The recent firestorm in the city over the auditor-general’s report on “inappropriate expenditures” at Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) has again brought into focus the urgency of dealing with housing for people living on low incomes.
With a housing stock in constant need of repair and refurbishment, the report by Auditor-General Jeffrey Griffiths showing that tens of thousands of dollars were spent on Christmas parties, boat cruises and restaurant meals by TCHC staff and millions more for contracts given without competitive bidding, the state of social housing in Toronto is in crisis.
The auditor-general has identified inappropriate practices but what is not stated overtly is that public housing in Toronto is underfunded and woefully inadequate. With a budget of $600 million, a $6 billion portfolio and 1,400 employees, TCHC houses 164,000 low and moderate income tenants – about six per cent of Toronto’s population – in its more than 350 high- and low-rise apartment buildings. There are also some 130,000 applicants on the waiting list for subsidized housing for whom there is a minimum five-year wait, while some estimates suggest as much as a 20-year wait.
Toronto’s public housing experiment began with the construction of Regent Park in the late 1940s in an attempt to rid the city of the low-rent ghettos that were forming in the Cabbage Town area. But the best intentions of urban planners have proved to be a social failure. Their designs left promising ideas for social housing with unintended consequences. Built as social islands isolated from their surroundings, social housing projects have developed into crime hotspots.
In response, Regent Park is again leading the way. The newly redesigned zone at Parliament and Dundas aims to integrate subsidized renters with market-rate payers and holds hope for shaping a more balanced community. But the portfolio still has a long way to go.
In reaction to the auditor-general’s report, Mayor Rob Ford has attempted to dismiss the entire TCHC Board and has made comments about privatizing city housing stock, but there is no point throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
We believe that privatizing the public housing stock would not be in the best interest of low-income renters, especially in the case of those who have special needs. What is needed with the current stock of housing is a stronger emphasis on maintenance. And where it is no longer feasible to repair buildings those structures should be torn down with the aim to update the social platform for reconstruction, as with the plans for Lawrence Heights and as was done at Donmount Court.
At the same time, Ford’s idea of providing subsidies and allowing people the option to use those subsidies to rent in the open market is another solution we believe must be taken seriously. It is a good market solution and a good social solution because currently TCHC housing projects are really Toronto’s version of economic ghettos. Therefore, giving people the freedom to choose where to live, with the help of a subsidy is better for the city as a whole. A neighbourhood of mixed housing is miles ahead of warehousing the poor. And, it may actually end up saving the city money because so much of the maintenance cost will no longer be its responsibility if people are renting in market rate apartment buildings. But, we must emphasize, this will not work for all low-income tenants, such as those with special needs, and who the city must continue to accommodate.
No problem of this magnitude happens overnight. Before TCHC there was the Metro Toronto Housing Authority and before that there was Ontario Housing, all to one extent or another have carried the portfolio like a dysfunctional family.
Furthermore, we have received little in the way of a sustained policy from the federal and provincial levels for adding to the affordable housing stock. This is unacceptable in a climate where more and more people are falling from the middle-class into the low-income range. It is easy to feel angered by free spending TCHC management, but the problems in public housing planning and maintenance go beyond just the staff at TCHC.