Jun 11

The mayor who once mused about selling public housing to pay operating costs

So remember when Rob Ford told the media he thought it might be a good idea to sell some existing units of public housing and use the revenues to pay down this year’s budget gap? He was, apparently, just kidding around.

The Toronto Star Editorial Board has more on this:

Even if Ford could somehow find a way over these hurdles, selling almost 1,000 homes in various states of repair would likely take years. It wouldn’t be much help in dealing with the city’s shortfall now.

So we ask again, “Where’s the gravy?” Ford failed to find it in time for the 2011 budget, which was to drop by 2.5 per cent thanks to all the fat he would drain from the system. He ended up spending more to run the city, not less. Never mind, said Ford, 2012 will be different. If so there’s no sign of it yet. Gutting public housing shouldn’t be an option.

via Public housing: Ford’s futile cash grab – thestar.com.

That the mayor mused even briefly about using revenue from the sale of public housing to plug a gap in the operating budget is deeply disturbing. That sort of strategy doesn’t even pass muster as fiscally conservative. It’s just plain fiscally irresponsible.

For the record, there’s nothing wrong with looking at selling vacant or badly-damaged TCHC units (many of them are very old homes that would be very expensive to fix up) but it needs to be done as part of an overarching plan to improve the state of public housing in the city.

Lurking under a lot of the rhetoric we hear about the TCHC — Sue-Ann Levy’s criticism of some TCHC residents who live in “prime beachfront property,” for example — is the suggestion that we could do housing more cheaply if we packed residents into dense towers, concentrated in a few low-value areas across the city. This is a bad idea for so many obvious reasons that it hurts to even think about.

Jun 11

Candidate Rob Ford versus Mayor Rob Ford, on city’s revenue problem

From then-councillor Rob Ford’s address to supporters at the Toronto Congress Centre on March 26, 2010. This is the speech where he officially kicked off his mayoral campaign:

I’ve said it a million times. Toronto doesn’t have a funding problem.

Toronto has a spending problem.

City Hall is addicted to wasteful spending.

via RobFordForMayor.ca (PDF).

Yesterday, in an article by the Globe & Mail’s Elizabeth Church regarding the potential sale of more than 900 city-owned TCHC houses, as recommended by outgoing board chair Case Ootes.:

“I agree. Let’s sell these homes. Let’s take that revenue,” [Rob Ford] said. “Obviously, we need the money to fund next year’s budget.”

via Ford plans to sell social housing stock to close budget deficit – The Globe and Mail.

In defence of Case Ootes, he was suggesting the sale of the homes to fund necessarily capital repairs at other TCHC properties. Ford’s desire to immediately plow revenue from asset sales into this year’s operating budget is disturbing.

Apr 11

On public housing: why vouchers aren’t a quick fix

In this month’s Toronto Life, Brian Topp looks into the fall-out from the TCHC scandal and takes a broad look at alternative delivery models for public housing. On the mayor’s favourite magical cure-all fix — rent vouchers — Topp writes:

Instead of integrating the poor into mixed-income areas, vouchers have had the effect of concentrating them into pockets of sometimes grossly substandard private housing owned by neglectful landlords—the same kind of ghettoization the vouchers were designed to put an end to. Policing abuses would require teams of well trained and managed overseers, but program administrators (like those running the TCH) are the principal targets of populist right-wingers these days—their jobs are the ones pro-privatization types are keen to eliminate.

via Why selling off Toronto’s public housing is a bad idea | From the Print Edition | torontolife.com.

Topp concludes with the suggestion that a decentralized model for Toronto public housing administration could be more effective than the current situation, where TCHC is “one of the biggest landlords of any kind in North America.” There’s a lot of merit to that.

It’s worth mentioning that this is likely the kind of analysis and debate that we could have had in the wake of the spending scandal had the mayor followed the process and let this proceed to the audit committee. Instead, those with first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of the organization were forced to resign or were fired before they could be publicly questioned.

Apr 11

Public housing isn’t just about dollars and cents

One more quick hit on the TCHC story from this week: The Star’s Robyn Doolittle scored a nice win when she reported Monday that a 79-year-old widow would be displaced by Case Ootes’ move to sell-off housing. This got the attention of the ombudsman’s office — who doesn’t get along well with this administration —  and the widow’s house was saved.

During the controversy, voice-of-the-mayor Doug Ford said this, as reported by Natalie Alcoba:

“Nothing is fair. It’s not fair to the taxpayers that she’s living in a million home, too. I feel sorry for her, my heart goes out to her, but I could take that million dollars and build four other homes and house four other families,” said Councillor Ford.

via TCHC could net $13M from 22-house sale | Posted Toronto | National Post.

This is a variation of a conservative argument that’s been making the rounds today. See also Sue-Ann Levy’s column “Sell! Sell! Sell!” where she ever-so-cautiously tiptoes around the idea of selling housing.

Three things to keep in mind in response to this:

First, it is somewhat challenging and will only get more so to find a single family home in good condition anywhere in Toronto that isn’t valued at more than half a million dollars. Some terribly designed real estate website tells me that the current average price of a detached home in the 416 is $719,843. Semi-detached is $533,039.

If we want to promote mixed-income neighbourhoods and avoid lurching toward an all-Starbucks gentrification across the Old City of Toronto, we’re necessarily going to have to devote some potentially valuable property to low-income housing. This isn’t a big deal: we also devote potentially valuable property to all kinds of social services, like transit facilities and highway off-ramps and fire stations.

Second, the argument that we can house more people for less money if we sell-off single family homes seems to creep toward mid-century thinking that saw efficient housing built vertically as blocks of towers, clustered together in concentrated areas. This was a less-than-succesful strategy.

Third, and not directed at any one thing, the idea that you might be able to ‘motivate’ a person out of poverty by making their life suck just a little bit more doesn’t seem to hold true. Just saying.

Apr 11

One-man board Case Ootes breaks his word

On March 14, days after the seven hour meeting that saw him installed as the lone director of the TCHC board, Case Ootes told the Toronto Star’s Royson James that “it wouldn’t be appropriate” for him to sell off city-owned housing. “That’s not on the agenda for me,” he said. “I do not believe that is something I’d do.”

Today, less than a month after making those comments, Ootes held a board meeting where he moved and approved a motion that would see the city sell 22 single-family homes owned by TCHC:

Acting as a one-man board, interim managing director Case Ootes has approved the sale of 22 single-family homes owned by the Toronto Community Housing Corp.

The issue will now go to city council. From there, approvals will be needed from the province before the properties can be put on the market.

“Past boards, for various reasons, have avoided the difficult decisions that need to be made. We can’t continue on the road where the capital repairs continue to escalate; we can’t keep up, we’re way behind. Something has to give.”

via One-man TCHC board approves sale of houses – thestar.com.

In the same article (by The Star’s Robyn Doolittle), Ootes claims that he’s “simply following through with a process initiated by the previous board.” But that would appear to be disingenuous.

Last year, Kris Scehuer of the My TownCrier outlet reported that the TCHC was selling several properties to a non-profit Aboriginal housing provider at below market value. Scheuer also reported that the TCHC board was looking at doing the same thing with other properties, including beachfront houses on Hubbard Boulevard.

The move was vocally opposed by then-councillor Case Ootes:

But there were voices of dissent on the plan, including Toronto-Danforth Councillor Case Ootes, who voted against the decision to sell to Wigwamen.

“I’m not convinced that handing off assets that belong to the city to an agency at less than market value makes sense,” he said. “The agency will provide social housing, but we’ve lost control of the asset.”


Councillor Ootes would like the city to sell those homes for market value, and use the revenue for rent subsidies.

“I don’t think people in social housing need to live in $800,000 houses or $500,000 houses,” he said. Instead, “Look at the option for a rent subsidy.”

via City Housing stock in Beach sold cheap – TownNEWS – MyTownCrier.ca.

The previous board was in favour of selling assets at below-market value to not-for-profit organizations that could offer housing services. This strategy allowed the city to continue to meet its provincially mandated quota for public housing while shifting ongoing maintenance costs to a third-party organization.

Ootes opposed this, as was his right as a city councillor.

That was then. No longer a member of council, Ootes has, in effect, used what we were told was a temporary ‘caretaker’ position on the TCHC board to attempt to effect a policy he was pushing in his previous role as a city politician.

Whatever your opinion on the merits of selling these properties, this comes off as dishonest.

Mar 11

Trust us: we’re not going to do what we’ve said we’d like to

Royson James’ latest column has a neat exchange with Doug Ford toward the end of end of it:

The mayor’s brother, Doug, also took great pains over the weekend to explain that Ootes’ job does not involve selling off public housing.

So, why has the mayor not made an unequivocal announcement to that effect — words that might stop the rumours that the city’s poorest tenants may soon be on the streets?

“You can trust me on that, take my word for it,” Doug Ford said in an interview. “Case is not being brought in to sell off public housing.”

Then why not issue a statement or news release saying the mayor expressly does not want Ootes selling tenants’ homes?

“We may have to do that (this) week,” he said.

via I’m not here to sell off housing: Ootes – thestar.com.

It’d be pretty funny if the mayor’s office actually released a statement assuring tenants that Case Ootes wasn’t going to sell off public housing. That would seem to serve as a strong indication that perhaps tenants weren’t clamouring for this move, and in fact the hundreds in attendance last week actually were a good representation, wouldn’t it?

And, again: maybe the first step toward reassuring people that you’re not going to privatize public housing should be NOT publicly musing about privatizing public housing. But what do I know.

The weird thing is that even I don’t believe Ootes was brought in as part of a Machiavellian scheme to sell off housing. I do believe — and I think this is reasonable — that the Mayor’s Office does have in mind a long-term goal to consolidate control over the TCHC board and eventually implement some degree of privatization. Given the mayor’s comments during his campaign and afterwards, plus the need to achieve significant cuts in the 2012 operating budget, I don’t think I’m being over-the-top.

All the drama that happened last week over Ootes is, I think, emblematic not of an immediate privatize-everything conspiracy but of an administration that is totally unwilling to compromise. Team Ford decided on the outcome before anyone got a chance to debate, and even the most reasonable of compromises were voted down.

Mar 11

Smile and vote with the mayor

cityslikr at All Fired Up In the Big Smoke makes an interesting observation:

At last night’s meeting, every one of the councillors who ultimately voted against giving the mayor the power to deep six the last remaining members of the TCHC board rose to speak, question or give a motion or amendment. To make a public pronouncement about why they were going to vote the way they did. They weren’t all barnburners or crowd pleasers. But they stood up and let those attending the meeting, the press, their constituents back home, all know their opinion on what was happening.

via Cat Got Your Tongue? « All Fired Up In The Big Smoke.

It’s a good point. I find the councillors who never speak in support of their votes to be incredibly disappointing.

Related to this, here’s a fun picture of one of those incredibly disappointing councillors, Jaye Robinson, checking out my Council Scorecard at last night’s session.

Mar 11

What Rob Ford voted against on Wednesday night

A number of confusing amendments were made during Wednesday night’s special council meeting regarding the Toronto Community Housing Corporation board. Most of them failed. Here’s a quick list of everything the mayor and his allies voted against:

  • Motion 1a by Kristyn Wong-Tam — Keep Councillors Augimeri and Cho on the board, along with the elected Tenant Representatives. Appoint Case Ootes as chair.  Failed.
  • Motion 1b by Kristyn Wong-Tam — Don’t pay Case Ootes for his work as Managing Director of the TCHC, as he is still drawing severance pay from the city. Failed.
  • Motion 2b by Josh Colle – A seemingly nonsensical motion from Josh Colle. Can’t fault him for this one. Failed.
  • Motion 3 by Shelley Carroll — Post all expense records of TCHC Board members and staff that make in excess of $100,000 per year. Also any TCHC purchases greater than $1,000 shall require board approval. This one passed, despite the mayor. Passed.
  • Motion 4 by Joe Mihevc — This would have prevented Case Ootes from firing any TCHC senior staff, for example the CEO. Failed.
  • Motion 5 by Gord Perks — Remove all board members, appoint the alternate tenant representatives that were elected in 2007 but have yet to serve on the board. Failed.
  • Motion 6 by Mary Fragedakis — Defer this whole business of dissolving the board; let the audit committee receive the auditor general’s report so that councillors can debate it and ask questions. Failed.
  • Motion 7a by Adam Vaughan — This one passed too, even though the mayor voted against it. Vaughan asked that TCHC disclose any meetings Case Ootes has with lobbyists, and that a report be commissioned as to the ability to implement a Lobbyist Registry at TCHC. Passed.
  • Motion 7b by Adam Vaughan — Put any money set aside for Case Ootes’ salary toward capital repairs at TCHC buildings. Failed.
  • Motion 8 by Janet Davis — Reappoint Councillors Nunziata and Parker, to serve on a new board made up of Augimeri, Cho, the tenant representatives, and chaired by Ootes. Failed.
  • Motion 9a by Paula Fletcher — Call for a review of TCHC buildings currently managed by private companies, compared with publicly-managed buildings. Also would disallow Case Ootes from awarding new contracts during the interim period. Failed.
  • Motion 9b by Paula Fletcher — Ensure that new board is in place by June 14, 2011. (Updated with clarification: Ford did vote for a similar motion by Josh Colle that imposed the same deadline.) Passed.
  • Motion 11 by Maria Augimeri — Ensure that the TCHC board’s by-laws revert to normal after the new board is in place. (By-laws were amended to allow for a minimum of one director last night.) Failed.

It’s surprising how many seemingly sensible motions the mayor voted against. Augimeri’s motion, for example, seemed perfectly innocuous. In his defence, I guess, it was late and he sort of defaults to hitting ‘no.’

You can read more about all the motions and votes if you are, for example, a crazy person.

Mar 11

TCHC board dissolved in expected 25-18 vote

After a marathon council session, stretching from 5:30 p.m. until midnight, council finally voted 25-18 to dissolve the board of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation.

Early on, speaker Frances Nunziata ruled that any discussion of the auditor general’s report on the TCHC was out of order, a completely bizarre move that left councillors reaching to make their arguments without directly referencing the content of the report.

The arguments heard boiled down like this:

From the Right:

  • We need a ‘clean slate’ so a whole new board can be appointed.
  • The auditor general did a great job! We should commend him for that.
  • Even though Tenant representatives on the board and the remaining council representatives can’t be held responsible for anything in the auditor’s report, we still want to hold them accountable.
  • If the remaining board members don’t resign, it will make the nine members that have already resigned look bad.
  • The mayor wants it this way.

From the Left:

  • The tenant reps were democratically elected which removing them kind of, you know, contrary to democracy.
  • The council reps are new so why not keep them around?
  • Instituting a one-man board, even on an interim basis, isn’t ideal.
  • Had this not been rushed to council, it would have gone to the audit committee and/or executive committee where councillors could talk about the auditor general’s report in depth and ask staff and the board questions. This might have been a good thing to do.
  • Isn’t this just a sneaky scheme to privatize everything?

It was never really in doubt that this motion would pass. Ford simply has the votes he needs locked up to do anything he wants at the moment.

Two bits of procedural interest:

Shelley Carroll, through a mixture of wizardry and cunning, got Rob Ford, Doug Ford and most of council’s right-wing to vote against her amendment that would see an extra layer of oversight and accountability added to the TCHC. The motion passed 22-21 thanks to defections from Ford loyalists Michelle Beradinetti and Gloria Lindsay Luby.

Second, council actually voted down a motion from Kristyn Wong-Tam that would have prevented Case Ootes from drawing a salary as TCHC Managing Director on top of the severance he is already getting as a former city councillor.

Mar 11

Getting all messed up on TCHC: a ten-point guide

Okay. Let’s start with the easy stuff. There’s a local scandal gripping the news at the moment involving the Toronto Community Housing Corporation. You’ve heard about it. I wrote a bunch of things related to it. In sum: you should be mad about it. A lot of bad things happened. We need to make this better.

Today at Council, a series of things happened spinning out of this. Many of them involve some of the more esoteric rules of council. All of them involve weird political gamesmanship that only sort of make sense. The major claim is that this is about accountability. The accusation is that it’s about privatizing public housing. The truth? It’s lost somewhere in there.

Let’s walk through it together.

  1. Soon after starting for the day, council opts to consider MM5.7, a motion that would dissolve the TCHC Board of Directors and replace them indefinitely with a Managing Director, widely expected to be former councillor Case Ootes. Ootes has, in the past, shown some interest in exploring selling off TCHC properties.
  2. Before anything can happen, council needs to vote, with a two-thirds majority of present councillors, to consider the motion.
  3. Councillors vote, and a two-thirds majority is not achieved. With right-leaning councillors Michelle Beradinetti, Mark Grimes and Ron Moeser absent, 28 votes were required. They got 26. (Even if the three absentee councillors had been there to vote, it’s unlikely they would have achieved the two-thirds majority. Of the dissenting councillors, their best hope was Raymond Cho. And he broke ranks with Team Ford very publicly during the budget debates.)
  4. Everyone assumes the thing they just voted for was a motion to ‘Waive Referral,’ which would send the item to the Executive Committee. It wasn’t. It’s a motion to ‘Waive Notice.’ This becomes important later.
  5. People opposed to the mayor are happy. The Star describes the vote as the mayor’s “first significant defeat.” Which is a bit sad, because, pre-election, who would have thought Rob Ford coming close to commanding two-thirds of city council was even a remote possibility? The mayor is less happy. The person who controls his Twitter accounts sends out this: “It’s unfortunate some councillors don’t want to discuss accountability at the TCHC.” (One could point out that they do want to discuss it — in the framework of the established process. Immediately dissolving the board and replacing them with Case Ootes is kind of the opposite of discussion.)
  6. Because everyone assumes they’ve just voted to refer the motion to the Executive Committee, that committee opts to hold a special meeting at lunchtime tomorrow, during which they will quickly approve the item, then put it on the agenda for another meeting.
  7. As meetings of the executive committee allow deputations — something that doesn’t happen at council meetings — many people sign up to speak at tomorrow’s meetings. There is speculation that the left-leaning councillors might filibuster the meeting, delaying things further.
  8. But wait! Some digging causes someone to realize that the item they voted on earlier was, in fact, a Notice of Motion. All this does is delay the item to a future council meeting. And with that, the executive committee meeting — along with all the deputations, which presumably would have come from TCHC residents in large part — was cancelled. In its place, there will be a “special” Council Meeting immediately following the scheduled meeting tomorrow, in which this item will be discussed.
  9. Left-leaning councillors think this is ridiculous. Pam McConnell calls it “reprehensible.” Gord Perks, apparently, storms off in a huff. Council’s right plays innocent, asking why their counterparts wouldn’t want to discuss the issue now? It’s a scandal! We need accountability! Accountability that can only be realized, I guess, by kicking off two members of the board who were elected by tenants and two councillors who have only been in their positions since December.
  10. Speaking at the end of council today, Mayor Ford rises and asks if it might be possible to move the “special” council meeting, currently set for 5:30 p.m., up a few hours.

So here we are. After all the confusion and maneuvering, we’re left with essentially, the original motion to replace the remaining members of the TCHC board — the tenant reps, Raymond Cho and Maria Augimeri — with Managing Director Case Ootes. It will probably pass.

The question, of course, is what the hell is the big rush? What’s so wrong with letting the city’s audit committee deal with this? With working with the remaining board members to determine a path going forward that makes sense for tenants?

The smell coming off of this is that the mayor sees an opportunity to use the auditor general’s report as a smokescreen to usher in structural changes to TCHC governance that will open the door to privatization. Some will call that a conspiracy theory, but given the haste with which Team Ford is acting on this and the mayor’s public admission that he would “absolutely” privatize TCHC, is it really that crazy a thought?