The Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) is back in news headlines. On Friday, Apr. 25, the resignation of TCHC chief executive Gene Jones was announced, in his absence, by the board of directors of the TCHC. This scandal at top levels of management comes just three years after a previous scandal led to a series of dismissals and resignations in 2011-2012.
The announcement came in response to condemnation of the conduct of Jones and other top level management by the Toronto ombudsman, Fiona Crean, whose job it is to investigate complaints into Toronto’s civil service. Crean had released a 111-page report titled “Unrule(y) Behaviour”.
In the report she outlined evidence of arbitrary hiring and promoting of individuals, creating jobs without job descriptions, unjustified raises and ignoring of conflicts of interest in hiring by TCHC management. Crean reported that top management had created a “climate of fear” by carrying out reckless and impulsive firing and unilaterally changing employment agreement.
In less than 18 months since Jones took control, some 88 staff left the TCHC, most of them due to firings. Crean asserted that Jones and other top management ran the TCHC “like their own personal fiefdom”.
Jones’ departure is the third CEO of the TCHC to resign or to have been fired since the founding of the public housing corporation in 2002. Gene Jones was appointed in 2012 as the CEO of the city-owned housing provider which is the largest operator of housing units in the city of Toronto with some 58,500 units. It houses more than 164,000 people, often from the poorest and most vulnerable strata of society.
2011 scandal; Gravy Train at TCHC
Jones’ appointment came in the aftermath of a scandal in 2011 under then-chief executive Kieko Nakamura. Reports of staff Christmas parties costing $53,000, and thousands of dollars spent on cruises, manicures, and luxury chocolates created an uproar particularly as the conditions of housing units of the TCHC were widely known to be in decay and crisis.
The obscenity of such “expense” spending by TCHC management, many of whom were already on Ontario’s Sunshine List (public-sector employees making over $100,000), while overseeing a public housing stock facing $650-million in repair backlogs (which has increased rapidly since) angered much of the public, particularly public housing tenants.
It should be remembered that it was under Nakamura that reports revealed that the TCHC was evicting large numbers of vulnerable seniors. Often these evictions occurred on the basis of technicalities and late paperwork. The result of this cruel policy was tragically brought into public attention in 2009 with the death of 82-year old Al Gosling. He died of sickness contracted after becoming evicted due to late paperwork and thrown out onto the streets.
Rob Ford seized on the scandal to attack the “gravy train” at TCHC and to reinforce his attacks on the public sector. Nakamura and the entire TCHC board, which had been appointed under the “left-leaning” David Miller mayoralty, were fired. Rob Ford announced the need for a “fresh start” at the TCHC and began to openly promote privatization of city-owned public housing as the solution.
Rob Ford “cleans house”
Rob Ford appointed the right-wing Case Ootes, deputy mayor under Mel Lastman, as managing director of TCHC in 2011 “to clean up the mess” and to transition towards a new chief executive and board of directors. Under Ootes, the sale of TCHC-owned detached homes began which included a proposal to sell some 900 units as a means to finance repairs.
Critics pointed out the obvious fact that a strategy of selling off units as a means of repairing other units was simply unsustainable. Furthermore, it would only antagonize the crisis-level shortage of affordable housing in Toronto and would contribute to the 15-year long TCHC waiting list.
Only the significant mobilization of tenants, as part of the broad movement including trade unions, student organizations, and women’s groups during 2011-2012, led to a retreat from a full-blown privatization agenda by the Rob Ford regime.
Ootes also saw the transition to a new board of directors that replaced him in 2012. The new appointees onto the board of directors were all connected to big business interests. They largely came from the banking, real estate, and private development sectors.
It was this board, mainly made up of bankers and lawyers appointed by the “Ford camp”, that appointed Gene Jones to the TCHC chief executive in 2012. Jones was lauded for his street smarts and toughness during his previous role as director of the Detroit Housing Agency. He was known for donning a bullet-proof vest and directing police squads during raids on housing projects.
Gene Jones’ “fiefdom”
Gene Jones quickly began clearing the entrenched bureaucracy at the TCHC, and replacing them with new layers (including Rob Ford allies). The report that was released clearly shows a policy by the Jones regime of nepotism and favouritism on the one hand, and rapid dismissals of those who disagreed. Indeed, Jones even imposed a policy where TCHC staff could not speak with city councillors. Councillors would have to communicate through someone directly assigned by Jones in regards to their concerns.
This created a conflict between different layers of the TCHC bureaucracy. The old guard were trying to hold onto their jobs and privileges, while a new layer of bureaucrats linked to Rob Ford were intent on pushing them aside. The latter were no less interested in cushy jobs and the privileges of running the public housing provider.
Meanwhile the TCHC continued its plunge into disrepair and evictions continued. The gradual process of privatization (termed “revitalization”) with the demolishing of Regent Park, Alexandra Park, and Lawrence Heights neighbourhoods continued.
This unelected and unaccountable TCHC bureaucracy, whether linked to the old “left” David Miller administration or the new Rob Ford administration, carried out a similar policy of neglecting the interests of tenants and allowing the TCHC to fall into squalor. Meanwhile, they promoted privatization and rewarded themselves with privileges and perks.
Inefficiency & nepotism in public corporations
The rhetoric of inefficiency, bloated salaries, and corruption in relation to public services and nationalized companies has been part of a general right-wing ideological assault. It is used to justify cutting and privatizing public services and to attack unionized public sector workers. Rob Ford’s “gravy train” rhetoric is simply one variant on this.
The reality however is that the actual gravy train was the non-unionized managerial bureaucracy at TCHC making six-figure salaries. The enormous perks and nepotism define the top layers of management, a layer that is embedded with and loyal to capitalism. There was no such perks and privileges for the workers at TCHC, and certainly no such benefits existed for the tenants who live in underfunded and often squalid housing.
That is why after Rob Ford’s purging of the TCHC, nothing fundamental changed as the recent scandal has exposed. Rob Ford simply replaced one layer of unelected and overpaid bureaucrats with another. He therefore maintained and is responsible for these very bureaucratic excesses and inefficient spending at the TCHC by keeping intact the fundamental managerial structure.
However, it is the workers (often unionized) and those who depend on public services who are the ones scapegoated in this demonization of public services and public corporations. The right-wing politicians are hypocritically using excesses of management in the public sector to justify handing over public companies – in this case public housing — to their friends, the private profiteers on Bay Street.
Sweep the bureaucrats out; for tenants’ democratic control of housing!
The bureaucracy must certainly be swept out. There is a clear discontent and anger by tenants about the disgusting manner in which public housing is being run. At the time of the 2011 scandal,Fightback advocated throwing out the TCHC management, but instead of privatization or a new set of bureaucrats, to replace it with democratic control of workers/tenants/community.
All individuals in management positions should be directly elected by public housing tenants and workers at the housing provider, and that all such positions should be subject to immediate recall. Furthermore, the wages should reflect those of their electors, and not exceed those of an average wage of a skilled worker.
Additionally, all the books, finances, and dealings should be made completely open to the public (including the details of the public-private partnerships). Such measures would represent an enormous stride in creating accountability where it clearly does not exist under a non-elected management.
Instead of lawyers, bankers, and career politicians, direct representatives from the ranks of the working class and other vulnerable layers who live in public housing should run the TCHC. These people would have an interest in dealing with corrupt dealings and bloated salaries, as it is their rent that gets hiked and their units that remain unrepaired. Furthermore, the people with the best knowledge of problems and conditions of public housing are those who daily live there or help maintain it.
However, this in itself would not be enough. The TCHC has chronically been underfunded and effectively sabotaged to the point where there is a crisis in public housing. Democratic control must also be coupled a program of massive expenditure both into existing housing and to expand the housing stock.
The real scandal — public housing driven into the ground
Outside of the current scandal, the condition at TCHC are of an ever-worsening crisis. The repair backlog has reached $860-million. This means that many residents are forced to live in criminal conditions, with pest infestation and dilapidated buildings, and are often forced to pay out of pocket for repairs.
The wait-list for Rent-Geared-To-Income (RGI) apartments has reached a record of 91,413 waiting for such rent arrangements (where the tenant would pay no more than 30% of income in rent). This waiting-list is beginning to approach 20 years. In a context of rising unemployment and austerity cuts, access to affordable rents are needed more than ever but have never been less accessible.
Rents have constantly increased in public housing as well. Many of the units in the TCHC are set at “market rates” as the number of RGI subsidies have steadily declined (as the massive waiting list attests to). Given the general skyrocketing cost of rents in the city of Toronto, market rates at TCHC have constantly increased to match that. At this point, a single-bedroom public housing unit in the downtown often will go for more than $1,100/month.
It is no wonder that crime and violence is increasing in such low-income neighbourhoods. A 2012 report by the Toronto Police Services Board showed that more than 25% of shooting and 20% of murder occur on, or near, TCHC property. This displays the degree of desperation in these communities, especially among the youth.
Unfortunately, the only response is more brutal (and discriminatory) policing methods and stricter sentencing provisions. Nobody is prepared to fund public housing, and every month new cuts are being announced further driving these communities into poverty. None of the players at City Hall or at the TCHC have any intention of carrying a program of funding public housing, repairing units, providing much-needed subsidies and expanding the housing to meet social need. This includes the “Ford camp”, the liberal councillors, and the left/NDP councillors.
What is needed a program of massive investment into public housing so that all who are in need of affordable rents can get quality units with little delay. This would serve to create hundreds of thousands of well-paying unionized jobs in construction and maintenance, serving as a step to addressing the depression-level unemployment among youth. However, such a measure would require billions of spending into repairing existing stock and building new units in Toronto alone.
Fortunately the wealth does exist in Canadian society. A recent report showed that 86 of the wealthiest Canadians had more wealth than a third of the population, or 11.4-million Canadians. By breaking from capitalism, which protects the obscene riches of a tiny minority in society, the crisis of housing could be solved. A socialist society, by expropriating the capitalists who make up less than 1% of Canadian society, would be able to fund an enormous program of investment into not just housing, but into childcare, schools, health, and recreational services.
Is kicking out Gene Jones going to solve anything?
Rob Ford has responded with angry attacks on the board of directors for removing Jones, calling it “one of the worst days in Toronto’s history”, and asking that the ombudsman resign. He has committed to re-hiring Jones if elected in October.
After announcing the exit of Gene Jones from the TCHC, the board of directors announced the appointment of Greg Spearn as chief executive. Spearn was already on top management as Chief Development Officer at TCHC (and took home $189,322 in 2013). His background was private real estate and development, including working on condo developments on Toronto’s waterfront. This board of bankers, condo developers and lawyers have simply appointed one of their own at the helm of the TCHC.
During the past two years at TCHC, Spearn spearheaded the Alexandra Park “revitalization” project. Significant sections of the public housing have already been demolished as part of the first phase. Tridel will be building condos on this lucrative property (at Queen and Spadina) as part of this TCHC public-private partnership. Tridel is the largest builder of private condominiums in the Toronto area.
Some on the left, including NDP-associated city councillors, have seen the booting out of Gene Jones as a victory. Nothing could be further from the truth. The board of directors which has pushed Jones out is the very same board put in place by the Ford camp!
The reality is, the actions of the board of directors represents the backstabbing by this layer of Bay Street representatives of Rob Ford and his man at the TCHC. Over the past year it has become clear that Bay Street has seen Rob Ford as a liability, in no small part because of his buffoonery. They see Ford as too incompetent to carry out their policies at City Hall.
For working-class people, this scandal represents infighting among our enemies. Privatization and chronic underfunding will continue at the TCHC without Jones. All that it displays, along with the previous scandals, is the significant corruption, nepotism and hypocrisy among politicians and the upper echelons of the civil bureaucracy.
We do not choose one group of self-serving bureaucrats committed to privatization over another group with identical intentions. We oppose both camps and instead fight to institute a system directly controlled by and run for the interests of working-class people.
Sweep the bureaucrats out!
For democratic control and management by tenants and workers!
For a program of massive investment and expansion of public housing!