Toronto Community Housing Company should create an independent Commissioner of Housing Equity to ensure that tenants facing eviction receive a fair process. That’s one of the key recommendations from the LeSage Review, which was appointed to inquire into the death of Al Gosling, a TCHC tenant who died after being evicted from the City of Toronto’s housing provider.
“The current strategy of sending to tenants a constant stream of letters, some of which use threatening language, needs to change,” warned Justice Patrick LeSage. “Tenants need to be put on notice of their arrears; however, threatening eviction at the first sign of arrears is not a productive step to engaging the tenant. Staff must make every effort to contact tenants in order to understand the root of the arrears problem and where possible rectify it at the earliest opportunity. This will not be accomplished solely by letter writing.”
Justice LeSage notes that TCHC faces considerable challenges. It doesn’t have the financial or other resources to provide intensive support to tenants, including frail and elderly people. It faces a complex and often cumbersome set of legislative and regulatory rules imposed by the provincial government through the Social Housing Reform Act.
However, Justice LeSage calls for a greater recognition of the need to engage tenants in a meaningful way in eviction processes. The important role of tenants in the overall management and administration of Toronto’s community housing has been a theme that goes back at least to the 1950s, when University of Toronto Housing expert Albert Rose called for an overhaul of the housing company’s management to support a strong role for tenants.
“It is not surprising, in view of the unfortunate association of public housing and ‘charity’ in the public mind, that scant attention is being paid at this time to the role of the tenant of public housing as a person, as a citizen, and as a responsible participant in the administration of the project,” wrote Dr Rose in a 1952 article. He added:
“No matter how benevolent the administrative staff may be, through personal inclination or as a matter of policy, the basic objective is not the creation of a benevolent autocracy or benevolent paternalism. The only real way of avoiding bureaucratic administration and benevolent paternalism lies in the devolution of certain aspects of administration to the tenants through the creation and encouragement of an independent Tenants’ Association. To the extent that the tenants of Canadian public housing develop a sense of responsibility and participation, to that extent will the basic objectives of public housing, namely the provision of adequate shelter and an opportunity for a fuller life in an adequate community setting, be realized.”
Mr. Gosling was 81 in May of 2009 when he was evicted from his TCHC home after 21 years as a tenant. As Justice LeSage noted: “His problems arose when he failed to complete the paperwork to qualify for subsidized rent and his rent increased. After eviction he remained homeless until he died of an infection five months later.”
After six months of homelessness, Mr. Gosling developed severe health problems and died. At the time of his death, in the face of public and media pressure (including a campaign by The Toronto Star’s Joe Fiorito), TCHC was negotiating to bring Mr. Gosling back into TCHC. The health impacts of insecure housing and homelessness have been widely documented, including research from Street Health that was funded by the Wellesley Institute.
TCHC is the largest social housing provider in Canada, and the second-largest in North America, and is home to about 164,000 low and moderate-income people in almost 59,000 homes throughout Toronto.
Justice LeSage writes:
“It became clear to me through these consultations that TCHC tenants need more assistance than is currently available at TCHC, to ‘maintain healthy, successful tenancies’, one of the goals in the current Community Management Plan. Tenants now have access to the Office of the Toronto Ombudsman to investigate matters on their behalf. I believe the creation of this Ombudsman’s office will help TCHC continue to achieve its goals. However, I feel tenants require additional assistance in this complicated subsidized housing system. My mandate extends only to reviewing the eviction process for vulnerable tenants, however, I believe the proposal I describe below could assist TCHC tenants in other ways and also contribute directly to the financial success of TCHC.”
“A new independent office should be created to ensure TCHC staff have satisfied all prerequisites prior to an eviction matter proceeding to the Landlord and Tenant Board. I propose this ‘office’ be independent, and be named the Commissioner of Housing Equity.
The TCHC Board of Directors should appoint the Commissioner. The original term should be for two or three years, and subject to renewal. The Commissioner ought to have an understanding of social housing and of the issues facing vulnerable tenants.”
“The Commissioner of Housing Equity should have some characteristics of an independent auditor, in ensuring that all policies and practices have been followed, and some characteristics of an ombudsman, in its role of mediating fair settlements. It would not, however, fulfill the role of advocate for the tenants. It will have as its focus the assurance that all eviction prevention policies are and have been engaged. The Commissioner will also invite tenants facing eviction for arrears to participate in mediation to be conducted by outside/independent mediators. I suggest that the Tenant Services Coordinator responsible for that tenancy be the TCHC representative at the mediation since they have the most knowledge of that tenant, their rental history and circumstances.”