Toronto Mayor John Tory may have the best intentions with his tough talk that those who live in the city’s subsidized housing will lose residency if they are found to be dealing drugs. Reacting to an interim report from a task force on Toronto Community Housing (TCH), Tory added a six-month ultimatum directed at TCH top brass to rid public housing property of drug dealers.
Tory seems to not understand it is not so much that TCH residents are dealing drugs but that the environment itself is a magnet for people who use it as a base for their low-level entrepreneurship.
Top-level drug dealers do not live in subsidized housing, neither do most of their mid-level minions. And for low-level dealers, this is their place of work, not necessarily their place of residence. Gang warfare and gun violence often associated with these sites are mainly turf wars to ensure supreme control of the marketplace.
What could Tory realistically expect from setting this six-month deadline? Even task force member Muna Mohammed, who is a TCH tenant representative, has warned that Tory’s timeline is unrealistic.
The knee-jerk solution has been to recommend increasing security staff on the properties. Yet, heavy and continuous surveillance by Toronto police is not having an effect, so what effect will this attempt realistically have?
TCH residents already face what may seem as an occupying army of police with whom residents have an uneasy relationship. They live with the anticipation and the trauma of their doors being broken down with battering rams in the early hours of the morning during regular police raids.
Furthermore, if carding is the must-have tool that Toronto police insist that it is, and given that so many TCH sites are so-called hotspots for crime, how is it that drug dealers continue to be a level-one problem in these areas? Something is not adding up.
The problems attached to this city’s public housing portfolio are well known. The fact is that the chances of becoming the target of violent crime are higher in and around TCH properties than anywhere else in this city.
We believe core reasons these sites are magnets for illegal activities have much more to do with the rundown conditions that persist as well as the physical designs of these complexes.
Most TCH sites are closed environments that are not easily observable from outside, with a web of laneways and walkways that can leave people easily trapped if violence such as running gun battles would break out. This was exactly the case in the horrifying shooting that occurred in the Danzig St. community in July 2012. Yet, Tory would have us believe that increased security will address this fundamental problem.
The other fundamental problem is the crumbling and poorly maintained buildings. In April, four floors of bricks fell off the outer wall of the top floors at a TCH building in the Eglinton Ave. E. and Markham Rd. area. That is but one example of the backlog of neglected repairs now billed at $1.7 billion that plague the 2,200 TCH units.
Toronto City Council has found close to $400 million over the next two years to respond to TCH’s growing needs and in response to the recommendations made in the interim report, which also calls for improvement of building conditions, employment opportunities for residents and training TCH staff and contractors.
What the reports has not mentioned is that support from the federal or provincial government will also be critical to remediate this growing problem. After all, it was during the Mike Harris era, 20 years ago, that public housing in Toronto was downloaded from the province.
There is no question that many families would choose to relocate away from TCH sites if they could afford to. The city could make that happen by providing subsidies to allow renters to live throughout the city instead of in concentrated pockets of dilapidated real estate and poverty that attract criminal activity.
That’s what the task force should recommend.