On a humid afternoon, three older tenants linger at the entrance of Sunrise Towers, a Toronto Community Housing senior’s complex on Victoria Park Avenue, trading war stories.
Manzure Khan, a slight 87-year-old, tells how a drug dealer living in the building demanded money and threatened to beat him up. “I was so angry,” says Mr. Khan, leaning on his walker, “but I couldn’t swear because I’m fasting [for Ramadan].”
Another 73-year-old tenant describes witnessing a fight in the lobby between two younger men dubbed “mama’s boys” because they live there with elderly parents. One brings his motorcycle into the elevator and parks it outside his mother’s apartment.
When she moved in two years ago, says Connie Harrison, it was quiet – “like a funeral parlour.” About a year ago, TCHC started transferring in residents from a public housing apartment downtown.
Since then, Ms. Harrison, 63, and other older residents have had repeated run-ins with a drug dealer who bangs on their doors at night, demanding cash. Ms Harrison once gave him $80. “I was terrified he would harm me.” Her son, Daniel Murton, has sought – so far without success – to have his mother transferred. (TCHC officials won’t comment directly about her case, citing privacy, but stress they’ve taken “actions to ascertain the facts and appropriate follow up.”)
While poor living conditions are a common compliant about Toronto’s community housing, elderly residents are particularly vulnerable. Older TCHC residents and seniors’ advocates offer up jarring stories that reveal the depth of the challenge: apartments transformed into crack dens, sex workers and their clients coming and going, needles and feces strewn in stairwells, stabbings, shootings and chronic noise.
Some seniors wait years for repairs, or spend their days steering clear of volatile younger neighbours with untreated mental illness and addiction. Others, especially those with cognitive decline or mobility issues, endure isolation or fall victim to younger residents who run errands for a fee and end up bilking their elderly customers.
“TCHC is dumping people into seniors’ buildings who shouldn’t be there,” charges Anita Dressler, chair of Senior’s Voice, a two-and-a-half-year-old advocacy group run by tenant volunteers, and which submits reports to TCHC staff. “If you can’t live without terrorizing other people, you don’t deserve that subsidized unit.”
Such accounts – which Toronto council’s seniors advocate Josh Matlow concedes are not rare – represent a bracing challenge for the officials tasked with implementing council’s revamped seniors strategy , especially the ambitious plan to hive off TCHC’s 83 seniors’ buildings to a stand-alone administrative entity unrelated to the TCHC by 2019, with more services for elderly residents. But the process will be complicated and time-consuming, especially for seniors who have made their homes in TCHC buildings once designated for older tenants but that now have a mix of residents from all demographic groups.
Council approved both measures last month. TCHC, Mr. Matlow says, “isn’t the right vehicle” to provide seniors’ housing. The CEO of TCHC, Kathy Milsom, says her agency is already working on the plan, to get ahead of council’s deadline.
While they acknowledge the problems older residents face, TCHC officials point to recent tenant surveys indicating seniors, as a group, tend to be more satisfied with their living conditions than younger neighbours. Still, Ms. Milsom, who took the helm of the $2.6 billion agency last year amid mounting concerns about fire deaths and a daunting repair backlog, concedes that tenant safety, especially for older residents, “is a significant problem.”
While TCHC houses about 4 per cent of the city’s residents, including 26,000 seniors, its complexes experience a quarter of all reported gun crime and homicides.
In general, seniors’ affordable housing is a mounting concern in a city with skyrocketing housing prices and growing income polarization. The 2016 census revealed that for the first time, the number of Toronto residents over 65 (almost 427,000) exceeded those under 14.
Despite that, only a trickle of new affordable seniors’ housing has been constructed in the city – just 1,057 units between 2010 and 2017, most developed before 2014 with funding from a 2009 Canada-Ontario program. Only 92 units have been built since then, city officials say.
TCHC doesn’t have a monopoly on subsidized seniors’ apartments. But TCHC’s portfolio is the largest, although the agency’s older tenants live in both seniors’ buildings and others with a mix of ages.
Despite a growing cohort of older tenants, 21 TCHC complexes originally developed specifically for seniors have been reclassified as mixed buildings, with almost 5,300 units. Low turnover means it could take “several years” to transform these buildings back into seniors’ only complexes, says a recent staff report, which cautions that such a move will reduce housing supply for other needy groups.
The agency faces a complicated juggling act as it responds to the needs of refugees, or those with addictions or mental health problems. What’s more, as the agency redevelops areas such as Regent Park, tenants in those complexes have been relocated, in some cases to seniors’ buildings.
Last spring, Ms. Dressler met with several seniors living in 855 Roselawn, a TCHC building near Eglinton and Allen Road, and compiled a list of concerns. According to her report submitted to TCHC in May, 2017, “Tenants voiced a concern that numerous CAMH tenants have been moving into the building and creating issues for other tenants. Anti-social behaviour is occurring more frequently, such as doors banged on at two and three o’clock in the morning, excessive and yelling.” Tenants have seen stabbings, shootings and suicide attempts in recent years, according to residents, media reports and police at 13 Division.
TCHC says it is working on repairs and safety issues in the building, and has collaborated with local councilor Josh Colle to connect tenants with mental illness and addiction to health services or find more suitable housing. One agency, Reconnect Mental Health, now operates out of space provided in the building.
As for residents involved in criminal activity, TCHC can initiate eviction proceedings. But as Doris Power, a veteran seniors’ advocate who sits on the Tenants First advisory committee, says: “Even if they’re put out, they’ll be back because people know how to work the priority systems.”
Such conditions are not uniform across TCHC’s seniors’ portfolio. Ms. Dressler lives in a North York complex she describes as “condo-like.” Ms. Milson agrees: “There’s a huge variability I see when I go into the buildings.”
Others describe steadily worsening conditions, and the sense of traumatization that sinks in when they witness stabbings or overdoses.
TCHC is dumping people into seniors’ buildings who shouldn’t be there— Anita Dressler, chair of Senior’s Voice
Ms. Milsom says the agency has sought to improve conditions across its portfolio by adding more security cameras, fixing broken exterior doors, increasing the frequency of fire safety inspections and accelerating repairs. Streamlining at head office, she adds, has freed up funds to hire more special constables.
Much of this activity is catch-up. The sprawling housing provider has been forced in recent years to respond to harsh criticisms about its practices, including a 2014 ombudsman investigation into eviction policies that contributed to the 2009 death of an elderly tenant.
This past January, City of Toronto ombudsman Susan Opler released a report documenting inconsistencies in the way TCHC manages emergency or medical transfer requests by tenants, hundreds of whom are deemed “priority” cases, yet wait for years to be moved. While the report didn’t differentiate by age, Ms Opler says, “It’s safe to infer that many of those people who’ve gone through that process would have been seniors.”
While Ms. Milsom has promised rapid change, Ms. Opler’s scrutiny is based on the agency’s history of foot-dragging. A former ombudsman took TCHC to task for not implementing 20 key recommendations about its evictions policies. And to date, only some of the reforms targeted at TCHC in council’s 2013 Seniors Strategy have been adopted.
The city, for example, now has a permanent program, delivered by EMS, to proactively assist elderly TCHC residents who make very frequent calls to 911. But the city’s 2013 seniors strategy also urged TCHC to set up a network of 11 “hubs” in its seniors’ buildings, where older residents could access a range of medical or social services. Five years on, only two have been established. Ms. Harrison, the Sunrise Towers resident, says her building offers virtually no services or programs.
As the city moves to establish a stand-alone division for seniors, it is negotiating formal partnerships with the Local Health Integration Network and other community agencies to deliver services such as basic housekeeping and other daily living tasks, says Ms. Milsom. “It is not just hoping that someone [a service provider] will be there.”
But she concedes that TCHC can only do so much to address the chronic irritants that grind away at the lives of many of her tenants. “We have very little control over who comes into our buildings.”
Mr. Matlow, however, says TCHC should evict tenants who are breaking the law or bullying older residents. Over the next few years, he adds, these low-income seniors will be able to shift to city-run apartments that are exclusively reserved for older residents and fitted out with the services they require. “That’s the vision.”