For a city facing a $774-million budget shortfall, and a public housing repair backlog almost as big, deciding to sell off 22 rundown houses should not have been tough. Yet city councillors thrashed it over for an afternoon, an evening and into the following morning. There were impassioned speeches. There were nuisance amendments. There was foot-dragging and filibustering.
It drove budget chief Mike Del Grande up the wall. Brandishing his favourite prop, a small red piggy bank that was later swiped from his desk, he reminded fellow councillors that the city is scrutinizing all of its costs to find savings, a top-to-bottom exercise that is to reach a climax this fall. "If we can't deal with 22 homes here, what are we going to do in September when all the reports and all the stuff comes back and we are going to have to make some very hard decisions?" he asked. If council took so long over an easy call like selling the houses, "bring your camping outfit because you're going to be camped out forever and a day."
Maybe longer. Selling the houses has been under consideration for years. The scattered properties need $2.5-million in repairs over the next decade. Nine stand vacant, of use to nobody. Because some of them occupy prime real estate - a number are in the Beach, with prime lake views - they are worth an estimated $16.7-million. Toronto Community Housing Corp., the city's public housing landlord, needs that money to put toward its $650-million repair backlog.
"Within a constrained fiscal environment, the sale of these houses will enable TCHC to manage its portfolio more efficiently, continue to meet its service-level standards and invest the revenue from the sale of the 22 houses in the renovation of existing social housing units," says a staff report.
Councillor David Shiner, of Ward 24, Willowdale, said many of the public housing buildings in his district are in "deplorable" shape. The problem, as always, is money. It is only logical, he argued, "to get rid of the housing that doesn't work and put it in the housing that can work."
Case Ootes, who recently served as interim public housing chief for Mayor Rob Ford, wants the city to go further and consider selling as many as 900 houses in its portfolio, netting an estimated $400-million that could be used to fix up the 57,000 other public housing units. The scheme makes some sense. The houses require repairs averaging $62,400 over the next 10 years to keep them up to a livable standard, twice the cost of repairing apartment units. Some houses need up to $175,000 of work.
Left-leaning city councillors, who see an evil plot in anything the mayor and his allies propose, say selling even the 22 houses would leave poor people out on the street. "We've now tossed 22 families out of their homes," said Janet Davis, of Ward 31, Beaches-East York, after city council finally approved the sale 33-10. "This approach says that poor people should not live in decent neighbourhoods, should not be able to live in houses, that they should all live in high-rise apartments in the suburbs."
Nonsense, replied Mr. Ootes. No one will end up on the street. "We will accommodate those people who will be displaced through the sale of these units in suitable accommodation." Toronto public housing, he said, is in a tough spot, with a long waiting list to get in but many units are in such disrepair that they are uninhabitable. Selling off rundown houses and using the proceeds for repairs on other units is one way to attack the problem, and "if anybody's got a better idea of addressing that I'd love to hear it for them."
But there is the problem. Mr. Ford's opponents are so set against him that they oppose him even when he makes sense. Instead of better ideas, we get filibusters and fulmination. It won't do. Whether or not you like the mayor and his often crude approach to leadership, Mike Del Grande is right. Toronto has some tough decisions to make. Blind opposition to any idea backed by Mr. Ford won't make them go away.