right to manage

october 7, 2007

Derek Ballantyne, the head of Toronto Community Housing (TCHC), is the type of manager who thinks management is about laying a beautiful story over everything. The TCHC beautiful story is falling apart.

The board of TCHC is becoming more ready to listen to tenants and those presuming to speak for tenants. Increasingly, these people mention Ballantyne as one of the problems with TCHC.

These people are naive about the problems within TCHC, and usually dishonest about their own motives. Ballantyne must go, but whoever replaces him will do little better unless the board of TCHC and its sole share holder, the government of Toronto, realises that the only way to curb the abominable TCHC bureaucracy is to hand control to the tenants.

On the agenda at the most recent meeting of the board of directors of TCHC was; increasing the number of the tenant members of that board. The few tenants who actually attended were bewildered and indignant that the issue had been put off for further discussion.

At the end of the board meeting, the chair announced a recess before the 'in camera' part of the meeting. People stood up, chatting and slowly walking out the door. Ballantyne jumped up and snapped at the audience to leave immediately.

the TCHC bureaucracy

Bureaucracy is necessary to the functioning of a modern society. What people see as the destructive effects of bureaucracy is really the effect of antisocial cliques who can cement themselves inside a bureaucracy. A rogue bureaucracy happens when appointment of key staff becomes politicised, and the purpose and aims of the organisation are unclear or conflicting.

TCHC is a result of two generations of ideological warfare over social housing. This conflict results from our adversarial political culture, which in turn results from the backward political system we still live with, which leads to another issue.

tenants on the board

The two tenant members of the board were mandated by the 'by-law number one' with which the city created TCHC's predecessor eight years ago. Then, there was stiff resistance to having any tenant 'directors', which was not entirely misguided. Tenant's representatives should not be 'elected' through a system which would be controlled by the housing apparatchiks. This would give them, not the tenants, more voice on the board.

So the two tenant directors have been appointed by the city's 'nominating' committee, in another one of these processes the public cannot see. It seems that the mayor's office is picking them.

tenant management

Tenant directors of TCHC must be directly elected by the tenants, clearly mandated to defend the tenants interests, and the majority on the board. Only the city's Elections and Registry Service could run an unrigged election. Trying to decide on districts would be a mess, so these would have to be city wide and 'at large' elections using some type of preferential ballot system.

It would still be hard to keep outside organisations and the TCHC apparatchiks from interfering; trying to promote their own candidates.

If tenants were a majority on the board TCHC would become the biggest Tenant Management Organisation (TMO) on earth. The British have much experience now with TMO's but one with 160 000 tenants would amaze them.

the British experience

A few meetings back, the staff of TCHC made much of their trip to Scotland to see how the city of Glasgow has 'revitalised' its social housing stock. They tore down much of it and sold the land to fund repairs to the rest.

Some Toronto housing activist types are excited that Britain is planning to built three million units of new housing. They might not be so excited about the way housing is coming to be run in Britain. But this is good news for real tenants in Toronto; in social or private housing.

In Britain, social housing is normally called 'council housing' because it is run by the local councils, the local governments. As in Canada, councils tend to get the idea that 'council housing' is a place to dump people with behavioural problems who have to be kept somewhere. They are hostile to the idea that the peace and safety of other tenants take priority over anyone's 'right to be housed'.

The Thatcher conservatives passed the 'right to manage' laws. This gave residents of council housing the tool to take over management of their housing against the hostility of local councils and housing bureaucracies, when they could get their act together. Many did.

When the Blair Labour party came into office, they at first opposed 'right to manage', then adopted it. They extended it to private housing tenants. Tenant management is a success, and is leading tenants to creating new housing for themselves.

until a better story can be heard

The true and ugly story of Ballantyne's mad hatter housing company keeps oozing out. The 'market rent' tenants who were supposed to make up the repair deficit by increasing TCHC revenues could find better, cheaper accommodation elsewhere. They were often 'encouraged' to leave; they talked back more than 'rent geared to income' tenants.

TCHC has enough revenue that it should be able to fund repairs. Even if not, it sits on several billion dollars in assets which could be mortgaged. The lawyer Sarah Shartel has begun a class action law suit on behalf of a select group of TCHC tenants, to force the repairs.

The local newspapers have suddenly discovered what everybody in 'housing' has known for decades; access to housing through TCHC's 'wait list' management subsidiary, Connections Housing, is mainly by bribes or political pull. In most buildings, access to repairs is by bribes, assuming the unqualified maintenance staff know how to make the repairs. Those who do know their jobs are frustrated and run ragged by incompetent management which keeps changing priorities.

Lately Ballantyne has mused in the media about 'rent to own' public housing, which entails tenant management and is an excellent idea.* But this is from a conniver in destroying co-operative housing in Toronto, in order to feed it into the 'connections housing' system of warehousing of the 'hard to house'.

Ballantyne is a scapegoat for the failure of TCHC. He deserves to stink like these pigs because, despite his intelligence, he chose to lie down with them. However, it is uncertain if anyone in his position could have succeeded in cleaning them out. It would be a tragedy if people conclude that he is a cause, rather than an effect, of TCHC's malaise.

It could get worse if the numbskulls at city hall succeed in getting housing 'uploaded' back to the province; that is where the trouble with housing began.

Only the tenants themselves can wield the broom in the swanky offices of 931 Yonge; when the city finally puts it into their hands. That it will not is another sign that the real plan for social housing may be a slow, Glasgow style wind down.