Toronto’s Backward on Public Housing: Get ’em Out, Not In

Worth A Look, Housing Affordability, Frontier Centre

Toronto Community Housing Corp. is one of the world’s biggest landlords. As the second-largest provider of social housing in North America, it owns more than 350 apartment buildings and another 800 houses and duplexes. It has 164,000 tenants – more than the population of Prince Edward Island – and a budget of $600-million a year. Yet, the demand for subsidized housing is always greater than the supply, and wait times are always long.

We used to live across the street from a couple of public housing duplexes. The tenants were lovely. They included two obese ladies who had to take a taxi to the supermarket, and a guitarist who lived in the basement. Since they didn’t work, they were always around to keep an eye on the neighbourhood. The buildings were nicely maintained by city workers, and pleasantly located right next to the lake. No wonder the tenants never moved out.

Other tenants aren’t so lucky. TCHC is plagued by complaints of decrepit apartments, stuck elevators, vermin and crime. Last fall, a fire in a hoarder’s high-rise apartment forced the removal of 1,500 tenants. And now, it turns out, housing executives were buying themselves manicures, pedicures and fancy chocolates with the taxpayers’ money. Toronto’s new mayor, Rob (Stop the Gravy Train) Ford, is ecstatic. He’d love nothing better than to fire the lot of them.

But chocolates and spa days aren’t what’s really wrong with Toronto’s public housing. There are plenty of signs that the place has been mismanaged for years. And the biggest problem is that the city’s got it backward. All the focus is on getting people into public housing – not on getting them out.

In Atlanta, it’s the other way around. That city’s housing authority doesn’t believe in owning buildings or playing landlord – although it still does some of both. Its long-term aim is to move people out of poverty and render itself obsolete.

“Concentrating families in poverty is very destructive,” Atlanta Housing Authority CEO Renée Glover told The New York Times. Over the past decade, the city has demolished a dozen developments, and relocated thousands of residents to private market rental housing with the help of voucher subsidies. The idea is to reduce poverty by decentralizing it, and to gentrify poor neighbourhoods by working with private developers.

To its credit, Toronto is also experimenting with mixed-income development. But it’s doing things the hard way – by trying to attract higher-income people to lower-income neighbourhoods, rather than dispersing low-income people around the city. Toronto has also pledged to replace every public housing unit it sells off, thus ensuring that the 1,400 staff who work for the public housing authority will have jobs forever.

Many of the elderly and disabled, of course, will always need subsidized housing. But others won’t. Subsidized housing, Ms. Glover believes, creates a culture of dependency that she’s determined to change. The Atlanta Housing Authority requires its able-bodied beneficiaries to work. People who don’t work can lose their right to a subsidized apartment, and management has broad authority to kick out people for misbehaviour.

Social workers, most of whom come from poor backgrounds themselves, work intensively with tenants to help them make it in the job market. They show them how to find jobs, how to dress and how to behave. They tell them: “You can succeed, just as I did.”

It works. Before Ms. Glover took over 17 years ago, only 18.5 per cent of household heads in subsidized housing were employed. Today, the figure is 62 per cent. As Sudhir Venkatish, a sociologist at Columbia University, told The New York Times, “Atlanta’s plan signifies in a very clear way that the social contract that cities and citizens have with the poor has fundamentally changed.”

In Toronto, the average length of stay in public housing is 10 years. Some single-parent families stay in public housing for generations, and only 36.5 per cent of working-age households have employment income. Yet, rather than helping people to move out of public housing, housing lobbyists keep arguing that what we need is more people moving in. Perhaps it’s time to change our measure of success. We shouldn’t be proud of how many people live in public housing. We should be ashamed.