If public housing gets sold in the downtown core and no subsidized tenants hear about it, do they make a sound?
Well, not right away. But eventually they do. On January 30, tenants headed to the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) board meeting after learning that the corp aims to sell off 371 units of housing across the city.
Ma'am, how do you feel about your home being sold? What? Oh, all right - how do you feel about just discovering that your home is going to be sold?
The plan, first quietly floated at the board's December meeting, was delayed by Councillor Paula Fletcher, one of the city's reps on the board, but even so, the media got to tenants before any official notice.
Most of the focus has been on the potential loss of subsidized single-family homes that allow low-income people to live in mixed neighbourhoods. But also on the auction block is 389 Church, an all-women's building featuring dorm-style living and containing over a third of the to-be-sold units in question.
The motivation for putting all 371 units on the market is TCHC's need to raise capital for repairs to its other properties. But there's another reason for 389's sale: TCHC says it has a vacancy rate of 35 per cent. Odd, of course, since the corp has a waiting list of over 70,000.
But Melanie Peters, a tenant rep at 389, offers me a possible explanation for the empty units: violence, and official indifference. Many residents, she says, arrive from abusive situations. And lately some have brought boyfriends to live with them.
Some men, says Peters, have been threatening residents. But the only action taken has been a cut to the security budget, including a front-door guard. "Within one week, we had a domestic violence case in the lobby. People say, ‘You know what? I don't need this.' And word gets out."
No one is thrilled to live in a dorm-like setting, Peters says - in this case shared rooms arranged around public kitchens and washrooms - but 389 Church plays a transitional role for women in the shelter system who aren't ready for their own home.
That's why Peters went to the board to ask TCHC to take safety more seriously rather than sell the building. But when Dan King, one of two tenants on the TCHC board, wanted to discuss those concerns, he was informed by chair David Mitchell that it was "unfair to speak about specifics" and that he wouldn't "entertain speculation," the bureaucratic equivalent of putting his fingers in his ears and humming.
That the sale of homes - sorry, assets - appears to have become an answer seeking a question has also perturbed Fletcher. "CTV was on their front lawn," she tells me, describing how the tenants learned that their building could be sold out from under them. "That's not exactly a good model for communication."
At January meeting, she succeeded in putting off the sale so a report could be prepared on each property, to see if there are alternatives to selling, if affordable ownership by tenants might be arranged and if other agencies might take buildings over if not. "This is all due diligence that any responsible board should engage in. I need to be convinced," she says.
Her prime concern is the single-family units, which if lost would force poor families to make way for condo development. As it is, she seems unsure if most of the sales can be prevented - and can't see how 389 could be saved. "That's niche housing," she says of the building. "We're not given that mandate by the city."
In other words, TCHC is so strapped for cash, it can only aim to bring its basic housing up to non-war-zone standards. Providing supports is out of the question.
Housing activist Josephine Grey, who is suing TCHC for neglecting its properties, sympathizes with the tenants. But she does say pod living can make things worse without services.
"Surely, it's recognized that putting in supports prevents future problems." She points out that the feds built social housing but then dumped it on the city to maintain. Grey wants TCHC and the city to take an advocacy role, to fight back.
Catherine Wilkinson, another tenant rep on the TCHC board, struck a similar note at the January meeting. "Is there any way TCHC can take an advocacy position?" she asked quietly.
This elicited three seconds of silence. Everyone stared limply down at their papers, as if Wilkinson had just brought up childhood abuse at a family dinner. CEO Derek Ballantyne eventually muttered something about an upcoming meeting where they could do just that. It was unconvincing.
Fight back? They're too exhausted from fighting their tenants.