An in-depth look at the fight to save social housing in Toronto

| February 13, 2012
The redevelopment of Regent Park. Photo: Sean_Marshall/Flickr

Under Rob Ford's administration, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation is being sold for parts, starting with more than 700 stand-alone houses scattered throughout the city core. If they are sold, thousands of people will lose their homes and Toronto's poverty problem will get worse. Now there is a talk of a "compromise" deal on this sale of social housing. But why is this plan being considered at all? Nick Day investigates.

The Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) voted in October to sell more than 700 of its most valuable housing units. The TCHC is the second largest provider of social housing in North America. The company owns 58,000 rental-housing units across the GTA and strives to "contribute to a city where quality affordable housing is available in vibrant neighbourhoods, where residents are proud of the place they live, and where people feel connected to each other and their community."

A crucial asset for Toronto neighbourhoods

The units slated for sale, called "scattered units," are almost the entire company stock of stand-alone houses (the rest of the TCHC's buildings are high-rise towers and apartment buildings). The houses, spread throughout the city in neighbourhoods like the Annex and the Beaches, give low-income people a chance to live near the city core, an option increasingly impossible for many Torontonians as rents skyrocket and incomes drop. The houses provide access to workplaces and employment opportunities, libraries, and educational resources.

The houses also combat growing poverty and inequality in Toronto by building strong mixed-income neighbourhoods. "TCHC's stand-along portfolio is a vital component in ensuring healthy and inclusive neighbourhoods," says Michael Shapcott, Director of Housing and Innovation at the Wellesley Institute. "Research... documents both growing poverty and inequality in our neighbourhoods, and the terrible impact that it is having on the health and lives of individual people and the entire population."

TCHC's scattered units foster economic diversity, inclusivity and integration. Trudeau foundation scholar Martine August says the houses are "incredibly de-stigmatizing," and City Councillor Mike Layton says that the scattered units are "crucial to building stronger neighbourhoods and providing a way out of poverty."

The houses are being sold to raise money for TCHC buildings that are badly in need of maintenance and repairs. In total, the company has a $650 million backlog in necessary repairs and estimates it will get $300 million by selling the 700-plus homes. TCHC CEO Len Koroneos has claimed that the sale is absolutely necessary and is being done solely to improve the lives of tenants. In the Rob Ford administration, TCHC is being portrayed as facing a fiscal crisis.

However, Koroneos was appointed after Rob Ford fired the old Board of the TCHC and replaced them with his allies. This happened just a couple of months after Ford said that he was "absolutely" considering privatizing Toronto's social housing. In 2005, Rob Ford opined, "People do not want government housing built in the city of Toronto. They want roads fixed, more police presence, but they don't want more government housing that will depreciate the value of their property."

By this point we're all familiar with Rob Ford's anti-public agenda. When city hall feeds us a bunch of sensational lines to justify radical action against public services, we need to be ready to assess the reality -- and the agenda -- behind the sensation.

It is certainly true that the TCHC is in trouble. However its operational hiccups could be fixed easily, and don't necessitate a fire sale of the company's most valuable assets. Mike Layton, for example, says the sale would be like "selling the house to pay the mortgage."

If City Council votes to sell these units thousands of people will be displaced and the availability of affordable housing will decrease. Before we allow this to happen we need to understand the consequences -- social, economic and human. We also need to demand that our city council explore alternatives to the sale of these public assets.

The real truth about social housing

"Housing is the base upon which all other programs to lift people out of poverty are built." - Adam Vaughan, City Councillor.

Poverty is not caused by irresponsibility or laziness, but by systemic factors that act as barriers to social inclusion -- one of the biggest of which is lack of affordable housing. A 2007 report from the Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN) states, "thousands of Canadians are vulnerable because they simply cannot afford to pay market rates for their housing needs." But if you provide people with secure housing, they can focus on work, education and health -- breaking the cycle of poverty. In City Councillor Vaughan's words, "you can't eradicate poverty without dealing with shelter. It's a fundamental building block. When you stabilize someone's housing situation, it frees up income for health care and educational approaches to dealing with poverty."

Social housing projects build strong, vibrant communities. Martine August, a Trudeau Foundation Scholar, claims that social housing is indispensable to many Torontonians:

"If you've got a big family, it's almost impossible to get a big enough apartment, especially in a city like Toronto. In public housing, people can get three- or four-bedroom apartments that can accommodate their entire families. For the same price they'd be able to get a two bedroom in the suburbs, they can live downtown in suitable housing. This allows people to spend their money on things like food and transportation -- the basics. But there are also a lot of opportunities in a community like Regent Park. There are health services, parenting programs, tutoring for the kids."

Regent Park

In Regent Park countless programs have emerged to provide opportunities to residents. One example is the Regent Park Community Health Centre. It formed in 1973 to "reduce the health inequities experienced by low-income, immigrant and refugee, non-status and marginally housed and homeless populations." The centre provides a program for youth called "Pathways to education," which removes barriers to health caused by low income and low education. They offer harm reduction tools to "reduce the health and social risks associated with alcohol and drug use -- for the individual as well as the community." The centre provides crucial health care, including pre and post-natal care, mental health services, HIV/AIDS care and medical care for seniors. In addition, they staff social workers and operate community development programs, leading to better life chances and opportunities for Regent Park's residents, especially youth.

The Health Centre is just one example of the social services and innovations that come out of social housing. Eleven of the houses up for sale are community homes run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. These houses help men who use drugs and/or alcohol to transition from homelessness to stabilized housing. They also provide opportunities to upgrade education, obtain employment and restore family relationships -- all factors that will help secure the residents against future poverty.

A short history of social housing

Toronto used to have a robust social housing program. Between 1973 and 1995, about 50,000 new rental units were created in Metro Toronto. Subsidized housing made up 20 per cent of the rental stock. However, in 1993 the federal government ended cost-sharing for new construction, and in 1995 the Ontario government stopped funding social housing altogether. There has been almost no new construction of affordable housing since, and, according to a 2011 United Way report, between 1996 and 2006 only five per cent of new housing built in Toronto was for rental at all. The consequences have been clear: in 1999 the Mayor of Toronto's Homelessness Action Task Force reported, "One of the most significant contributing factors to the current homelessness crisis has been the termination of housing programs."

For August, social housing is the key to addressing urban problems. "If you really care about the issues that a lot of people are facing, problems of unemployment, homelessness and education, investing in social housing is the smart solution."

Toronto's poverty crisis

"A successful city neighbourhood is a place that keeps sufficiently abreast of its problems so it is not destroyed by them." - Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Toronto's economic opportunities are in large part dependent on affordable housing in the downtown core. The majority of Toronto's social infrastructure -- food banks, shelters, childcare, education services, public health, nursing homes, libraries, and even social housing -- are located in the city centre. That means that without strong affordable housing programs in the downtown core, low-income people cannot live near the services that mitigate poverty and create opportunity.

As documented by United Way reports, poverty and inequality are growing problems in Toronto. Since the 1980s the wealth gap in Toronto has increased rapidly, even during periods of economic growth. Between 1981 and 2001, the average income in the richest neighbourhoods grew by $85,000 while in the poorest neighbourhoods income actually fell by $2,313. During that period over 50,000 Toronto families fell into poverty and by 2005 one in every four families with children under 18 were living below the Statistics Canada low-income cutoff. As people became poorer, the demand on emergency social services exploded: during 1999, 30,000 people used emergency shelters, food banks served 100,000 people every month and the waiting list for social housing (now at approx. 82,000) continued to grow.

One of the biggest causes of this crisis was that housing in Toronto became unaffordable. Between 1981 and 2006, the annual cost of a 2-bedroom apartment in the City of Toronto rose by $3709. By 2001, 197,270 tenant households (43.2 per cent of Toronto renters) experienced "affordability problems," meaning they spent more than 30 per cent of total household income on rent. When that much of a household budget is taken up by housing costs there is not a lot of wiggle room -- families can go into a financial crisis, even lose their home, if unexpected costs or illnesses affect their budgets even a bit.

As housing costs made people poorer it also pushed them out of the downtown core, and the number of high-poverty neighbourhoods grew rapidly. A neighbourhood is considered high-poverty if the percentage of residents who are low-income is double or greater than the national average. In the 1970s, there were only 30 such neighbourhoods in Toronto. By 2006, there were 136. By 2006 almost half of low-income people were living in these neighbourhoods. The downtown core, and the opportunities it provides, had simply become inaccessible to hundreds of thousands of people.

Instead of nipping the poverty crisis in the bud by providing affordable housing, this problem has been pushed -- literally -- to the side, where it has only gotten worse. The only way to address the housing and poverty crisis at its roots is through reinvestment in social housing.

Save Toronto's social housing

"Those contemplating the fate of the homeless should get wise. Forget sleeping bags. Forget hostels. Forget soup kitchens and charity. Get government back into the housing business big time and your job is done." - Colin Vaughan, former city councillor

There are several alternatives to selling these houses. First of all, $350 million of the $650 million will be funded through the normal grants from the City of Toronto and other levels of government -- so it's actually only $300 million we need to raise. Second of all, the money is needed over a 10-year period. The TCHC recently gained $10 million per year from a tax reassessment. This alone finances $100 million dollars in capital repairs over the 10 years. So the number -- originally quoted at $650 -- is already down to $200 million. Senior levels of government can be pressed for re-investment in this vital service, and certainly Toronto's $154-million budget surplus this year could contribute.

The plan to sell off Toronto Community Housing units has been described by some as part of Rob Ford's radical agenda to cut social services across the city. As always, the devil is in the details. While we are told that the sale of the 700 houses will finance repairs of TCHC properties, Adam Vaughan cautions otherwise. "The sale of the houses is actually financing a dividend back to the city that's being used for other programs. This year it'll be six million -- and maybe as high as 10 million -- taken out of TCHC while they sell people's homes. This year, they're repairing 1000 units. But by the end of this current budget? They're only going to be repairing about 400 homes. We're being sold a bill of goods."

In the long run this will lead to the disappearance of social housing in Toronto. Today, we're selling 700 valuable houses to finance repairs of apartment buildings. Tomorrow, we'll need to start selling apartment buildings to pay for other apartment buildings. We'll always be behind because we're not investing the money needed to keep TCHC healthy. Instead we're cannibalizing it, selling it for parts, and leaving it crippled. Eventually, there'll only be one building left, and then what will they sell? Meanwhile the people who need stable, affordable housing will still be with us, and there will be many more of them.

The Wellesley Institute illuminates another striking detail. The 700-plus houses cost $7 million each year to operate, but they generate $8.5 million in annual revenue. That means they actually create $1.5 million each year in operating income for the company. These houses are not a financial burden; they are a revenue-generating operation for the city. Therefore they are an example of social housing done right, fiscally speaking. But instead of reinvesting their revenue into the TCHC, Ford's administration is trying to sell them. Selling a healthy, revenue-generating operation from a public company during a time of fiscal strain is not responsible management. It's sabotage.

And sabotage is exactly the word for the sale of TCHC's scattered portfolio. Rob Ford's administration came in to office with an agenda to destroy public services however possible. They went on the offensive with libraries, claiming that nobody uses them and that public schools take care of the literacy function. Presumably this makes libraries "gravy." Then Ford tried to slash service on 62 TTC routes including the 35 Jane bus, the Airport Rocket and the Queen and King streetcars. Again, we are meant to suppose that public transit bringing people (rich and poor) to work or school is "gravy." Notoriously, Ford's attempted budget even attacked the homeless shelters used by tens of thousands of Torontonians every year. What's clear is that Rob Ford wants the rich to pay for what they need privately, to do away with as many public services as possible, and for the rest of us who rely on those services to just disappear.

Enter the attack on social housing. Ford came into office at the beginning of November 2010. By March 2011 -- four months later -- he had fired the Board of the TCHC, replacing them with a single man named Case Ootes. Ootes' very first order of business was to sell 22 homes. City Council then re-staffed the board. At its first meeting the new board members voted to sell the 700-plus homes that are now in question. Did I mention that the chair of the new board, Bud Purves, is president of a land development company? The additional board members are a private real estate company executive, a director of real estate finance for BMO, a vice-president of the Institute of Corporate Directors, a chartered accountant, two corporate lawyers, four city councillors (Ford allies) and two social housing tenants. The two tenants were the only board members to vote against the sale of the 700 units.

Now we can understand the sale of the TCHC scattered units. It doesn't make sense socially because it will increase the rate and cost of homelessness and poverty. It doesn't make sense from a TCHC fiscal management perspective, because these homes are valuable TCHC assets. But it does make sense politically -- if you're Rob Ford and you want to push the poor out of sight, eliminate any public services that most Torontonians benefit from, make public land available to private developers, and increasingly make Toronto a city for only the very rich.

The good news is that this sale, and in general the attack on public services, can be stopped -- but only through sustained and vigilant social action. On January 17 over 2000 Torontonians rallied in Nathan Phillips Square to defend public services. These activists were resisting Rob Ford's budget, which called for widespread cuts to services. Thanks to the long-term work of progressive city councillors, public figures, unions, community organizations, activist groups and advocacy think-tanks, the final budget passed 39-5, with many of Ford's most contentious cuts removed.

The next big fight is social housing. The sale of the 700 units will march forward unless this city-wide, popular movement brings the same sustained pressure against it. Clear public messaging, an energetic media campaign, and tireless organizing is already beginning to bring this issue to wider public attention. Already three former Toronto mayors have published a letter in the Toronto Star urging Ford to back down from the sale, and a group called Tenants for Social Housing has created a strong grassroots movement to defend social housing.

Now is the crucial time for concerned citizens of all kinds -- labour unionists, public service advocates, activists, artists and any Torontonian who wants to protect the diversity and innovation that makes this city great -- to raise their voices about this issue.

A group called Tenants for Social housing is circulating this petition. After you sign it, get busy and tell your city councillor, MP or MPP that Toronto is not for sale.

Nick Day is a writer interested in international affairs, anti-militarism, human rights, and economic justice. Nick has been a grad student, a Trustee of Queen's University, a construction worker, a member of the NDP, and an intern at Amnesty International. Follow Nick on Twitter: @nickAday

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