Following the collapse of a ceiling in the Toronto Community Housing (TCH) complex at Swansea Mews, residents had to leave their homes within several weeks due to safety concerns. TCH concedes that it could be years before any can return if, in fact, they are ever able to do so.
This situation, amongst others, provides an opportunity to re-think the enormous resources being poured into state-of-good-repair work at many aged and quite frankly, decrepit TCH properties.
TCH is one of the largest housing providers in North America, managing nearly 60,000 households in communities spread across Toronto. While the size of the portfolio is important, so is the reality that most TCH properties are over 50 years old with significant state-of-good-repair issues.
Reasons for under-investment in maintaining these buildings are many but include the downloading of the social housing portfolio from the province to the City of Toronto in 1998. The costs of maintaining the buildings fell to an ill-equipped municipality.
The extent of the problem is confirmed by reports from the city’s RentSafeTO building inspection program. TCH buildings consistently score much lower than all others in the private and non-profit sectors. This is but a symptom of the disease, so to speak -- the disease being buildings not in need of repair, but rather that need replacing.
Investment has begun to flow from programs administered by all three levels of government targeted at the mountainous challenge known as state-of-good-repair work. TCH’s 10-year plan is a multi-billion-dollar capital commitment that seeks to bring its buildings up to a standard that most would describe as basic liveability.
Just being liveable should not be acceptable. We need to do better. In 2016, the Mayor’s Task Force on TCH issued a report. Led by former Toronto Mayor and Senator Art Eggleton, the task force included notables such as former Ontario cabinet minister Phil Gillies and former TD Bank executive Ed Clark.
Recommendation two in the report called for a “portfolio rationalization process that includes an analysis of the portfolio to determine what is reasonable to renovate, those that should be demolished and replaced, perhaps with higher density or those that should be sold.”
Whether in this report or elsewhere, spending billions of dollars on state-of-good-repair work is foolhardy. It is a band-aid placed on a major laceration that will require endless and increasingly more expensive cauterizations.
Many TCH buildings don’t need repairs, they need demolition, to be replaced with new buildings with much higher densities allowing for more available housing units and mixed communities that include homes beyond rent-geared-to-income housing.
A major reason why this does not occur is simply because it’s hard to do. Relocating existing tenants within the TCH portfolio presents many challenges. But it can be done. The relocation of Swansea Mews residents shows that when left with no choice, TCH finds a way. The Regent Park revitalization also demonstrates this. The end result of new buildings will be better housing and more efficient and environmentally sustainable buildings.
Additionally, building new and larger communities on TCH sites will maximize densities for new homes. The opportunity clearly exists to build mixed, high-density communities where outcome studies have repeatedly shown people do better than in the existing model we have in place.
If we’re going to spend billions of dollars on social housing, then let’s stop putting this money into buildings long past their expiration date and instead build new, sustainable and more liveable communities.
This approach is more challenging, but the alternative is many more Swansea Mews’ situations and that’s not acceptable. It shouldn’t take an order from building officials condemning a building as uninhabitable to recognize that building new is better than touching up old and decaying structures. TCH residents deserve better and so does the city.