Publications, opinions, and speeches

Opinion

To protect social housing, sometimes you have to let go

Published on 28/06/2017

Social housing in Toronto is at a turning point. After years of underinvestment, years filled with reports, task forces, and much talk but less action, we might finally get to answer the question: does the City of Toronto really need to control and manage all of its social housing? Could it transfer stewardship of some to non-profits, co-ops and land trusts? How Council chooses to deal with what is often called “scattered homes” or “scattered housing” can set a useful model for the future disposition of social housing stock.

At 684 properties and 1,132 units, scattered housing makes up only two per cent of Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) housing. They are primarily detached, semi-detached and multi-unit houses located in residential neighbourhoods throughout the city. They stand in contrast to the clustered apartment towers or blocks that we often associate with social housing. In 2011, the Board of TCHC proposed to sell off most of this housing stock to finance capital repairs, a decision that was successfully fought and vetoed by Toronto City Council.

Led by Councillor Ana Bailão, Chair of the City’s Affordable Housing Committee, who is a strong proponent of social housing, a working group found an alternative option. While a small number of the houses still had to be sold, most remained as social housing.

This July, City Council will consider an important recommendation about how scattered housing should be managed. It is part of a list of staff’s recommendations on the future of TCHC, passed by the Executive Committee on June 19, 2017. The recommendation calls for the City “to issue a Request for Expressions of Interest (REOI) to the non-profit, co-op and land trust sectors” to operate the scattered social housing. City staff will then report back to council with a recommended strategy by the end of 2017.

Ensuring access to these types of single- and multi-family homes is a crucial part of realizing the right to housing. For this reason, Maytree expressed our strong support for the recommendation. In fact, we think it can go further. We urge city council to consider going beyond the current recommendation on the “operation” of the buildings to explicitly include “transferring” the buildings to the non-profit, co-op or land trust that would operate them.

Transferring this housing will remove these homes from the political arena of constant speculation, keep them affordable, and ensure safe and secure tenure. It will reassure current tenants that their homes won’t be sold off. The City’s Tenants First Advisory Panel, created earlier this year to help guide the Tenants First implementation plan, has also been supportive of this approach.

Models such as co-ops and land trusts can ensure that tenants have a role in decision-making, and that households have more control over their homes. The transfer of the scattered home portfolio provides a unique opportunity to engage tenants and encourage a connection to local communities that TCHC management hasn’t achieved. It will permit re-investment to bring these homes to a state of good repair and relieve TCHC of the operating losses and capital liabilities associated with these houses.

That said, this is only the first, small step. And there’s no guarantee that the city will accept any future recommendation to transfer these homes – or if it does, how soon it will act.

What would the alternative be? Judging from past decisions, it would be to sell these units to raise funds for the repairs of other units. But with a waiting list approaching 200,000, the thought of abandoning even this small set of units seems like a move in the wrong direction.

If the City is either unable or unwilling to find the funds to maintain these properties, the alternative should not be to abandon them but to find another way to protect them as social housing.

Councillors might reasonably debate how best to provide social housing or manage the scattered housing portfolio, but they can’t fall back on business as usual – crying poor and trying to repair one type of social housing by selling off another. They need to focus on solutions that maintain, or even increase, the number of available units.

A valid option is up for discussion right now. Organizations in the non-profit, co-op and land trust sectors are ready to step in to protect this unique part of the social housing portfolio. City council should let them.

Without a real commitment to act, it would be easy to just agree to the recommendation to request expressions of interest and then do nothing. However, waiting for another report, or for other levels of government to step up and pay their fair share (as much as they should) is simply not an option. Everyone has the right to good quality housing that is affordable and secure. City council must ensure that we are moving towards fulfilling this right for everyone in Toronto.

To do so, council should be open to new ways of thinking and doing, and not be paralyzed by the idea that it has to own and manage the entire social housing portfolio. Now is the time for councillors to show leadership. It’s time to let go.

Summary

Does the City of Toronto really need to control all of its social housing? City council should be open to new ways of thinking and not be paralyzed by the idea that it has to maintain control over the entire social housing portfolio.

Topic(s)

Cities and communities, Housing and homelessness