Art Eggleton's new report on public housing in Toronto uses the word "non-profit" no fewer than 81 times. The task force led by the Liberal senator and former mayor sees non-profit housing providers as a model for Toronto Community Housing Corp., the city's massive public-housing authority. Sit in on a board meeting for one of them, and it's easy to see why.
The directors of the Moshav Orr Non-Profit Housing Corp. meet over bagels and coffee in the 133-unit building at Bathurst and Lawrence. Moshav Orr, which means place of gold in Hebrew, is in the heart of the city's Jewish community. Built in 1995, it is clean, neat and well maintained. The board runs a tight ship.
Chair David Barkin takes the volunteer directors briskly through the agenda, starting with a report by Lisa Lipowitz, who supervises management of the building. Moshav Orr enjoys full occupancy. Rent arrears, a problem in some low-income housing, is under control. The government-guaranteed mortgage has just been renewed for five years at 1 per cent.
There are the usual problems any landlord faces. An old part in one of the elevators needs replacing. The roof of the underground garage requires expensive repairs. A guest of one of the tenants flicked a cigarette into a recycling bin, starting a small fire that damaged the bin. The tenant is refusing to cover the cost so management is taking her to the Landlord and Tenant Board. Ms. Lipowitz says some tenants "make life interesting," but the majority are good people who play by the rules.
The directors gathered around the table with her include an accountant, a retired pharmacist, a former city planner and two guys in the property-management business. They know their stuff. What is more, they give a damn. "Our tenants are not just numbers," says Mr. Barkin, a property manager himself in his working life. "We take great pride in the building."
Places such as Moshav Orr, he says, can become vibrant communities because they house tenants of all sorts rather than grouping only the the poor or the disabled under one roof, as do some public-housing buildings. Forty of its tenants pay market rents and 93 get some kind of subsidy. That mix, along with the deft hands-on management such as Moshav Orr's, is what Eggleton's task force wants to see spread across the social-housing landscape. "The purpose of mixed-income housing is partly financial and partly social," the report says. "Having some tenants pay a market rent reduces the subsidy required from government to support operating costs. Mixed-income housing programs make buildings and the landlords that run them more financially sustainable over the long term. Mixed-income housing provides valuable social benefits, too, most importantly by reducing concentrated poverty."
The task force recommends that TCHC create "a new community-based non-profit housing corporation" that would "foster independence and a resident focus." TCHC would transfer properties to the new company or hand them to existing non-profits to manage.
By shifting to mixed housing, says the report, "We are suggesting that TCHC gradually move towards the same approach that is already operating in the more than 240 community-based non-profit housing providers across the city."
Non-profits get their taxes covered by the city and mortgages backed by the provincial government, but they manage themselves, so they're generally more flexible than a mammoth bureaucracy like TCHC.
"Now you have this big, giant authority, and I just think it's unmanageable," says Nancy Singer, a board member and executive director of Kehilla, a community non-profit that oversees Moshav Orr and a couple of other buildings. A non-profit, she says, can be "far more effective and more responsive to the tenants."
The city of Glasgow handed more than 80,000 city-owned public-housing units to a separate housing agency and a variety of smaller non-profits, the Eggleton report notes. British Columbia is transferring 8,000 public housing units to the non-profit sector. There are obvious snags. Some public housing in Toronto is so rundown that it's not practical to expect non-subsidized renters to move in. Many buildings would need major repairs before a non-profit could be expected to convert them to mixed housing. City Hall can't just say to the non-profits, "This is our headache, now you take it over," Mr. Barkin says.
Even so, giving non-profits a bigger role and emulating what they do makes good sense. A place such as Moshav Orr may be mostly social housing, but it doesn't feel like social housing. It feels like an ordinary apartment building, a home. That should be the city's goal for every building as it moves to transform its failing public housing agency.