According to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” security and shelter rank second only to basic physiological needs as the most vital requisites for human survival. There is significance to Maslow’s approach, since it is still telling today. Community health literature maintains that access to secure, adequate, and affordable housing is a key social determinant of community health. However, for those suffering from mental illness and addiction, accessing adequate affordable housing is even more crucial because it sets the basis for their recovery and re-integration as healthy and productive community members.
In Canada, affordable housing is offered through a patchwork of programs, by independent agencies as well as municipal corporations. The Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) is the largest housing provider in Canada and the second largest residential landlord in North America. TCHC manages some 60,000 units over more than 2,200 apartments in 350 communities peppered throughout every single Toronto ward. Of those living in TCHC housing, it is estimated that 24,700 residents are experiencing mental health and addition issues. In 2008, TCHC formally set out goals for its Mental Health Framework. Nearly eight years later, TCHC struggles to foster an environment that supports recovery and health for its most vulnerable tenants. Faced with an enormous backlog of housing ‘state-of-good-repairs’, a mounting budget deficit, high crime rates, and a housing transfer waiting list that often spans more than a decade, it is no wonder that TCHC struggles to provide essential housing services tailored to those with distinct and critical needs, like mental health.
The behemoth that is now TCHC was born in 2002 following the forced amalgamation of several pre-existing housing entities. The perverse consequence of this amalgamation was that now the infant municipality of Toronto was granted increased responsibility for the provision of social housing, while maintaining very limited tools to raise revenue. The granting of increased powers from the province to the City of Toronto in the provision of housing services came without a proportional increase in revenue raising tools or provincial funding. The City relies primarily on property taxes to fund their programs. The poor state of repair common of TCHC properties is the result of Toronto having a larger share of social housing than most GTA municipalities and insufficient revenue raising tools. Currently, Canada is one of the only countries in the world that lacks a national housing strategy. Without the coordination between levels of government and service providers afforded by such a policy, decision makers remain largely crisis-focused and reactive in their provision of housing services. This results in policy that mitigates rather than abates the causes of the governance issues at hand. Consequently, social housing policy is implemented with little capacity to meet the specific support and housing needs of people suffering from mental illness and addiction.
Three issues can help explain TCHC’s shortfall in providing services to tenants with mental health problems. First, there is a leadership deficit within the TCHC and at City Council due to misconduct of individual actors and the TCHC board design. TCHC has seen high staff turnover rates in addition to high-level dismissals. In addition to these challenges, there are minimal links to elected officials. Currently Ward 18 Councillor Ana Bailao serves as Chair of the Affordable Housing Committee. Unlike the high profile and influential role of the TTC Chair, Councillor Bailao’s relationship with the TCHC Board is one more of symbolic advocacy than concerted action, since she does not chair the TCHC Board meetings. Appointing a City Councillor to chair TCHC Board meetings could potentially diminish the leadership deficit by increasing the Board’s profile through the appointment of an elected representative. The recent Mayor’s Taskforce on Toronto Community Housing has attempted to fill this leadership gap. The Taskforce, however, remains a non-permanent body that can only publish a series of non-binding policy recommendations. With minimal council input and guidelines, there’s little incentive to improve TCHC programs for those residents experiencing mental health challenges.
The second issue is endemic to Canadian municipalities: lack of funding. Of the $2.6 billion needed for capital repairs alone, TCHC has only secured $900 million from the City of Toronto for its 10-year Capital Financing Plan, leaving a $1.73 billion backlog. The funding plan proposes that each level of government contribute a third of the amount. Currently, neither provincial nor federal governments have agreed to the City’s request. Grave underfunding to meet capital repairs means that even less can be allotted to programs geared to tenants with mental health needs. Consequently, TCHC tends to cluster those with mental illness in specific buildings, further segregating them from their communities and further exposing the shortfalls of TCHC’s mental health framework. The implementation of policy to secure funding streams to municipalities through a national housing strategy, or the granting of increased municipal revenue raising powers, would help to ensure municipalities are not left strapped for cash while harbouring the brunt of responsibility in policy execution.
The third issue concerns the classification of tenants with mental health needs on the TCHC’s housing transfer waiting list. TCHC tenants who wish to move units must apply to be transferred through Housing Connections. Currently, the average tenant will wait up to a decade for a housing transfer, with tenants qualifying for “priority” status waiting upwards of five years. The City of Toronto’s “priority” status does not include any mention of tenants with mental health needs; priority status is only granted to those tenants who are in abusive situations, experiencing serious medical circumstances, or are in units that are over-housed. The lack of mental health sensitivity in the transfer requests seems to discount the severity of mental health issues. The Interim Report of the Mayor’s Task Force, published in July 2015, makes no mention of granting mental health tenants priority status, although it did reiterate the importance of providing coordinated services to tenants with mental health needs.
Although the TCHC Board and City Council view housing as a hot-button issue, the problem cannot be addressed without cooperation from all government levels. Without secure funding, consistent and effective leadership, and an amendment to the “priority” status waiting list definition, TCHC will continue to fall short of implementing its Mental Health Framework to meet the urgent needs of its most vulnerable tenants.
Celine Caira is a student at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto. Celine holds a Bachelor’s degree Honours Political Science, Minor Economics and French Language and Literature from McGill University. Her academic and career oriented interests are improving intergovernmental relations with municipalities, the municipal infrastructure deficit, and housing and transit policy.