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Toronto Key staffer leaves John Tory’s office to lead Toronto public-housing overhaul

Chris Phibbs, who has worked with former councilor Kyle Rae, former mayor David Miller and Mayor John Tory, has been recently appointed to spearhead reforms at Toronto Community Housing Corp.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

Chris Phibbs has been a fixture at Toronto city hall since the 1990s. The former program co-ordinator at the 519 Church Street Community Centre and activist for gay and lesbian adoption rights was a long-time aide to former councillor Kyle Rae, first elected in 1991.

She ran unsuccessfully for a council seat herself in 2003, before serving as a policy adviser to left-leaning former mayor David Miller. Since Mayor John Tory's election win two years ago, she has acted as his centre-right team's key liaison with council's left.

Now, as she tells city hall reporter Jeff Gray, she has ditched Mr. Tory's office for a daunting new gig with the city bureaucracy. Her task? Turn the calls for action from the mayor's task force on troubled Toronto Community Housing Corp. into a reality, even as the agency scrambles to find hundreds of millions of dollars to fix its dilapidated buildings.

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Why did you leave the mayor's office?

The change for me was an interest in actually being able to start something and see it all the way to the end, to actually operationalize policy around a file that I care about. It's also a file that the mayor really cares about. So, it seemed to me a really good fit. Social housing is my background: I worked for Peel Non-Profit Housing when I first got out of school … out in Brampton.

So what is your new role?

I'm leading the team that is going to create the implementation plan. Are we going to create a new non-profit out of TCHC? Are we going to transfer some assets to other non-profits? We have a really strong non-profit housing sector here in the city. A lot of those non-profits have either expertise or assets near TCHC, or similar to TCHC. So maybe we should be hiving off some of those units, and letting Fred Victor, Ecuhome or Mainstay or any of those great operators run them. Maybe we should be selling some assets. Maybe we should be tearing down and rebuilding.

Isn't doing a massive restructuring of TCHC right now, as it seeks hundreds of millions for needed repairs, kind of like deciding whether or not to get divorced while your house is on fire?

The truth of it is, inaction is not an option. We must do something. The city owns these units. We are the landlord, these are our assets. Regardless of how fiscally conservative you are, it makes no sense to stand by and watch assets crumble. The idea behind the mayor's task force was to get different brains thinking about it in a different way. The status quo is not working. Tenants are unhappy, units are being closed. So let's try a few different and interesting things. And let's try to get it moving such that it can't be pushed off the rails if there's a change of administration.

Isn't the city about to run out of money for its plans to fix up TCHC buildings, unless the federal and provincial governments agree to help?

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Back in 2013, council approved a 10-year capital plan for TCHC. We needed $2.6-billion to do all the capital repairs that we need to do. There's three levels of government: Let's divide it up a third, a third, a third. We'll put in our third. And feds, province, you come along. So the city proceeds to make contributions, and the province and the feds … they never said yes. They never engaged. "It's yours. It's not ours. Bye-bye." So that whole 10-year capital plan has to be revisited, because it never really gelled.

Part of your job in the mayor's office was basically to connect with councillors expected to oppose him. How was that going?

I think part of the reason that they hired me was to try to, you know, provide some political balance. The mayor is politically kind of a balanced kind of guy. As with everything at city council, it's an issue-by-issue thing. It's not so partisan that it's left versus right all the time. Sometimes it's suburban versus downtown, sometimes it's east versus west, sometimes it's transit versus housing. I think the more progressive side of council, they were surprised at the Mayor and how open he was to listening to them and hearing them. And I'm hoping that that will continue.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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