If deadlines concentrate the mind, thinking at Toronto’s troubled public housing authority is about to come into sharp focus.
A special task force appointed by Mayor John Tory earlier this year has just given the Toronto Community Housing Corp. 60 days to produce a series of “action plans” meant to address issues ranging from safety and security to fixing the agency’s dilapidated buildings.
“The deadline is a serious one,” Tory told reporters after receiving an interim report Wednesday from the panel led by Sen. Art Eggleton. “We intend to see some measurable improvement happening before the end of the year.”
That urgency is welcome in light of the awful conditions public housing residents have endured, in some cases for decades. Many are stuck in highrises plagued by drug dealing and violent crime. Add to that a monstrous repair backlog that has left many residents struggling to cope with leaking roofs, rusting pipes, bad wiring, mouldering carpets, cockroaches, bed bugs and collapsed masonry.
Change can’t happen soon enough at the Toronto housing corporation, Canada’s biggest landlord, and its 60,000 residential units in more than 2,100 buildings.
Unfortunately, a scandalous legacy of bureaucratic impropriety and administrative abuses has made it all the harder to correct what’s wrong. In light of that, the six-member task force steered by Eggleton was assigned to thoroughly examine the agency and recommend improvements. One issue under consideration is breaking up the massive public housing body into smaller, more manageable business units. But recommendations on that won’t come until a final report arrives at the end of this year.
It’s vital to get a running start on reform before then, and it’s heartening that Tory seems intent on setting a quick pace for change.
Some progress has already been made. The task force, public housing staff, and city officials have successfully refinanced some mortgages owed by the corporation and obtained lower interest rates. The housing authority has been paying interest as high as 11 per cent on some holdings – an absurdly high amount.
Switching to more favourable rates on selected properties should save $171 million this year, and $200 million next year. Those savings can be plowed into repairs. And even more savings are expected from a $150-million initiative, announced in the 2015 federal budget, meant to help social housing providers refinance mortgages, including those held by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Toronto’s share of that fund is now under negotiation.
As well as action plans designed to fight crime, especially the drug trade, and to improve the condition of buildings, recommendations from the panel’s interim report include:
More effective training for corporation staff and contractors in the wake of frequent complaints by residents that some workers don’t give tenants the respect and consideration they deserve.
Developing an additional action plan to provide jobs and opportunities for public housing residents.
Creating a Resident Charter to help people understand their rights and obligations, and those of the landlord.
Hiring a chief operating officer to fill a key leadership position at the agency that has gone vacant for almost two years.
Taken as a whole, the panel’s interim findings represent a commendable start. The ultimate success of this process, however, depends on the content of its final report and of the action plans due for delivery within 60 days. Much is riding on the outcome including the well-being of thousands of hard-pressed residents.