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Toronto Councillor Bailao looks to move Toronto’s social housing system online

The Lawrence Heights area, a Toronto Community Housing development. Residents who apply for social housing add their names to separate waiting lists for each of the programs the city offers, with a general list of their preferences. In some cases, online listings are available, but require a phone call or in-person visit, to apply.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

A Toronto city councillor is looking to move the city's social housing system online – arguing that the move will help to "empower" residents.

When the city's Community Development and Recreation Committee meets Monday morning, members will debate a motion by Councillor Ana Bailao to move toward a "choice-based" system for public housing units that would allow applicants to search and select from available units online – similar to apartment rental websites, such as viewit.ca, used in the private sector.

The move, staff say, could lead to a more efficient turnover in units, and cut in half the amount of time the average unit sits empty.

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More importantly, Ms. Bailao said, it gives applicants a greater sense of authority in the process.

"It's a dual benefit," she said in an interview. "It's a lot more efficient – it's a lot less numbers of calls and time that it takes for people to take a unit. It's also more empowering for the people who are taking the unit."

Currently, residents who apply for social housing add their names to separate waiting lists for each of the programs the city offers, with a general list of their preferences. In some cases, online listings are available, but require a phone call or in-person visit, to apply. Then they wait – an average of about three years for a bachelor unit – for a phone call saying a unit is available.

As units become available, staff are required to go down each waiting list, and give each applicant ample time to indicate whether that person wants it before moving onto the next applicant. Partly due to this, each Toronto Community Housing Corp. unit in 2013 sat empty for 45 days on average before it was filled.

Last year, the city ran a pilot project called "My Choice," which moved the selection program online . That project cut the length of time to fill a unit down to 22 days. It also cut down the amount of calls city staff were making on average to fill each unit, from nine to 1.5.

Ms. Bailao's motion Monday will look to expand that project, asking city staff to come back with a report on the cost and viability of the project by the beginning of next year.

Kenneth Hale, the legal director for Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, called the possible move a "good thing," but voiced concern about the system placing too much demand on the applicant.

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"The advantage to the more passive approach is that people who are not the keeners in the world have a chance to get into housing who don't really have the capability of fighting for their place," he said.

He also said it doesn't do much to address the real problem: scarcity of units.

"When it's so scarce, and the list is so long – 80,000 households on the list or something – it's really hard to talk about competition or empowerment when there's such a scarcity," he said.

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