All posts by Howard Akler

About Howard Akler

Howard works on CERA's Early Intervention Eviction Prevention Program

Finally, Some Good News

There was a little bit of good news just before the New Year when the Ontario Liberal government announced $42 million in funding to help municipalities develop and implement their housing and homelessness prevention plans for 2013-2014.

The funding will help ease the transition that comes from the elimination of the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) as of December 31, 2012. CSUMB, which was available to all Ontarians on social assistance, helped cover unexpected housing costs, such as rental arrears, and was an important tool to help keep low income families housed. The Liberals’ decision to cancel this benefit and pass on 50% of the funds to municipalities was an ill-conceived one; aside from offering less to those who need it most, many of the municipalities did not have programs in place to properly administer the funds.

This is still nothing more than a $42 million band aid. The Liberals have offered no real long term solutions to the problem they created by cancelling CSUMB. Until they do, this gesture towards our most vulnerable citizens will have to do.

Putting Ideas First

Last spring, City of Toronto councillor Ana Bailão formed a special working group on Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s proposed sell-off of 619 single family homes. The report, Putting People First, was released in September and it contains some very good ideas. First off is the recommendation that TCHC sell only 55 of the 619 homes originally suggested (this is in addition to the sale of 56 homes that council has already approved). There’s a simple reason for this: a full sale of the proposed properties would bring in $220 million over five years; however, TCHC faces a $1 million operating shortfall every year. What happens once the money from the sell-off is gone? Bailão’s report rightly argues against this short-term thinking.

The report offers some interesting long-range ideas. One is to convert up to 100 single-family into affordable home ownership. Over 50% of TCHC tenants have said they want to own the home they live in and this may be a good opportunity.

The report also suggests that TCHC renegotiate its mortgages, which currently include interest rates up to 13%.  In contrast, Infrastructure Ontario offers long-term loans for social housing providers at a rate of 3.84%. Over the long haul, that amounts to quite a savings.

Not all the suggestions in Putting People First will be workable, but the point is that the report offers plenty to think about. Which is more than we were offered before.

Should the sell-off be on?

Toronto Community Housing’s planned selloff of 65 single-family homes has had many stops and starts. Last June and again in March, city council approved the sale of these homes. The idea is to take the estimated $24 million in sales and use it to pay down the hefty $750 million repair backlog on many other public housing units.

This June, however, Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister, wanted to delay the sale until October, when a special working group presents its plan to deal with TCHC’s 619 other single family homes. After Mayor Rob Ford complained to Premier Dalton McGuinty, Wynne reversed her desire to delay and now the sale is on again.

These homes are in desirable neighbourhoods like High Park and the Beach. This means the middle-class will come buying. It also means the low-income families will be forced out. This is unfortunate. Mixed-income communities are essential to building a healthy Toronto. Indeed, a city-commissioned study reports that low-income segregation can have a negative impact on individuals’ health and education. Much current thought on public housing acknowledges this; TCHC’s big rebuilding projects such as Regent Park and Lawrence-Allen have incorporated the  basic concept of mixed-income neighbourhoods.

When Wynne was asked about her flip-flop, she told reporters she did not intend to undermine the wishes of city council, only to deal with the potential sale once the working group’s report is ready.  She said she preferred to have “one conversation” on the matter. Let’s hope this conversation includes the fact that low-income families have a right to live anywhere in the city, not just in high-rise communities in the inner suburbs or large, isolated social housing complexes.

Changes to Social Assistance Don’t Add Up

The 2012 Ontario budget will not be kind to people on social assistance. While much of the focus has been on the Liberals’ decision to freeze rates on Ontario Works (OW) and Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), another item on the budget is equally cruel: the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB) will be cut.

CSUMB is a mandatory benefit for all recipients of OW and ODSP. It is either used to pay rental arrears and prevent eviction or to help pay the first and last months’ deposit on a new apartment. In some cases, tenants have been issued CSUMB to pay for heating and other basic utilities. Recipients without dependents get a maximum payment of $799 every two years, while those with children receive $1,500. This is no small amount for people who are in dire financial need.


The Liberals have said that CSUMB is not being cut, but “transferred” to the Ministry of Housing, where it will be administered as part of the long-term affordable hosing strategy. This is disingenuous. Only half of the funding will be available and even then, there is no clear picture how the program will be maintained. The budget stated that the new version of CSUMB will provide housing supports to people even if they are not on social assistance.  This translates to half as much money available to a much larger group of people.

It doesn’t add up.

What’s Next for Toronto Community Housing Corporation?

Between fiduciary failings, bad press, and the dissolution of its Board, the public housing company has a decidedly cloudy future.

Let’s say Mayor Ford clears all the provincial legislative hurdles.  Let’s say the city actually privatizes much of the public housing stock.  Let’s say the whole enterprise goes belly up.

What then?

According to current mayoral wisdom, the sell-off of TCHC assets would mean the city relies more heavily on rent supplements to provide affordable housing for 164,000 tenants.  Plus, incoming monies from the sale of buildings could start to provide supplements to 143,000 tenants on the subsidized housing waiting list.  Sounds great!  Except the success of rent supplements relies on a high vacancy rate; when vacancies drop, rents rise, and the city ends up paying more to keep up its end of the bargain.  Guess what?  Toronto vacancies have been dropping for a decade.  According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, there has been a 30% decrease in rental units across the GTA since 2000.  Worse than that, there is no incentive for private developers to build more affordable housing because the condo market is just too lucrative.

If the city sells off its assets, are we ahead of the game or not?  Up till now, there has been no serious dialogue on social housing policy.  To be fair, council has been preoccupied with the fallout of the city auditor’s report and the ensuing fight over the liability of the Board itself.  But now that this has played out, will Mayor Ford or TCHC managing director Case Ootes spend time talking to housing experts?  Will they look at social housing models in other cities?  Even a quick glance shows that a combination of strategies – rent supplements and dedicated affordable housing – yields the most promising results.  It’s not an exact science by any means, but it is an area that requires study, thought, and discussion.

Two Scandals

It gets worse and worse for Toronto Community Housing Corporation.  Just one week after the city auditor revealed inappropriate expenses and egregious lapses in procurement practices, the TCHC executive is a shambles: the civilian board resigned, tenant reps were ousted and CEO Keiko Nakamura, who so far refused to quit, will surely be given the boot by city councilors.

Now, amidst rumours that Mayor Rob Ford has ordered an appraisal of all city housing stock, comes news that Case Ootes will take over as interim managing director.  Ootes, a veteran councilor who retired prior to last fall’s election, is a both long-time Ford ally and critic of social housing in the city.

It’s a poorly-kept secret that Mayor Ford wants to privatize TCHC.

The reasons are obvious.  The city faces a $744 million deficit next year.  TCHC has a $6 billion portfolio.  Selling off even portion of the housing stock will go a long way towards balancing a budget.  Granted, some of the savings would go to rent supplements for low-income households, but those supplements rely on vacancies and, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp, Toronto vacancies are in a decade-long drop.  In fact, University of Toronto professor (and CERA supporter) David Hulchanski says Europe, United States and New Zealand all rely on a mix of public housing and rent supplements.  Toronto itself has 58,700 affordable units and 4,693 supplemented households.

Ford’s mantra of privatization is based on blind ideology, not thoughtful study.  Privatization is deemed less costly for taxpayers and therefore more efficient.  But there is more than one way to gauge efficiency.  TCHC, warts and all, houses some of our most vulnerable citizens –the mentally ill, the working poor, the aged and infirm – and these people are far less likely to be protected in a purely private market, rent supplement or no.

Mayor Ford is blatantly using the TCHC scandal to push forward his simple solutions.  He might eliminate the financial costs but ignore the human cost.  And that will be the real scandal.

The Right Kind of Support

“We have frankly screwed tenants.”

     This was the oft-repeated quote from Toronto Councillor Gord Perks after the city announced its proposed property tax changes as part of the 2011 operating budget.  Because of market changes, tenants were supposed to see their property taxes reduced by 3.08%. But, due to city tax policy, a portion of that tax break will go to commercial and industrial properties.  In short, tenants will save $50 rather than $62.  Twelve dollars can be a significant amount for low-income families living cheque-to-cheque, and Perks suggested that this proposal and others (hiking user fees at community centres, eliminating bus routes, slashing the budget of the Tenant Defence Fund) constitute the new administration’s attack on tenants.


     While we at CERA strongly disagree with the decision to cripple the Tenant Defence Fund (and our friends at the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations), user fees and bus routes are budgetary footballs that get tossed around regardless of an administration’s political leanings.  And the city tax policy that Perks bemoaned was actually formed during the era of his ally Mayor Miller, so it is a safe assumption that the Councillor was originally on board.  To harangue it now seems like cheap political theatre.

     Tenants do need loud, vocal support from city councilors.  Let’s just hope it’s genuine.

Ontario’s Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy – Not Worth the Wait

The most heartbreaking part of an Eviction Prevention worker’s job is referring a client to a homeless shelter.  It is very sobering to hear, on the other end of the line, the moment a client realizes she cannot afford to stay in her home.  The mixture of fear, shame and anxiety is quite palpable.

And it seems that there will be more and more heartbreaking phone calls to come.  This week, the Ontario Liberals revealed their oft-delayed, long-term affordable housing strategy and let’s just say it doesn’t seem to be worth the wait. In particular, it fails to adopt a human rights framework and largely ignores the particular housing needs of people with disabilities, women and other equality-seeking groups.  And despite a record number of Ontario households on the waiting list for social housing, Housing Minister Rick Bartolucci announced there will be no new funding for affordable housing.  According to the Wellesley Institute, the success of any long-term affordable housing plan requires some semblance of targets and timelines.  But the province only offers vague promises like “engaging” the feds for more money.  This sounds remarkably underwhelming.

To be fair, there are some encouraging bits in the announcement – simplification of the rent-geared-to-income process, for one – but overall, a plan that does not set any goals is not really a plan at all.

tenancy and mental health

If rental arrears are the most common reason for eviction, they can also be relatively simple problems to solve.  Payment plans, often with assistance from the Rent Bank or Community Start-Up benefits, can help reduce an eviction notice to basic arithmetic.

Things get murkier when evictions fall under the N5 rubric.  Interference with reasonable enjoyment, safety, even some criminal offences cannot always be explained as “bad behaviour”.  Very often, these offending tenants are suffering from some form of mental illness.  Mental illness itself is difficult to define.  It can range anywhere from anxiety to clinically-diagnosed schizophrenia, but the fact remains that such an illness can be serious enough to interfere with tenancy.  This is a significant challenge not just for tenants and their support systems, but also for landlords.  No one expects a property manager or superintendent to be well-versed in social work.

More and more at CERA, we find ourselves mediating between troubled tenants, overwhelmed landlords and other community supports.  This is a role for which CERA is particularly well-suited; we are a small organization and can adapt easily to whatever need arises.  And it seems the need has never been greater.