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Housing board asks how to unload its job

The Globe and Mail - January 14, 2002
By Wallace Immen

A new private, non-profit company is taking on the gargantuan task of providing social housing in Toronto for a population equivalent to that of Prince Edward Island.

The Toronto Community Housing Corp., formed Jan. 1 through a merger of the city's housing agency and a similar agency formerly owned by the province, is now one of the biggest landlords in North America.

The corporation will oversee the 60,000 units that are home to more than 164,000 low-income tenants with a vast range of needs. Its 1,446 buildings are an eclectic mix of Victorian row houses, modern high-rises and suburban homes.

But one of the first actions of the new corporation will be to question whether it should be in the management business at all. It is investigating ways to save costs by turning housing over to private firms.

"There is no use in the board [of the new corporation] being ideological. Frankly, there are things best left to the private sector," said David Zimmer, chairman of the board. "The real art is to get the mix right." The board holds its first official meeting tomorrow.

City Councillor Norm Kelly, another board member, said private management companies estimate they could save the city as much as 10 per cent of the corporation's $550-million public-housing budget.

"If you could save $50-million a year, that money could be invested in capital improvements," Mr. Kelly said.

But questions about privatization abound.

Unions are worried about job cuts. Social agencies fear that a bottom-line approach will ignore tenants' complaints and result in evictions and poor maintenance.

"We don't believe privatization is the way to go. Initially, it comes in more cheaply, but the costs escalate," said Ann Dembinski, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 79, which represents 180 employees in the former city housing departments.

CUPE and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union expect to be represented in the planning sessions of the new housing corporation.

"Our members can do the jobs more effectively and efficiently," said David Cox, a spokesman for OPSEU, which represents the force of 103 security officers who patrol the units of the former provincially run housing authority.

"The potential dangers are not just cost overruns. When you're talking about cutting corners on security, you are talking of putting people at risk," Mr. Cox said.

City Councillor Brad Duguid, a member of the board of the new corporation, said the new corporation needs an independent comparison of the costs of operating privately and publicly managed buildings.

To that end it might look at a group of housing units that are already being run on contract by private management firms, including Greenwin Property Management Inc.

"They have said their tenant satisfaction has gone up. We need an independent assessment of that, as well as of potential savings," Mr. Duguid said.

He said maintaining the buildings the city inherited from the province could be a "ticking time bomb" because the province skimped on repairs, knowing the buildings were going to be turned over to the city. The costs of upgrading the inherited properties could add as much as $50-million to the expenses of the housing corporation, he said.

An assessment is also being made of the use of its buildings and the land around them. Mr. Duguid said that in some cases it might be possible to expand the housing stock by building market-value housing and using the income from that for subsidized housing.

Mr. Kelly said another concept the city might look at is giving people vouchers they can use to help pay their rent in privately operated buildings.

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