June 6 2013
Paul Moloney and David Rider
Toronto’s social housing provider is being urged to make changes to halt its “shameful” treatment of senior citizens who fall behind on their rent.
Councillor Josh Matlow, chair of the seniors strategy subcommittee, wants Toronto Community Housing Corp. to implement changes recommended by ombudsman Fiona Crean and confirm those reforms to city council.
As the Star reported Thursday, Crean found the TCHC is needlessly evicting senior citizens despite promises made after the agency changed the locks on Al Gosling in 2009 following a series of notices. The frail, vulnerable 82-year-old slept in the stairwell and died from an infection he picked up in a shelter.
After an ensuing judicial inquiry, TCHC adopted policies making eviction a last resort and requiring three points of personal contact during the eviction process — rules sometimes ignored, according to Crean’s review of 79 evictions of seniors in 2011 and 2012.
“It’s unacceptable that a senior would be evicted due to arrears without any proactive steps taken, without working with them on a realistic repayment plan, and considering their individual needs,” Matlow said, calling examples cited by Crean “shameful.”
“As we’ve seen from Mr. B. who was cited, it ended in tragedy.”
That tenant, who is not identified, saw arrears grow through 2009 and 2010, with no effort by TCHC to seek a repayment plan. Mr. B. was evicted last year, owing nearly $10,000, and died of a heart attack three weeks later.
“Although TCHC staff knew about Mr. B’s death by March 29, collection letters continued to be mailed until late October, 2012,” says Crean’s 109-page report, Housing at Risk.
Crean found that, following bad publicity after Gosling’s death, TCHC instituted a near-freeze on evicting tenants for arrears. That, however, caused a surge in the number of people behind on rent.
“When the pendulum swung back, and TCHC began to vigorously enforce payment of rent arrears, many tenants were faced with insurmountable bills that had accumulated, sometimes over years,” the report said.
The ombudsman acknowledged the TCHC had been under a lot of pressure. Since retired judge Patrick LeSage’s May 2010 report into the problems exposed by Gosling’s death, TCHC has gone through three chief executives, a new board, a critical auditor-general’s report, and a major fire at its 200 Wellesley St. property.
“This cannot, however, excuse the impact of TCHC’s actions on vulnerable seniors,” the report said. “The general approach to seniors who fall into arrears is too often harsh and unthinking.”
In a statement, TCHC chief executive Gene Jones said he has accepted all of Crean’s recommendations. While working hard to become a “landlord of excellence,” he said, “we are not where we should be in implementing the LeSage Report.”
“To our vulnerable seniors, and indeed all residents of Toronto Community Housing, I say this: While we are not the company we were a year ago, clearly there is more that we have to do to re-earn your trust.”
That, however, does not mean TCHC will not evict seniors, he told reporters.
“We’re going to evict for non-payment of rent, but we’re going to do it humanely. The last thing we want to do is evict someone, but we do have to collect the rent,” he said. Making contact is a “complex issue, he said.
“You call, residents don’t pick up the phone. We try to track them down, they don’t respond. We go to the door, they don’t respond.”
The TCHC has 26,800 tenants who are seniors, with more than 6,500 being over 80 years old; most require rent subsidies.
In the days before the release of the report, Mayor Rob Ford visited TCHC tenants with a reporter in tow and held a news conference to say the agency’s “house is back in order and we’re taking care of the most vulnerable people in the city.”
But late Thursday afternoon, the mayor had little to say about the report that was released publicly at 9 a.m. and provided to TCHC last week.
“I’m pretty floored by some of the stuff I have read in that report,” Ford said, adding he wouldn’t comment further until he has spoken to Jones.
Councillor Adam Vaughan, who has a number of TCHC buildings in his ward, said rent-collection procedures were ignored while Ford focused on visiting individual buildings and ordering repairs as TV cameras rolled.
“He can go and scream about all the holes in the walls and cracks in the ceiling he wants, he’s not getting the job done,” said Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina).
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