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Toronto deputy mayor Ana Bailao says selling units owned by Toronto Community Housing Corp., such as this one, will strengthen the city’s non-profit housing sector and allow the TCHC to focus on larger complexes.Chris Young

Toronto city council is looking to sell almost 800 residential homes and rooming houses owned by Toronto Community Housing Corp. to buyers who will keep the units as affordable housing.

While the Rob Ford administration pushed hard to sell these dwellings in 2011 to private investors for an estimated $336-million windfall, this latest move aims to shift the ownership of the city's "scattered housing" stock to non-profit housing co-ops, community land trusts and non-profit housing agencies. When the portfolio of houses was first assembled in the 1970s, the policy reflected the city's desire to foster mixed-income communities, allowing the tenants of subsidized housing to rent in middle-class neighbourhoods as an alternative to the concentrated poverty in large subsidized housing complexes.

Under the "Tenants First" policy adopted by council, city officials will begin seeking prospective purchasers who will guarantee to keep the units in the city's affordable-housing stock in perpetuity.

There are almost 150 housing co-ops in Toronto, city housing staff say, as well as numerous non-profit social-service agencies that offer housing, such as Woodgreen Community Services, as well as a few community land trusts in areas including Kensington Market and Parkdale.

Last week, council also voted to spend $179-million over three years on nine new shelter complexes with 1,000 new permanent beds in response to this winter's homelessness crisis.

Deputy mayor Ana Bailao said selling the units will strengthen the city's non-profit housing sector and allows TCHC, which has long chafed at the cost associated with maintaining these dwellings, to focus on its larger complexes. "We know there are other non-profits and co-ops with those assets that can provide a higher quality of service," she said. TCHC officials declined to comment, deferring questions to the city.

TCHC, which operates 350 buildings, has about 110,000 tenants, but fewer than 2 per cent currently live in the scattered portfolio.

The portfolio consists of 48 large and small rooming houses, as well as 660 single-family dwellings. Combined, these dwellings contain 1,170 units. The single-family homes currently house 2,029 people, including many larger families. Twenty-two of the rooming houses will be transformed into supportive housing complexes with a total of 204 units.

Ms. Bailao said the transfer won't have an impact on those families whose names are on the lengthy waiting list for subsidized housing. When filling vacancies, she said, the new operators will still have to go through the city's centralized list.

The financial aspects of the deal are fuzzier. The city currently allocates $850,000 a year to TCHC to subsidize the operations of the 1,170 units, and has a $33.9-million maintenance liability on its books. Council allocates $6-million annually for repairs.

Yet it's not clear who will pay for the needed work after these properties change hands. Whether the non-profit agencies and land trusts have the capacity to pay for that upkeep remains to be seen. "We'll be working with the new agencies" on who foots that bill, Ms. Bailao said.

The mere fact that public housing agencies once saw fit to invest in residential real estate seems almost beyond belief at a time when even tiny and wretchedly rundown houses readily fetch $800,000 or more.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation, based on average real estate prices, suggests the city could reap a net windfall in the hundreds of millions.

Yet the size of the potential windfall, said Chris Brillinger, the city's executive director of social development, finance and administration, "is not that clear and there are assumptions that the market for those properties will provide enough for [their] replacement."

The mere existence of these dwellings raises an uncomfortable question that many Toronto homeowners and politicians would prefer to avoid: Why shouldn't lower-income families live in single-family homes in desirable neighbourhoods with well-tended parks and high-performing schools?

In U.S. cities such as Dallas, Houston and Chicago, public housing agencies began, in the late 1960s, to buy single-family homes in response to court rulings as well as federal policies that sought to disperse low-income families rather than concentrate them in large and notorious public-housing projects.

In some regions, the move to scattered housing generated a sharp and often racially motivated backlash among homeowners fearful of crime spikes.

Though some Toronto social-housing complexes saw elevated levels of crime, none saw the degree of deterioration and violence that drove many American housing authorities to demolish projects such as Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes. TCHC and its pre-amalgamation predecessor housing companies, in turn, made only modest investments in scattered housing.

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