. He feels developers and landlords will benefit from the shift.
“Social housing is a complex social service,” said Mitchell. “You have to remember you are dealing with low and moderate income tenants. You have people that lose their jobs and those with addiction issues who may not manage their money as best as they could. You are doing different creative things in order to try to get them to pay their rent because you understand the need to keep them housed.
“For a private organization, the end game for them is profit and they can’t invest the type of resources or afford the type of time that will cost them profit in order to deal with those types of social issues.”
Mitchell said he and the other board members were unaware of the routine expenditures of TCHC staff as they don’t come to the board for approval.
“The Board of directors set policies and financial targets and they look at what is the objectives and how do we reach them and bring the types of resources, support and skill to the organization to meet its objectives,” he said. “We hire the CEO and you look for someone that can then bring the financial leadership and integrity pieces to the organization. You don’t interfere with and you don’t have direct responsibility for day-to-day operations. For instance, if we have a policy on clean floors, we say we want it cleaned but we don’t dictate how it should be cleaned. That’s left to the folks you hire and entrust to do those things. Sometimes people are going to use poor judgement, but at the same time like any organization where poor judgement is exercised, we take action and you could see where the chief executive officer (Keiko Nakamura) – in collaboration with the board – took action in terms of addressing the issues that were outlined in the report.”
Nakamura has said that six staff members have been fired, 14 disciplined and four others are being investigated.
In his audit, Griffiths cited, among other things, poor enforcement of TCHC’s expense policy that led to inappropriate expenses being approved. These include a $40,000 Christmas staff dinner, $1,000 in Holt Renfrew chocolates and an $800 fee that four massage practitioners charged for services rendered to TCHC staff at a summer picnic.
Mitchell defended the Christmas celebration, saying it has been an annual tradition since the city merged the Toronto Housing Company and the Metropolitan Toronto Housing Corporation in January 2002.
“The seasonal celebrations are part of the recognition event for our staff,” he said. “We, like any other organization, recognize our staff through different programs and incentives. One of the unique things about the TCHC is that it includes tenants in all its functions. I understand clearly the optics of $40,000, but when you break that down by 900 people, it’s $35 a person. And what’s provided at those celebrations is your traditional chicken, vegetables, rice and soft drinks. There’s nothing lavish. It’s just the volume of people.
“In regards to expenditures on chocolates, the spa and other stuff, that was a totally inappropriate use of tax dollars and the folks that were involved with these things were dealt with. The TCHC has strengthened policies and put in other procedures in order for those types of things not to happen again.”
Appointed in March 2008, Mitchell leaves the board before his terms ends in December.
“Over my term, we have done some very significant things in terms of trying to put more resources into repairs, the revitalization of Regent Park and redevelopment of Lawrence Heights in addition to attempting and continuing to always think outside the box in terms of how to provide economic opportunities for tenants,” he said.
“When the TCHC was created, there were no capital dollars that came with it and the organization had to deal with buildings that are 30 and 40 years old that are experiencing natural deteriorating, never mind wear and tear. To try to bring those up to a standard that’s decent and fix everything else is very difficult with the limited funds we have.”
Four affordable rental housing buildings that are part of the Regent Park Revitalization program were opened a year ago while city council last July unanimously approved a similar transformation in Lawrence Heights.