Council’s Executive Committee is about to consider a staff report that is a follow-up to the task force on Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) chaired by Senator Eggleton.
When the task force reported in January 2016 it recommended big changes. TCHC would move toward more income mix. Some housing would be transferred to community-based non-profit groups. The role of running buildings and serving tenants would be decentralized. TCHC would get systematic about partnerships with community agencies that provide supports for seniors or for mental health. Many of these directions were endorsed in the city report adopted a year ago by City Council.
This month’s “tenants first” implementation report sets some specific directions. Six things stand out.
The report brings a strong message to Council about the need for more funding. Flat revenues (because most rents are geared to income) contrast with gradually rising operating costs, and this creates a shortfall that rises by about $10 million a year – even before factoring in the huge backlog of repairs. This report recommends that staff report back with a new funding model. It recognizes that as the front-line funder, the City must step up with more money, even if Ontario is still missing in action.
This report, like the Eggleton task force, correctly reframes the big challenges facing TCHC as issues for the City, not issues that TCHC caused or can solve on its own. The City’s main role in social housing is not its landlord function, but to oversee the local system that includes TCHC plus about 30,000 units operated by non-profits and co-ops, fund it all adequately, and set strategic directions.
These staff recommendations cast aside a key part of the Eggleton vision. The transfer of housing to non-profits and co-ops would have been a way to turn the challenges facing public housing into steps to reinvigorate the community housing sector. Some advocates have voiced concerns that this would be selling public assets, offloading responsibility, or abandoning tenants. They have forgotten that the success story of Canadian social housing a generation ago wasn’t about governments running public housing, but about mixed-income community housing in a system governments fund and oversee. BC, Quebec, France, and the United Kingdom follow this approach and do much better in social housing than Ontario.
The big move now proposed is to carve off 13,900 units in TCHC buildings that house mostly seniors, and merge them with the City division that handles long-term care and seniors home care. The superficial logic to this – merging two City agencies that deal with seniors – hides many shortcomings. Apartment buildings targeted to seniors are a totally different business from nursing homes for residents who have high physical or cognitive needs and require hours of personal care each day. Only half of TCHC’s senior tenants would be in the new entity, half remaining in TCHC in mixed-ages buildings. This move would create more upheaval in TCHC without energizing the non-profit housing sector. This new entity will provide just one-sixth of all long-term care beds in Toronto and a small fraction of home care services, all dependent on provincial funding via the LHINs (Local Health Integration Networks). So, this merger would do little to transform seniors housing and care options in Toronto. But it would be one more step in the direction of treating social housing as a targeted health service, strictly a last resort.
Meanwhile, the report does not move TCHC forward on expanding the existing partnerships with LHIN-funded mental health agencies, as recommended by the Eggleton task force to serve high need tenants.
A bright spot is the proposal for TCHC’s stand-alone houses, many of them vacant and in disrepair. There have been proposals to sell these, but this loss of affordable homes would generate very modest funds compared to the TCHC repair backlog. This report proposes that the City formally solicit interest from community groups to operate these houses. This should include the option of transferring ownership, so that agencies with experience in this can refinance and repair the properties.
Getting TCHC on track remains one of the largest housing challenges in Toronto. Yet it is a project of high priority if we are to make significant strides on improving the quality of life and the health of those who rely on public housing.