Jun 11

City Council Scorecard Update: Selling TCHC homes

Toronto Council Scorecard

June 20, 2011 Update: Download (PDF)Download (PNG)Google Docs

Last week’s council meeting was light on major decisions, as some of the hyped-up media items (shark fin soup and a second NHL team, for example) were deferred without much debate. The only new addition to this month’s City Council Scorecard is the item regarding the sale of 22 TCHC homes.

New Votes

The vote added:

  • EX6.5 — As written, this vote referred only to the sale of 22 single-family homes owned by the TCHC, located mostly in downtown wards. Several of the houses are currently vacant, waiting very costly repairs. There was a lot of discussion as to how many of the homes listed are actually eligible for sale under various provincial and municipal regulations. Regardless, the debate council had on this item was only nominally about the listed homes. (Council has often sold TCHC properties in the past. Here’s an example from last summer.) Opposition councillors seemed more concerned with the precedent set by the sale — especially considering Case Ootes’ recommendation to sell another 900 homes — and the belief amongst Ford-allied councillors that selling properties represents a scaleable solution to Toronto’s housing problem. As such, even after speaking at length with concerns about the sale, several left-wing councillors — including Kristyn Wong-Tam, Sarah Doucette, John Filion and Glenn de Baearemaeker — ultimately supported the sale. Notably, Councillor Adam Vaughan drew some flack from the mayor’s team for sitting out the vote in protest.

Trend Watch

I didn’t deem it notable enough to include in the Scorecard, but a vote on an amendment moved by Councillor Raymond Cho on the same item was interesting. Defeated on a tie vote of 22-22, the amendment would “[urge] the Federal and Provincial governments to immediately fund an ongoing and sustainable social housing renovation and repair program so that social housing repair needs in Toronto are met and the backlog eliminiated. [sic]

In other words: tell the provincial and federal governments that they’ve kind of screwed us over with this downloading-of-responsibilities thing.

Voting for it included the left-wing of council (minus Shelley Carroll, who missed the meeting due to an out-of-town funeral, and — oddly — Maria Augimeri), the ‘middle’ group of councillors, and Gloria Lindsay Luby and James Pasternak.


Questions about the Council Scorecard? Read my notes on methodology. Also, you can email me.

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

Unspecified lessons to be learned

The Executive Committee today voted (of course) in favour of various reforms to the city’s boards, agencies and committees. I wrote a bit about this last week. This isn’t surprising, nor is it necessarily a good or bad thing. The real impacts of this move won’t be felt for a while.

My favourite part was the justifications members of the executive committee used when endorsing this move. The Toronto Star’s Paul Moloney had this great bit:

The reforms were endorsed Monday by the powerful executive committee, chaired by Ford, and go to the full city council next month for final approval.

The public supports a clampdown amid revelations about thousands of dollars being spent by the housing company on gifts, spas, manicures, Muskoka planning trips and Christmas parties for staff, said Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong.

“There’s a lesson to be learned and applied through recent events such as the TCHC,” Minnan-Wong, a member of the executive committee, said in an interview.

via Ford moves to rein in agencies – thestar.com.

So these reforms are necessary because of the TCHC scandal. Except that council still hasn’t received the auditor general’s report on mismanagement at the TCHC, nor have they had an opportunity to question TCHC staff about the allegations. And in the case of the former board and CEO, there’s no longer any opportunity to ask questions, because they’ve all been fired.

There are probably literally hundreds of important lessons to be learned from the TCHC scandal. But thus far the mayor and his allies have seemed indifferent to actually figuring out what those lessons are. (John Lorinc has actually done a good job digging into the TCHC thing beyond the surface “my tax dollars” sheen.)

Fire everyone and hope things get better is a pretty lousy management strategy. Also lousy? Using the spectre of an unrelated spending scandal to justify reforms like these.


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

Whipped votes: who broke ranks on Wednesday night

Jonathan Goldsbie’s blow-by-blow of this week’s council meeting(s) is a hell of a read, and I’m not just saying that because he mentions my name. There’s way too many interesting points to reproduce here, so let’s focus on the really juicy part — a handwritten “recommended voting strategy” that was given to Ford’s allies and detailed how they were to vote on various amendments. None of them were open votes.

Assuming that the group receiving the impromptu cheat sheet included the 23 councillors listed below the mayor on my Council Scorecard, we can get a quick sense of who broke ranks and voted with their conscience:

  • Michelle Berardinetti & Gloria Lindsay Luby voted ‘Yes’ on Shelley Carroll’s motion (3) regarding publicizing expense records, even though it was a whipped ‘No’ vote.
  • Michelle Berardinetti, Chin Lee, Gloria Lindsay Luby, Denzil Minnan-Wong & Jaye Robinson voted ‘Yes’ on Adam Vaughan’s motion (7a) that TCHC disclose any meetings with lobbyists during this interim period. The recommendation was to vote ‘No.’
  • James Pasternak voted ‘Yes’ on Adam Vaughan’s motion (7b) that funds set aside to pay Case Ootes instead go to repairs at TCHC buildings. Again, the recommendation was to vote ‘No.’

Goldsbie’s sheet doesn’t have a recommendation for Maria Augimeri’s Motion 11, which ensures that the TCHC bylaws reverted back to requiring a minimum of two board members once the new board is in place. In that case, 18 of the hardliners – including the mayor and his brother – voted against, while Michelle Berardinetti, Frank Di Giorgio, Chin Lee, Gloria Lindsay Luby and Michael Thompson voted in favour.

I’m not sure if Giorgio Mammoliti, who is apparently responsible for giving ‘hand signal’ voting instructions to councillors on items that aren’t included on the cheat sheet, gave any indication on this one. It was the last motion of the evening.

Mar 11

Compare and Contrast

Royson James’ column from Wednesday got a ton of attention from talk radio and the like, as it really worked for the narrative that left-wing councillors voted against the ‘Notion of Motion’ for the TCHC board item because they hate the auditor general and love wasteful spending.

The whole thing was plainly disingenuous. James conflated two separate stories in an over-the-top effort to smear left-wing councillors. In short: on Wednesday morning council did two things. First, they voted against a motion of notice for the item that would see the TCHC board dissolved. Second, they voted for a motion that would see an investigation into the recent leaks of reports prepared by the auditor general.

These items are related in the sense that one of the leaks was the TCHC report, but suggesting that anyone critical of the leaks is against the auditor general’s work on the TCHC report is a leap too far.

Compare and contrast these two accounts. Here’s how James colourfully describes things:

But instead of focusing on the indiscretions of public service workers, the councillors seemed intent on protecting them, even in the face of the auditor’s findings. And instead of condemning staff behaviour, they wanted to focus on media leaks in the public interest.

The dissenting councillors intimated that Griffiths and/or staff may have leaked portions of two auditors’ reports to the media. They all but said Griffiths had come under the “undue influence” of the mayor. They cast aspersions on his integrity, even as they professed not to.

via James: Attacking city’s auditor to get at Ford is wrong – thestar.com.

Note the great use of the “all but said” phrase. That’s a neat way of insinuating someone believes something they didn’t say.

Now here’s an account of the same incident by Jonathan Goldsbie at OpenFile:

10:40 a.m.: On item AU1.3, “The Audit Committee – Roles and Responsibilities,” councillor Janet Davis (Ward 31, Beaches–East York) questions auditor general Jeffrey Griffiths about the leaks of two recent reports: the one about the TCHC (which is actually two reports) and the one about paid-duty police service. In the case of the former, the Toronto Star learned of its contents three days prior to its official release. In the case of the latter, what is apparently an entire draft report was leaked to the Star about a month prior to it being delivered to the Toronto Police Services Board. Davis wants to know what security measures are in place. Griffiths says this is the first time in his twenty years that the contents of his reports have been leaked. And “certainly the leaks don’t come out of my office.” He was “shocked and appalled” to see his police report on the front page of the Star.

via Minutes: How the TCHC was lost and won | OpenFile

The motion to have the Attorney General investigate these media leaks was adopted 22-16 which would seem to indicate, to Royson James at least, that a majority of councillors voting that day were “attacking” the auditor general.