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Golden Screw Award for 2014 goes to; Toronto Community Housing Corporation

The awarding of the Golden Screw award for 2014 has been delayed somewhat this year for two reasons. First, the person responsible has been very busy. Second, there are so many potential candidates that it is hard to choose from them.

But it is time the Toronto Community Housing Corporation ( TCHC ) was so honored. Actually, it should only be certain specific elements within TCHC singled out for distinction. There are many elements in TCHC which do good work and really try to help the people who are tenants of this organization.

TCHC is the main housing arm of the city of Toronto. It was formed in 2002 after a lengthy process of amalgamating three other housing organizations. This was forced by the Harris administration. The Harris idea was to "download" or as some called it, "downjam" the cost and the responsibility of running social housing onto the city.

Ontario Housing

The largest of these three "legacy" organizations was "Ontario Housing" which was run by the provincial government. This bunch specialized in very large, U.S. style "housing projects" with all the problems of that model. They were very poorly built and managed.

There was a contempt for the people living in them. This came from the Provincial government attitude toward social programs in general, that they should be made as wretched as possible in order to encourage the people making use of them to move on as quickly as possible. This was the "get them in, get them out" mentality, that people needing such housing had something wrong with them which needed to be fixed before they were sent back into the "normal" housing market and economy. There was no patience with residents complaining about anything, or failing to cooperate with the other elements of social assistance that were supposed to reintegrate them into the workforce and the "normal" world.

Anyone actually knowing anything about the management of housing knows that you never want to have units where everybody hates being there and is itching to leave. And, where they are not willing to do anything to "rock the boat" and complain about anything, or take any initiative at all. This might jeopardize their housing, or make it harder to get into something better.

Thus, the first line of prevention of shoddy maintenance, abusive management, and anti social behavior in other tenants, is silenced. These huge projects become centers for crime, bad places to raise families, and incubators of the kind of helpless and hopeless attitudes they are pretending to correct. Of course they are terrible blights on the surrounding neighborhoods, creating strong political opposition to more social housing being built.

Metro and City Housing

The second of the "legacy organizations" was what was usually called "Metro housing". It was funded and operated by the Metropolitan level of government. This mainly served retired and disabled people. There was more acceptance of residents organizing things for themselves, though there was still a lot of paternalism.

The third legacy organization was normally called "Cityhomes". This was funded and run by the old city of Toronto, before amalgamation. Originally, it was very well run, with a degree of respect for the residents. At one time the tenants were allowed or even encouraged to form tenant associations.

It is hard to even find out information about the original CItyhomes. It seems the founders wanted to create a model of a better way of doing "housing". However, it began to be harmed by a kind of mentality that often develops when local governments have control of housing. The "council housing" in the United Kingdom was a good example of this.

When a certain type of "leftist" politicians gain influence, they want to use social housing as political patronage and as a "social engineering" experiment. The worst thing was that these people got the idea that Cityhomes was obligated to "house" everybody. This comported with the idea that all the institutions for people who cannot function in society would be emptied and the residents of them "treated in the community".

paternalism

There are many sinister things within this mentality. First is the old authoritarian socialist idea that they know what is best for everybody. The people have to be "improved"; the idea that an institutional environment may be the best thing for some people is anathema.

Second and following from the first is the idea that people are not supposed to know what is best for themselves. Social housing residents forming tenants associations or even trying to turn their residences into housing cooperatives, is also anathema. The idea that social housing should be looked on as a public utility, as a permanent place for people to live, and not as a social program, was lost.

Among the strange ideas of this kind of people is that drug dealing is not a real problem. Objections to it are just manifestations of prejudice against certain races or classes. It is just a way for poor people to make a living. There were also ideological objections to employing security guards or even putting up fences.

Of course since everybody had to be housed, but there was no space to house everybody, the allocation of social housing came to be politicized. A big wait list developed, while "housing activists" lobbied for more housing to be built, and while demanding that existing housing be run in a way that made it politically impossible to build any new housing. No one wants an instant slum in their back yard.

These housing activist types of course never considered that their approach was little different in practice than the right wing approach of Ontario housing, but even more degrading and damaging to communities. These people were kept in check until the Rae government gave them the opening to wreck Cityhome.

housing as ideological football; maintenance

The Rae NDP government in Ontario also damaged Ontario housing in many ways. The worst was to sink the sinking funds. The proper way to run a residential building is to have a sinking fund to cover long term maintenance needs according to a schedule. This means, replace appliances on a fifteen year cycle, overhaul plumbing and heating on a thirty year cycle, building "envelope" issues on their normal lifespan, etc.

The Rae government, on the advice of some of these creepy "housing activists", the "get 'em up NOW! crowd", seized all these building funds. They were used to build new cheap and shoddy housing at an accelerated rate. The attitude was that quality construction did not matter, the livability of the units did not matter, we would just rebuild it all in twenty years. The kind of tenants we would have will wreck the buildings by then, anyway.

Along came the Harris government. The downjamming to the city without funds to clear up the maintenance backlog created by the Rae government completed the destruction of the maintenance system for housing. Many experienced maintenance people were laid off or left to work for private property managers, to get away from all the political bullshit.

Since then the new housing entity, TCHC, has fallen further behind in maintenance every year. The release of funds that have been held up by the city will largely be wasted because the organization to use it efficiently is not there. However, the reforms incompletely brought in by Gene Jones have ameliorated that somewhat.

The TCHC revenues are such that it should have enough money to catch up with maintenance and get back onto a regular system. Measures such as eliminating TCHCs payments "in Lieu of taxes" to the city, or sales taxes, would also help. But normally the biggest check on bad management of public housing would be the residents themselves. So for right wingers looking to run housing down in order to sell it off, or for left wing "social engineers" , suppressing tenant organizations is critical.

a police state within itself

In the nineties, there had been a beginning of tenant self organization, as part of an effort by some more enlightened elements of local elites to help disadvantaged people to organize and speak for themselves. There was some movement to form tenant associations in social housing and to keep opportunist groups such as FMTA and ACORN from raiding them.

Some social housing units were set up as cooperatives or were able to turn themselves into cooperatives. As the social engineers gained control of all housing, they were forced to accept TCHC's "Housing Management Services" and take new tenants from TCHC's "Connections Housing". They were coops only in name.

All tenant associations were sharply suppressed. Local managers were told that their jobs depended on getting rid of them. Often this involved nominating some bully or crook in the building to be the tenant's spokesperson. Some odious people became "tenant representatives". The worst of them were eventually gotten rid of, often with great difficulty, but this provided a model for the "tenant representation" system.

One thing the Harris government did which might have benefited tenants, but seemed to be done mostly to stymie the "social engineers", was to add provisions to the acts governing how local governments could run their housing, which mandated non interference with tenant self governance. How much of this legislation is still legally in effect, I cannot say offhand. However the social engineers answer to it was to set up the tenant representation system.

The fundamental problem with the tenant rep system is that the tenant reps are in a conflict of interest. They cannot be chosen by the tenants or speak for tenants within a system set up by the housing company. TCHCs interests are not necessarily the same as those of its tenants, no matter what the TCHC social engineers, the city housing bureaucracy, and "left" members of city council may pretend.

It is like a labor union being set up by the company itself, to preempt organizing by agents of real trade unions. It is like if the provincial government started running elections to Toronto city council itself, committing candidates to consider provincial interests over those of Toronto's citizen. It is like anyone who objected to this was harassed and driven out of the city.

For over a decade the voice of TCHC tenants has been thoroughly silenced, while the buildings deteriorated and management became more incompetent, corrupt, and abusive. A beautiful image was projected for outsiders. The tenant rep system was held out as an example of "participatory democracy" which it was anything but. It was a bit like living in North Korea.

The LeSage Inquiry

Eventually cracks appeared in this edifice. A senile elderly man was forced out of his TCHC unit because he could not understand how to fill out forms. He died in the streets. Enough fuss was made about it that the city had to call an inquiry. It appointed a retired judge, Patrick LeSage, to look into why TCHC evicts so many people.

Despite the fact that the TCHC gestapo did everything they could to control what was said at this hearing, even taking the notes, the helpless anger of TCHC tenants came out very clearly. It is most notable that the big reason the old man could not cope with the bureaucracy was that the bureaucracy refused to allow his neighbors to assist him, and threatened them when they tried to. Yet LeSage also heard toadies who praised everything TCHC to the skies and blamed all problems on the tenants. One of them got into an exchange with the person who had tried to help the old man at the heart of the inquiry; completely unable to hear what did not conform to the party line.

LeSage finally made his report. There was a private part of it which we can wish fully think dealt with the totalitarian aspects of TCHC, where the tenants are not allowed to speak out, do anything, or run anything by themselves or for themselves. The public part of it recommended a sort of ombudsman's office to assist denizens of TCHC who are under threat of eviction.

After a good deal of infighting, this became the "housing equity office". Its powers are limited but it could be a beginning of a process toward protection for TCHC residents from bureaucratic abuse from TCHC. This is the number one security threat for TCHC residents; from a huge landlord whose solution to every problem seems to be, as was said to LeSage, to threaten its tenants.

Lessons from abroad

As noted in studies of housing practices all over the world, tenants have three classes of security threat; from other tenants, from people coming from outside the building, and from the landlord or its agents. The second threat comes largely out of the first, as people coming in with bad intentions are usually drawn by something in the building. usually it is something provided by a resident of the building. Of course all of these come ultimately from incapacities of the landlord.

The landlord is the greatest threat to TCHC tenants because they are near powerless before it. The reason why housing is so badly run is because the tenants are powerless. The reason the tenants are powerless is because of the political ideologies behind the management of social housing in Canada and especially in Toronto.

In the mentality of most TCHC bureaucrats, the residents should be grateful for what they get and questioning anything should be grounds for eviction. As well, many think housing is not supposed to be livable; it should be as miserable as possible to encourage residents to move on. The attitude is that housing is a social program, it is not a public good or public utility.

In most parts of the world outside the "Anglosphere", public housing is considered as a public utility. A large part of the population lives in them, and they are planned to mix a wide variety of social groupings and income levels together. A large public housing and assisted ownership sector helps keep costs down even in the private housing market.

Usually, this did not start out that way. Most countries have learned by experience that the only way to run housing is to let the residents run it. In fact, to make them run it whether they want to or not. There must be organizations which helps fund "housing societies" and which assist residents in creating and running their own cooperatives or self management groups.

Control of housing must be taken out of the hands of local politicians, who often get the idea that housing is a cheap substitute for institutional housing for those with behavioral problems. This is a reason why the quality of housing sharply declined in this country starting about thirty years ago; institutionalized people were to be treated "in the community". This was a code for "dumped into the community to save money and let the poor communities cope with them."

Any resident of poor neighborhoods or social housing will tell you that the worst enemies of poor people are not conservatives, but "progressives". These are the people who think that a degree in social work is a qualification to run social housing. As an internet acquaintance of mine from Tasmania put it;

"Social workers are poverty police, they are trained in keeping the riff-raff under control. They do a lousy job of managing housing, but that is their cover, not their primary function. Their task is to manage the people in the housing, to keep us from controlling any part of our lives. From all accounts they are doing as good a job of that in Toronto as they are doing here."

But even in the U.K., by good luck this situation was partly turned around. The Thatcher regime wanted to sell off all public housing, which was called "council housing" there because it was usually run by borough councils who were often controlled by you know who. After the low hanging fruit was sold off, no one would buy the rest and the Thatcherites came up with an idea; let the tenants run it themselves and turn it into cooperatives.

This program worked far better than the predictions of right wing or left wing people haters. The "Tenant Management Organizations (TMOs) " were even spread to private rental housing when the labor government came back in. The problem with this is that no new housing is being built, and the supply which can be turned into TMOs is exhausted.

until the angels sing

It is hard to predict how we can get a TMO system going in Toronto. The leadership which can protect tenant activists and give the TMOs the resources and a chance to fly does not seem to be there. But there is a huge problem of leadership in the city right now, on just about everything. It has no power or revenues to provide the services it is best positioned to provide and should be providing.

One TCHC social worker type told me about what he called "the social housing cult" within Toronto Housing, which wants things done their way and is going to be very hard to get rid of. They have control over the environment of the TCHC tenants and it should never be underestimated the lengths they will go to silence tenants who are not following the party line.

Two successive heads of TCHC have tried to undertake reforms and have had a very nasty hatchet job done on them. Keiko Nakamura was thought to be too nice for the job. She was too interested in giving the tenants more of a voice.

But she got caught by the "overspending" hysteria created in the first years of the Ford administration at Toronto city hall. What she was accused of was mild in comparison with some of the nonsense that goes on in TCHC, but she was the scapegoat; the excuse to sack the whole board of TCHC and start a clean up.

To give the devil his due Rob Ford had the right idea about Totally Corrupt and Hopelessly Confused TCHC. What was needed was a top to bottom cleanup of the organization conducted by a really hard nosed person who understood how public housing should be run, and had experience at cleaning up corrupt organizations.

So Gene Jones was brought in from Detroit. His story is worth some paragraphs. But when Mayor Ford proved to be a crack addled fool, he lost his political protection to get the job done. He did have time to carry out many positive changes, but the way he was attacked and removed will make further reform of TCHC very hard.

The public debate in Toronto is about other means of improving management of TCHC. None of them have a chance against the Housing Cult and its backers. A "de-amalgamation" of TCHC will not happen; the organization is way too large but The Cult has shown that it will not relinquish centralized control. Almost ten years ago the then chief executive Derek Ballantyne tried regrouping TCHC into local operating units but was blocked. He never tried to challenge The Cult again.

To repeat, nothing is likely to happen to fix the governance of TCHC until the governance of the city of Toronto is straightened out. Then, the solution is tenant control. Not this "participatory" nonsense but real control, because experience all over the world shows that this is the only thing that works. It is the tenants who have the eyes and the ears, and need to be given back their mouths.

climate of fear

So, Gene Jones created a "climate of Fear" among the senior staff of TCHC? I have no sympathy for them; they have been creating a climate of fear among TCHC residents for more than twenty years. He was sent to clean up. When you send someone to clean up you do not then turn around and fault him for failing to follow the rules set up by those whose mess he was sent in to clean up.

Gene Jones was able to do a lot of good for the residents of TCHC in the time that he had, against the resistance he faced. He was able to shut down the very corrupt and corrupting Maintenance Services Inc. (MSI) which had been set up to run maintenance services for TCHC. Since then many residents have noticed that there has been more money available for maintenance and the work is better done.

Several files from MSI were handed over to the police for investigation. It seems that all of these people beat the rap, but only due to the double standard that corrupt Ontario justice system allows for those protected by political networks. In most venues, creating false invoices, even if the issuer did not benefit personally, would result in fraud convictions. Likely no one will get to know the full story of these contract groups set up to do maintenance work for TCHC and to provide clients of certain agencies with "work opportunities".

Plenty of money went to "tenant services" and to outside consultants which were mostly about maintaining a system of surveillance of the residents, the "tenant rep" control system, and the lobby system that pushed for more funding for housing under the housing cult's control. Of course, to try to shut down alternative ideas of how to build and run housing, such as establishing communal housing in the vast quantities of empty buildings the city owns, which might threaten their dominion.

One thing Jones did really was questionable. Some TCHC employees turned over to the media some"cop beatings" video. Jones went after them, insisting that TCHC cannot afford to get on the wrong side of the police. But for many TCHC residents, bringing local police to accountability is much more important than getting on the good side of out of control thugs.

It was obviously difficult for him to know who to trust. He had to replace people he had installed in several positions, who were not with his program or were intimidated by the housing cult. He had brought in experts on transforming institutional cultures, but he ran out of time.

Jones was contemptuous of the tenant rep system and worked to encourage tenant associations who could truly speak for tenants, with undivided interests. We had made a beginning at providing residents with training on how to run their own organizations, conduct meetings, maintain records, which is vital. Now he is gone, and the few independent groups who had been starting up are now laying low.

As Jones worked to unravel the clientelist networks using TCHC resources to protect the TCHC bureaucracy from the public who fund it and the tenants it is supposed to serve, he must have stepped on an awful lot of toes. After Rob Ford self destructed and left him with little protection, he seems to have decided to get as much done as he could in the time that he had before he could be eliminated.

The way he was eliminated was not only sleazy but vindictive. This "climate of fear" trope can be used against anyone, without the accusers having to make specific accusations. Some of the board of TCHC came to his defense and and started their own investigation of his management style but the people driving the calumny were not having that. They used the highly political city Ombudsman's office to pre empt this with their own kangaroo court.

Gold and Screwed

There now, is how Totally Corrupt and Hopelessly Confused came to receive the Golden Screw for 2014, in a rather crowded field of potential winners. The history of housing in Toronto has caused the development of this gross insult to the voters of Toronto, and to those who require a system of social hosing in order to survive. And to those who are not surviving because they cannot get into habitable and affordable housing because such housing cannot be built because there is no way to get rid of the power complex which prevents implementation of any kind of rational management system which would make it feasible for it to be built.

Some cracks have appeared in the edifice. The redoubtable Gene Jones opened some of them up fairly wide. Reform of Toronto housing requires reform of government in Toronto, but a movement toward the latter is finally starting to build momentum in the city.

Until then, all we can do is urge TCHC residents to help each other, protect each other when attacked by the TCHC's agents, form their own informal committees and shun the Tenant Representation system. The "tenant reps" should be ashamed to show their faces.