Lost amidst all the bleating about chocolates and pedicures and heads bouncing across Nathan Philips Square is a question I hope Jeff Griffiths, the city’s even-handed auditor-general, will ask himself as he proceeds with the TCHC audit.
To what extent was the TCHC’s allegedly spendthrift culture an outgrowth of the fact that the agency, in recent years, was behaving much more like an ambitious property developer than a responsive property manager?
I don’t know the answer, but it’s a point that certainly should be pursued if the mayor and council want to get to the core of what ails the TCHC.
Anyone who’s watched TCHC during the past decade knows the agency was institutionally pre-occupied, at the highest levels, with the sweeping revitalization of Don Mount, Regent’s Park, Lawrence Heights and other TCHC properties.
In the amnesia-afflicted culture at City Hall these days, it’s worth remembering that such redevelopments were all about leveraging valuable city-owned land and private capital to build market-based condos, the sales of which would subsidize the renovation or replacement of the TCHC’s most derelict apartment complexes.
This formula — widely used in other large cities with crumbling but well-located public housing projects — was just the sort of thing Mayor Rob Ford claims to value: the use of private sector partnerships to reduce public spending. (He campaigned against Lawrence Heights, suggesting he doesn’t get the math.)
But property development is a very different game than what TCHC hastraditionally done (i.e., maintain buildings, deal with tenant issues, process applicants, and provide programming to residents). With these multi-million dollar revitalization schemes, TCHC officials had to venture into the mine-field of the planning world, which involves complicated re-zonings, extensive public consultations, political and media outreach, and dealing with the building industry.
Effective development, of course, demands both schmoozing and speed, so it is not a stretch to imagine that the TCHC’s senior managers — energized by an obviously challenging mission — may have become more than a little impressed by the urbane ways of the city’s building industry. After all, the perks and procurement short-cuts unearthed by the auditor-general wouldn’t be out of place in the development industry, where time-to-market is a major competitive issue.
Incent your employees to deliver projects on time and on budget? Check.
Go with a supplier that says it can get the job done faster? Check, check.
I’m not excusing the conduct, but we can’t ignore the wider context, either.
It also seems relevant that TCHC and the City of Toronto often worked at logger-heads as the agency pressed ahead with its plans, especially on Lawrence Heights. TCHC officials bridled at the procedural road-blocks thrown up by the city’s planning bureaucrats. And perhaps this institutional rivalry helps to explain why the agency’s managers seemed so obtuse to the ultra-cautious mindset (yes!) that came to characterize the city’s corporate culture in the post-Bellamy inquiry period.
Okay, but so what?
As other commentators have noted, last week’s TCHC scandal should present council with an opportunity to re-think the city’s affordable housing policies and its management of the TCHC portfolio in particular. Certainly, the city should be asking whether the TCHC’s split corporate personality is sustainable, or whether the re-development functions should be handled by another agency, like Build Toronto.
The mayor, in coming weeks, will install new (and, I’m guessing, paler) directors and an obedient CEO. Ford has often talked about creating a voucher system — such as the Section 8 “housing choice” system in the U.S. — and last week also blustered vaguely about privatizing whole show.
Even with a malleable board, I am not convinced the brothers Ford have the political stamina to see through such a massive and tangled exercise — after all, evicting 160,000 low-income families from their apartments would give Joe Fiorito enough sad stories to last several lifetimes. And heaven knows the Ford administration has plenty of other monumentally complicated tasks on its agenda (outsourcing everything, the Sheppard subway, the budget, etc., etc., etc.)
In some ways, last week’s melodrama reminded me of the infamous moment during the 1997 election campaign when Mel Lastman assured voters there were no homeless people in North York. Within days, as Adam Vaughan duly reported, a homeless woman turned up dead beneath a bridge in the city with heart.
After he was elected, Lastman, who was a much more deft politician than Ford (I can hardly believe I’m writing that line), named Anne Golden to head up a homelessness taskforce that produced a useful slate of reforms for council to implement. Lastman’s mayoralty was more successful as a result.
Looking over the TCHC mess that Griffiths helpfully deposited at his feet, Ford could, in theory, take a page from Mel’s playbook and seek out some informed policy advice instead of barreling ahead with his content-free threats. Indeed, Giorgio Mammoliti already did some of the analysis during the last term of council through the affordable housing committee, which he chaired.
When Mammolitti’s housing opportunities “action plan” [PDF], chock-a-block with solid recommendations, came up for a vote in August, 2009, council’s stalwart conservatives (Mike Del Grande, Doug Holyday, Denzil Minnan-Wong, Karen Stintz, John Parker) backed the strategy.
Ford, of course, voted against it.