Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is keen to sell more than 900 units of social housing stock to the highest bidder and use some of the millions it generates to plug the $774-million hole in the city's budget for next year.
The plan to put social housing units up for sale is the brainchild of the mayor's hand-picked adviser, a former city councillor brought in to clean house after a spending scandal at Toronto Community Housing Corp.
Case Ootes, who is set to leave his post next week, made public Thursday some of the advice he is delivering to the mayor and the new board of the social housing agency - replacements for the previous board ousted by city council this spring. Mr. Ootes estimates the selloff of all the agency's single-family homes could raise more than $400-million.
That's money, he argues, that is desperately needed to solve a "crisis situation" created by a $650-million repair backlog that is so severe it is forcing the country's largest landlord to leave units empty because there is no money to fix them. This, at a time when 77,000 households are on its waiting lists.
Toronto's mayor was quick to give his public backing to that proposal, but indicated he has other ideas about what could be done with the dollars it generates.
"I agree. Let's sell these homes. Let's take that revenue," he said. "Obviously, we need the money to fund next year's budget."
Asked about the crumbling state of city-owned housing, Mr. Ford said a portion of the profit could be directed to repairs. "Some could go to housing. Some could go to next year's budget. It all depends. We would have to see."
The mayor's comments - and Mr. Ootes' proposal - set the stage for a showdown between the city's popular leader and critics who have long feared he is intent on dismantling the affordable-housing provider. Mr. Ford came to power with a pledge to cut costs by eliminating waste and the troubled housing agency - the subject of damning audits that discovered questionable spending by staff, including a spa day, a jaunt to Muskoka and gifts of chocolates - has become a convenient symbol of that excess.
Reacting to the mayor's remarks, downtown councillor Adam Vaughan, one of the mayor's fiercest critics, said they reveal Mr. Ford's intentions.
"It's the Ford agenda laid bare," he said. "This is not about fixing social housing. It is about getting rid of it. Charles Dickens used to write about this stuff."
Mr. Ootes, who led a tour of a city-owned downtown building where three-quarters of the dormitory-style rooms sit vacant because five tenants must share a kitchen and bathroom, said the housing agency must look at options for such "outdated and underused buildings."
As well, 81 of the city's single units sit empty because they need repair, he said, including one that requires $175,000 in renovations.
Mr. Ootes said he will tell the new board - to be appointed next week - to press for changes in provincial rules to give landlords more freedom to manage their assets. In particular, he pointed to rules that require the province to approve the sale of any units and requirements that every unit that is removed be replaced with another in the same area.
Catherine Wilkinson, a newly elected tenant representative on that board and a member of the last board, said any discussions about the future of housing units should be at a table where residents are represented. The proposed sale, she said, is a "short-term solution. This is a long-term problem."
Mr. Ootes said the city has an obligation to "maximize limited taxpayers dollars to provide clean, well-maintained subsidized housing to as many people as possible."
The first measure of support for his proposals will come next week when city councillors consider an earlier recommendation by him to put 22 single homes on the block.
"It will be a test as to whether council has the will to deal with reality," Mr. Ootes said of that vote. "The reality is that if they don't act on those recommendations and the recommendations I am making now, more empty buildings will be the result."