Often dispiriting, life in Toronto public housing can also be perilous: A tenant is at least four times as likely to be murdered as someone living elsewhere in the GTA, statistics suggest.
When 15-year-old Andrew Naidoo was fatally shot this week in the courtyard of the battered, low-rise public housing complex that was his home in northwest Toronto, the tragedy garnered headlines chiefly because of his age.
Few however - certainly not the police - were surprised about where the city's 23rd homicide of the year took place. Data analyzed by The Globe and Mail, including months of security reports obtained through a freedom of information request, show that among the 164,000 Toronto Community Housing Corporation tenants, the likelihood of falling victim to violent crime in general, and murder in particular, far exceeds that of the rest of the city's population.
These revelations come in the wake of the Ford administration's dissolution of the TCHC board after it was discovered this February that its staff had long been expensing items such as spas and exorbitant dinners to the city. Later this month, the organization will be reconfigured. The new staff may bring new priorities, and, it is hoped, a fresh look at how to deal with the long-standing problem of violence in its communities.
Toronto's subsidized housing is offered to anyone who applies (though there is currently a sizable waiting list). TCHC describes their tenants as "seniors and youth, parents and children, and people of all abilities, speaking over 70 languages." The average household income, at $19,795, is well below that of the GTA average ($69,125). The rent is typically geared to income, but the low cost is arguably offset by the danger inherent in public housing.
A TCHC report from August, 2010, found that while close to 90 per cent of reported incidents on its scattered properties over the previous few years were non-violent and non-criminal - such as loitering and causing a disturbance - the murder rate remained disturbingly high.
From 2007 to 2009, there were 40 killings on TCHC premises. City-wide during those same three years, the tally was 218, meaning that, on average, more than 18 per cent of killings occurred on TCHC property, whose population represented less than seven per cent of Toronto at large.
Through the prism of murder rates per 100,000 people, the disparity is even more striking: A person living in Toronto public housing during those three years was four to five times more likely to be a homicide victim than someone living anywhere else in the Greater Toronto Area. For at-risk segments of that TCHC population, such as gang members and associates, the hazards are greater still.
Safety issues extend far beyond homicide. Arson accounts for 20 per cent of fires on TCHC property (second only to unattended cooking), and TCHC reports obtained through an FOI brim with reportage describing the obstacles faced by ordinary people struggling to live ordinary lives: After a murder on Birchmount Road, tenants in a building on lockdown couldn't pick their children up from the school bus; violence at 4301 Kingston Rd. left "a large amount of what appeared to be blood" on the walls and floor; at 460 Jarvis St., a woman was raped in an elevator lobby.
TCHC's security apparatus, meanwhile, has shrunk. In 2003, it was decided to reduce the number of community patrol officers from about 200 to roughly 80. Today there are 91, periodically augmented by regular police, such as the anti-violence TAVIS teams that target housing trouble spots, usually to the relief of most of the people who live there.
Every sociologist knows that poverty breeds crime, as evidenced by the ever-present threats from Toronto's entrenched gang culture, which flourishes in and around low-income housing, and takes advantage of residents such as the mentally challenged or non-native speakers, who may be unable to defend themselves. The high crime rates are exacerbated by the conditions present around public-housing projects, too: Design flaws in the architecture and fewer community patrol officers than were in place 10 years ago contribute too.