I am going to achieve two related aims with this article. It beats having to write much the same thing twice. For one, it is Time I blogged something and I want to write about the continuing problem with Toronto Community Housing.
The other aim is that I want to do a follow up of the newsletter I wrote for the residents of my social housing building last September. That proved to be quite a story.
Back story; my place
In that newsletter I explained what the implications were of the different options being presented to us by TCHC. They were being forced to give residents some alternatives to the “tenant representative” system which had proved so dysfunctional for the residents of many buildings. A referendum was held in each TCHC building so the residents could decide on having a tenant rep, a tenant association, a building committee, or nothing.
In this building we chose a committee. The incumbent tenant rep and the stooges around her did not like that and did everything possible to reverse it. The TCHC management did not like what I did. I got some harassment. They even sent the TCHC police to pound on my door at midnight for no particular reason except to wake me up.
But we are now officially a “committee” building. We are about to move to stage two, attempting to actually set up a resident’s committee. TCHC people are coming around next week to explain to us what rules they have invented for these committees, and invite us to join. This is screwed up; this should have been decided before the vote. Residents really should be founding these committees on their own initiative and deciding for themselves how to operate.
Once again, I am going to have something to say about this in the form of a newsletter to the other residents. This time I am not going to the time and expense of printing up a double sheet and hand delivering them through the building. I will just give everybody a slip with a brief explanation and the URL for my blog. I think there are few, if any, residents here who do not read English and have Internet access. If there are, I will make a hard copy.
The basic facts of TCHC
My basic themes are these; TCHC is not reformable; at some point it all has to be dismantled in detail. None of the factions within TCHC are good for tenants; if the tenants want to maintain a livable situation in their homes they must learn to organize effectively to protect their mutual interests.
The basic fact of the TCHC bureaucracy is an inherent inability to deal with its tenants in good faith. It does not matter how well meaning an individual employee may be, they work within an innately dysfunctional organization. It will not be reformed because the dysfunction comes from the fact it is created by a dysfunctional city government, which is created by a dysfunctional provincial government.
The factions within TCHC largely parallel factions within city government. There are actually three of these factions to consider. One wants to get rid of social housing altogether by any deceptive means it can. One sees social housing as a social program and thinks all such programming should be punitive to make sure people move on as soon as possible. Last, we have the social engineer faction who think we are a captive pool of flawed subjects with whom they can experiment at turning into better people according to their own ideas.
The core group in each of these factions are well protected by factions within the city government. They are not going anywhere. These groups fight each other but it is the lower level employees who are constantly getting picked off. There is a saying about TCHC that getting promoted to manager is usually a prelude to getting fired. Of course this is why TCHC cannot hire and retain qualified people despite relatively high pay.
Some Sun shine
A certain daily newspaper in Toronto, its writers and some of its readers, have the idea that the problem in TCHC is actually some clique of middle managers who frustrate change. That does not make sense. They are correct that removing some senior managers has solved nothing in TCHC. https://torontosun.com/news/local-news/levy-four-months-after-reorg-tchc-as-dysfunctional-as-ever
Other members of the chattering classes of Toronto have had the idea that the problems of TCHC are the result of just one faction in senior management. Of course, they mean the faction which does not align with their own ideology. They think removing that faction will solve everything. It hasn’t.
To repeat; the problem with TCHC is unsolvable. The organization is not reformable, it must be taken down and replaced with something else. That will not happen until there is a similar tear down and rebuild of city government.
The big wide world
This present dysfunctionality in local government is in fact part of the present dysfunctionality of the whole western world, never mind good old Canada, so it is a pretty big topic. I can write a hundred blog posts about aspects of this as I feel up to, but this blog post is leading back toward the needs of my own building, where I live.
I could also write a few posts about what models for social housing could work in Toronto. I have done some researches into that. Reality is that the only way to get good housing is to have the residents run it.
This is not a cure all. Resident run management can be really bad. The Grenfell Tower disaster in London, England, came about because of a rotten “Tenant Management Organization”. However, well run social housing is usually tenant run housing.
We are not about to get anything like a British style Tenant Management Organization in Toronto. Likewise, we can only dream of getting something like the excellent approaches some Continental European countries have developed to building and running social housing. Even in those countries, they are having troubles because of Neo-liberal disruptions and effects on housing markets.
Ultimately, all that residents of TCHC can do is look after their own community, their own neighbours. The residents of some TCHC complexes have done pretty well at it. They have maintained their own committees or tenant associations for decades without TCHC being able to break them up.
The people of Regent park have been a good example. I was closely acquainted with them when I lived near there. I was impressed by their ability to deal with the TCHC bureaucracy. In recent years, with the Regent redevelopment, the community was broken up somewhat. There is an excellent documentary about it, which every TCHC resident should see. http://www.christenebrowne.com/farewell-regent/
There are plenty of “housing activists” around, whose hobby is to annoy the TCHC management. They have their uses. However, TCHC residents are generally concerned with their own communities and are not much interested in the wider problems of TCHC.
A committee to make a committee
Based on experiences elsewhere, people in my building complex would best concern themselves with having the greatest possible control over their building. As I described in my previous newsletter about it last September, the end of the old tenant rep system opens up greater scope for this. The decision of the residents last November to opt for a committee approach opens up even more possibilities.
But there are some problems with opting for a committee model as well. The biggest is that we actually have to be able to form a committee. We have to be able to make it work in the face of the inevitable TCHC control freakery.
Initial efforts at committee making in this building have not been encouraging. An attempt to start a “pro committee” committee in the referendum we had last November, did not work out. But it proved to be not needed.
It has also been impossible to get a group together in advance of this meeting with TCHC staff to “organize” our committee for us. That is already screwed up. Residents should be able to get together, set up the committee, and then go and tell TCHC what the terms of the relationship will be.
If we have the right people…
The problems are the usual ones with getting something like this together. You have people who claim to want to be part of it, but are poisonous to collaborative effort. We have these people who will not make any commitment, or fail to do what they committed to. We have some paranoid people who are sure everybody else is a “Cathy Spy”.
The worst are these “no structure” types. “Why don’t we all just talk to each other?” A very good criticism of this kind of mentality is found at https://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm It is a real classic; originally written for the feminist movement almost 50 years ago but relevant to all forms of activism up to the present day. It explains exactly why structure is needed.
I have worked with all sorts of community and activist groups for a long time. I have seen how they succeed and fail. Except for the most short term and ad hoc of endeavours, the refusal to develop any kind of formal structure is a guarantee of failure.
Another concept that members of a residents committee need to get their heads around is “conflict of interest”. The purpose of the committee is not to be an adjunct of the TCHC bureaucracy; it is to represent the interests of the tenants to TCHC. This was the fundamental problem with the “tenant rep” system; you can’t work for the landlord and for the tenants at the same time.
In the same way, you can’t be working for the employer and the labour union at the same time. You cannot be the judge and a lawyer for one of the sides at the same time. You can’t be a referee and also a member of one of the teams. Somehow, many members of committees set up to advocate a group interest to authority have a very hard time grasping this basic concept.
How a tenant committee works
How it works is, the residents committee meets together to decide what their position will be. They meet with the landlord to present this and hear what the landlord’s agents have to offer. They go back to their own space and discuss how to respond. They meet the landlord’s agents again to present this response.
Fools who start crosstalking other members of the committee in front of the landlord’s agents are immediately off the committee. Likewise for people who want to start playing “triangulating” games.
People who do not want to be “confrontational” with TCHC because they might refuse to talk with us, need to run along and let the grown ups do grown up business. They can talk with ‘Big Mommie’ on their own. Maybe she will grant their wishes.
TCHC will not be talking with us because they have decided to benevolently hear our petitions. They will meet with us because they have to. The experiences of every tenant group I know of is that you have to be as tough as badgers in dealing with TCHC. It cannot be overemphasized that they are incapable of dealing with us in good faith.
I will be watching how things develop in this building. We may be able to bring forth a capable group of people who can do what is needed. The committee may be unable to get off the ground. Or, it can be immediately coopted, be seen as such by the residents, lose all credibility, and die away.
In that case we go to the “nothing” option for awhile. In future we may have another crack at forming an effective committee. We may be able to get by okay without a committee or with some ad hoc groups around specific issues.
This is a relatively easy building to live in. We do not have many problems. People are relatively content. Tenants are more militant in these ‘rent geared to income’ buildings which are being seriously mismanaged. This is a mixed RGI and market rent building. TCHC has some incentive to run it properly.
The really big issues in the building seems to be; one, the concern about where funds handled by the tenant rep for the benefit of tenants actually went to. And two; access to the community room. Both of these are issues in many TCHC buildings.
Regarding the latter, every time I talk with someone from another TCHC complex, the lack of access to their own space comes up. The only people who can use this space for any kind of function, without paying money, are people who suck up to the management.
We should not be having to pay or go through any kind of complex application process to make use of these spaces. This is almost unheard of in private rental buildings. This begs for some sort of common action, but TCHC residents generally do not work together on a city wide basis.
To conclude, there are no short term solutions for the problems of TCHC. We are in a time of a corrupt neoliberal order which is steadily breaking down. When we have a better system of government, some better options for expanding and managing social housing will become available.
Until then, what we can do in this building is to organize a committee to protect our interests as best we can.