Toronto Community Housing officials, chastened after a harsh pair of reports released today from the city’s auditor, have started to take significant steps to improve financial management at the half-a-billion-dollar-a-year municipal landlord. While today’s report focuses on financial management of the city agency that manages a $6 billion real estate portfolio, there is little attention paid to the social management of one of Toronto’s most critical assets, and no discussion of more effective engagement of tenants in Toronto Community Housing. The auditor set out a series of questionable expenses items, and raised concerns about procurement policies, but there is no evidence of fraud or other criminal intent, so no police investigation. Late in the day on Monday, Mayor Rob Ford called on all seven citizen members of the board – including the chair – to resign so that he can replace them. The council representatives on the TCH board were switched after last fall’s municipal election.
Toronto Community Housing owns almost 60,000 homes and has more than 160,000 tenants – which makes it the biggest landlord in Canada and second largest in North America. Senior TCH staff say that they have already started to put in place controls to guard against future expenses and procurement concerns. “The board is angry and indignant at what the Auditor General has found, because we believe Toronto Community Housing is capable of so much more,” says TCH chair David Mitchell – one of the citizen appointees asked to resign by the mayor. “We are confident, however, that the failures identified by the audit reflect the company’s past operations, not the present or the future.”
Good quality, affordable housing is one of the most fundamental determinants of the health of individuals and communities. Toronto Community Housing plays a critical role in providing a home to some of the poorest and most vulnerable Torontonians, but the quality of its housing in St James Town – where the Wellesley Institute works with residents on a community-based research and policy initiative – and elsewhere has been criticized. TCH has noted that it has inherited the old and decaying provincial public housing stock from Ontario Housing Corporation, along with seniors housing from the former Metro Toronto – as well as its own housing portfolio built over the last century. Toronto Community Housing has a ten-year plan to invest $1.5 billion in housing upgrades, but hasn’t yet identified funding sources for that entire amount.
Some fears have been expressed that the audit report might be used by some politicians to try to privatize all or a significant part of the TCH stock. Toronto Community Housing owns very valuable real estate throughout the city and some argue that the revenue raised by the sale of public housing could help the city as it faces big financial pressures in the coming year. But TCH is a vital component of an affordable housing spectrum that is urgently required to respond to deep and persistent housing insecurity and growing evidence of inequality. As of the end of January, 2011, there were 76,993 households on Toronto’s affordable housing waiting list – but the city was only able to provide a home for 301 households that month.
Even as the Regent Park public housing development was being built in the early 1950s, housing thinkers such as Dr Albert Rose were warning that unless there were effective strategies and structures for tenant participation and responsibility in the municipal housing, then problems were being created. While Toronto Community Housing has taken important steps to engage tenants, and even include them among members of the board of directors, many tenants still report that they face barriers to full involvement in their homes and their communities.
“The financial re-structuring of Toronto Community Housing prompted by the auditor’s report also provides an excellent opportunity for TCH to improve its social infrastructure and ensure that tenants are fully engaged in the management of their homes and the lives of their neighbourhoods,” says Michael Shapcott, Director of Affordable Housing and Social Innovation for the Wellesley Institute. “The Sonny Atkinson Co-op is a remarkable success story that started in 1968 as a traditional top-down public housing project and in the 1990s converted to a resident-managed housing co-operative.”