Inside Toronto: TCH residents share stories of poor living conditions, safety problems

For about two months now, Ryan Elsherif, 11, has had to look at the world outside his Scarborough bedroom through a shattered window.

"We had to go out and buy a heater and it's still pretty cold at night," the boy said Tuesday as tenants of two public housing highrises invited reporters to see conditions there.

In Ryan's case, his bedroom carpet was a casualty of a flood that drove him out of the ground floor unit at 3171 Eglinton Ave. E. he shares with his mother, Lesley Schofield, for a week.

When the boy returned, he saw the window was broken.

Schofield said she's made five trips to the management office for the building but the window is still broken, parquet tiles near the apartment's kitchen are loose or missing, and radiator covers Schofield said must be replaced lie on the floor.

Management employees who visit, the part-time lunchroom supervisor charged, "just jot things in a book, and forget about it."

Toronto Council and Mayor Rob Ford this month dismissed the board of Toronto Community Housing - which owns the building and its neighbour, 3181 Eglinton - this month after an embarrassing audit of its spending practices.

Toronto ACORN, the tenant advocacy group which organized visits to both buildings this week, suggested the top-level upheaval at Toronto Community Housing (TCH) is for naught if it doesn't keep tenants like Ryan from living in "slum-like conditions."

Two city councillors who support the mayor's direction - they were new appointees to the board but resigned when Ford asked, said they're confident the "clean slate" will lead to a new focus on tenant concerns, though both acknowledged a backlog of building repairs won't disappear overnight.

Saying he recognizes TCH buildings are "at the lower end of the spectrum in maintenance and upkeep" in his Don Valley West ward and across the city, John Parker said tenants should greet the shakeup as good news, an admission "things do need to improve" and TCH resources should go where they're needed.

As a councillor, he said, Ford built a reputation as "a passionate fixer," visiting TCH buildings across the city. Parker said the mayor, who appointed former councillor Case Ootes to temporarily run the board by himself, now wants to take a fresh look at the board's composition and its priorities.

Frances Nunziata, said TCH tenants in her York South-Weston ward, "where the buildings are falling apart and really disgusting" are upset at examples of "frivolous" spending by the board.

"It's important that we regain the trust of the public," she said. "We have to clean house and in my opinion that's what we did, and what we're trying to do."

When appointed after a few months, Nunziata said, a new TCH board should focus on making improvements for tenants, particularly by investing in security at buildings that have had problems with crime.

Meanwhile, the union representing 375 city employees who work in the buildings said they would be better off under direct city management and "significant savings" can be had by ridding TCH of high-level positions and departments that already exist at city hall.

"Why would you need a treasurer (for TCH) when the City of Toronto already has a treasurer?" asked Ann Dembinski, president of CUPE Local 79, this week.

Front line city workers in the buildings have complained for years "the work load is absolutely through the roof" and members are sometimes assaulted, even injured, as they do their jobs, Dembinski said. "It happens enough that we're concerned."

Dembinski also said she hopes the sacking of the board will not be a signal to sell TCH properties off. "I don't think anybody should be making a profit off of anybody who is in desperate need of housing."

Scarborough-Rouge River Councillor Raymond Cho, another new appointee to the board but one who refused to resign until council ordered it, also said he's worried Ootes, while a one-man board, could seize the chance to privatize some buildings. "He could do practically anything," Cho warned.

Other tenants at Tuesday's ACORN event complained their buildings have poor air circulation and lack a working security system.

A woman named Seble, who said she's lived at 3171 Eglinton for five years said security is her most important issue. Her nine-year-old daughter sometimes can't sleep because of the shouting, she said. "She's always crying, 'Mommy, I want to move out from here.'"

As members of the building's cleaning staff looked on, ACORN members delivered a letter to management asking for work orders to be addressed and for a city audit of the buildings to be posted there.â?¨They invited Ford and Scarborough Southwest Councillor Gary Crawford to witness the event. Crawford said he couldn't attend but will meet with ACORN members and see what they have to show him.

Yesterday, Jeffrey Ferrier, a TCH spokesperson, said management of the buildings is contracted to a private company, but as owner TCH is responsible for seeing that company meets its obligations to tenants.

"I want to assure tenants that we are taking steps to make sure that (the company) responds to tenant repair requests in a timely way," Ferrier said in a statement, promising to send TCH staff to the buildings next Wednesday, March 23, from 4 to 6 p.m. to meet with tenants and respond to concerns.

"That includes reviewing outstanding work orders, inputting new repair requests into our computerized tracking system and making arrangements to inspect units of tenants who are unsatisfied with the current response," he added.

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