The retired conservative who overhauled Canada’s biggest social housing provider over the past four months was himself changed by the experience. He shifted ever-so-slightly left.
When Mayor Rob Ford first tapped Case Ootes last March to take over for the ousted CEO and board at Toronto Community Housing Corporation, Mr. Ootes thought a rightward shift toward giving tenants vouchers for private housing might benefit the ailing housing provider. Not any more.
“I thought vouchers could play a larger role,” he said in his first public comments since his tumultuous term running TCHC ended last month. “I’m not so convinced any more. Maybe a limited role, but that’s it.”
That may surprise some on the left and annoy some on the right, both of whom believed Mr. Ootes was Mr. Ford’s conservative hatchet man, brought in to start the great selloff of public housing in Toronto. They were mostly wrong, Mr. Ootes told The Globe and Mail in a wide-ranging interview.
Changing the mandate
The current strategic plan for the corporation details efforts to foster community, develop skills and act as more of a social services agency. Mr. Ootes quickly moved to rewrite it.
“Fundamentally, TCHC should be a landlord. That’s it. The social services should be provided by the province. Our staff started becoming involved in social services. You have to keep your focus on the mission, which is to provide housing to as many people as possible at a reasonable cost.”
The end of scattered housing
As part of the narrowed mandate, Mr. Ootes suggested selling 900 single-family homes scattered throughout the city for $500-million. The proceeds would go toward the agency’s $650-million repair backlog. Critics say eliminating scattered housing would move tenants out of integrated communities and into ghettoes of dense social housing.
“The rest of the city is moving toward concentrated condo living. Why should subsidized housing be any different? If you start to social engineer things by saying you should scatter housing here and there, you run into great problems. ... In fact, I have a problem with the name Toronto Community Housing Corporation. It should just be Toronto Housing. Creating communities is an organic process – it can’t be mandated by government.”
Lobby Queen’s Park
Provincial legislation says the city must replace every unit of social housing it sells, meaning that auctioning houses would come with a huge bill.
“The provincial legislation is a big part of the problem there. It has to be changed. At some point, the Mayor will have to go to the province and push for that.”
The Great Selloff?
Social housing advocates protested every time Mr. Ootes suggested the corporation should sell assets, warning loudly that it was the beginning of a mass privatization of the city’s public housing stock.
“They are doing a disservice to the people who really need housing by saying that. We should get rid of the units that don’t make sense, but a massive sale of multi-residential units simply won’t happen. There’s a role for private sector in maintenance and management of mechanical equipment. But not to buy everything.”
Three years ago, a TCHC tenant named Al Gosling was evicted. He ended up in a homeless shelter and later died of an infection. It paralyzed the organization.
“Staff became so paranoid about evicting people that evictions dropped like a rock, but arrears skyrocketed. Well, if arrears skyrocket, things don’t get fixed. You can’t afford it.”
The corporation has a number of revitalization projects Mr. Ootes endorses for their private-sector partnerships that come at little net cost to taxpayers – Regent Park, to name one. But that support doesn’t stand for the Lawrence Heights project, which aims to remodel an impoverished maze of low-rise buildings into 7,500 units of mixed housing. It was approved at city council in July.
“Lawrence Heights is a huge controversy coming down the road. It’s going to cost the taxpayers a lot of money. I wouldn’t like to see it happen.”
Mr. Ootes knew he was inheriting a political powder keg when he took over the agency, and sure enough he was lambasted through the media and assailed numerous times during tear-filled meetings.
“Yes, I’m the arrogant Case Ootes. I expected that. You have to take the emotion out of it. ... To say I enjoyed the assignment is probably not the right way to put it. But I always relish a chance to make a difference. And I think we did.”