A Perspective on 291 George Street

The Toronto Community Housing Corporation ( TCHC ) building at 291 George street has been discussed in the media lately. It is hailed as an example of a "turnaround"; as a building that was a hell a few years ago and is now a heaven. This is attributed in different sources to an exceptional building superintendent, or to extra money and resources committed to the building by social agencies, especially the "Local Health Integration Network".

I have something to say about this. I moved into that building twenty years ago. It was as bad then as it was at any time. I lived there for nine years. I have been away from it for eleven years. I have been periodically in contact with people who continued to live there. I think my experiences, and what I have to say, are still relevant.

I am still troubled by my experiences there. I tried and I tried to improve things in the building. I was even the "tenant representative" for awhile. I was attacked and attacked by those who should have been supporting me, and I was completely isolated. Eventually my attackers went too far, they tried to railroad me with false charges, it partly backfired on them, and they were forced to move me to the building of my choice.

the housing cult

I am still in my chosen TCHC building in a neighborhood I have grown to love. I am a lot happier here although I still suffer harassment when I object to TCHC's mismanagement and its suppression of its tenants. The difference here is that I can get a few people on my side. As well, the building is within a strong community, with a strong neighborhood association which knows how to stand up to TCHC bullying.

As I have informed successive inquiries into TCHC, including Mayor Tory's recent one, TCHC basically operates like a police state. It is hopeless at managing housing but that does not seem to matter. It is a bureaucracy which sees its number one job is to preserve its power.

The core of this bureaucracy is so devoted to preserving and expanding their model of social housing that they are like a "true believer" cult. One manager I talked to even described it as the "housing cult". When I spoke with TCHC chief operations officer Gene Jones, he fully agreed that there was a kind of housing cult in operation. This was just before the cult's allies on city council and in the city housing department drove him out of his job.

Toward preserving its power, TCHC strictly controls its tenants and seeks to manage public perceptions of itself. Because it cannot tolerate any criticism, its culture is out of touch with reality. Its management practice is counterfactual, ideological, irresponsible and stupid.

bad neighbors

That is what the real problem has been with 291 George street. That and the fact that it sits in probably the worst neighborhood in the city, an area nobody gives a damn about. The media has noted that Filmore's hotel is on one side of the building. This establishment is actually little problem to the surrounding area. Its proprietors know how to run a strip joint that does not make problems in the neighborhood and thus stays in business.

The Seaton house hostel on the other side of 291 George was more of a local problem. "Was", because it is being redeveloped to be transitional housing according to a more enlightened approach to managing the homelessness problem than massive hostels. But when I lived at 291 George, we were more of a problem for Seaton house than the other way around. The idiocy of TCHC management made the job of the Seaton house staff much harder and more dangerous.

It was like this; most of the residents of Seaton house were drug addicts. They got their supply on the street in front of Seaton and 291 George. But the dealers needed someplace nearby to work from; to store their wares and to get out of the cold and rain.

When the "straight" residents were lucky, and the dealers had themselves well organized, they had runners go in and out of the building. If things were not going well, the users would start coming into the building and soon they were camped out in the stairwells or inside the "spots"; the suites the dealers had taken over.

TCHC made it very easy for dealers to get "spots" in 291 George street. Where these people got some of their ridiculous ideas, I cannot say. But the first and worst of these ideas was that they have a "mandate" to "house" everybody. They also had a "mandate" as landlords not to tolerate antisocial behavior and illegal businesses among its tenants, but they were not interested in that one.

The line used to justify renting to known drug dealers was "yes, there are people who make a living selling drugs and some of them live near you and they have the right to a home". But just as irresponsible is putting simple drug addicts into the building. The dealer then owns them and their suite; they turn over their "smart keys" or; "okay, see you on the street".

TCHC did this partly because they were always under political pressure from the more doctrinaire "left" city councilors to get "hard to house" people in off the streets. So, room had to be found for violent schizophrenics, "terrorizers", people with a history of starting fires, and known drug dealers. Add to this numerous drug addicts, and other people who were passive but had mental or physical problems making them easy to victimize.

bad attitudes

They had to be put somewhere so they were put into 291 George street, because there was no strong community organizations around it. As well, the local police division was highly dysfunctional, full of cops with ideas as strange as those of the TCHC cult; basically, they were contemptuous of the people they were supposed to protect, thought they knew better than the laws they were supposed to enforce, and if they were not allowed to do what they wanted, they were not going to do anything.

In attempting to get service from the police, I have had sentiments to the effect of "get a job and get out of there, you welfare bum" thrown at me. Worse, I have had these cops make animal noises at me over the phone, as well as various threats. Most people in the building were afraid to call the cops, no matter how desperate. Many kept trying to get me to call for them.

Of course, not many maintenance staff of TCHC wanted to work in such an environment, so the worst they had were sent to 291 George street. There was no supervision over them at all, and any complaint about them was sent right back to them for retaliatory measures. Any attempt to move the complaint higher up the pyramid ran into another weird TCHC idea; they can't hear anything about even criminal behavior in its employees because the union would be upset.

There was a series of bad superintendents during the building's history, but probably the most damaging was one who ran the building during most of my stay there. He was a crack addict. TCHC knew he was an addict; they sent him for addiction treatment but he refused to cooperate. He continued to have control of issuing the smart keys, and of the tapes for all the CCTV cameras. I am not even sure what his real name is; he seemed to have several.

This superintendent shook down the tenants for everything. People had to pay to get repairs. A majority of the suites in the building were occupied by recent immigrants, who did not know their rights and were afraid to speak out. Many suites were illegally sublet to people who were in the country illegally. The Super got a big cut out of all of them.

The best example of the fecklessness of TCHC management was when a wave of car vandalizing swept the underground parking garage. It ended TCHCs revenue source from renting parking space. TCHC hid the problem from the police and tried to investigate it themselves.

They could not understand why the crimes were happening in front of the CCTV cameras but there was nothing on the tape. Everyone in the building knew why and it did not take a Sherlock Holmes to explain it. The tapes were being erased and there was one person with access to the CCTV controls, to erase them. The motive was that this super had decided that managing TCHC's rental parking business was too much headache.

petty tyranny

The Super Duper's downfall was when he started getting interested in married women in the building. The Moslem immigrants in particular did not like that. By that time there was at least a security office at TCHC and it was possible to get through to somebody that if Duper-Doper was not removed from the building he was going to be killed.

However, this sent the union and the housing cult into conniptions and soon Super-Doper was back again, defiant and threatening everyone in sight. He boasted of connections with the dealers on the street and that he could have anyone killed who crossed him.

But by this time we had a private security firm in the building for awhile. They were soon curious as to why all these drug runners had "blank" smart keys, which only the building superintendent could create in the electronic door key system. Soon the Super was gone again, and barred from coming to the building. He came anyway, to get his drugs and visit his lady friend.

The third time Super-Duper came back he colluded with the TCHC management and some police punks from the division to get me arrested for kicking a dent in his van. There was no photograph of the dent and no body shop bill, and no witnesses. Nonetheless I was in jail overnight. Afterward, it was impossible to find a legal aid lawyer who would follow directions. The criminal case ended in a kind of stalemate where it was impossible to get a trial or the charges dropped. This erased any remaining confidence I had in the justice system of this country.

The Super-Duper seemed to have an obsession about me, although by that time I was tired of being the mouse to put the bell on the cat. I do not know why the other residents thought I was supposed to be their savior if they were not willing to come with me to the police station and make a joint report.

the freeze

The TCHC cult also had an obsession with me. It started in my first years at 291 George, when I forced them to replace the bar coolers with proper refrigerators. This was when it was still possible to make repairs to your unit and deduct it from your rent. I bought my own fridge and charged it to MTHCL, the legacy organization to TCHC, which promptly tried to evict me.

The judge at the old Landlord and Tenant court was amazed that bar coolers were used in place of full fridges in an apartment building. MTHCL insisted there was no room in the suites for fridges. I got hold of a plan for the building which showed that the kitchenettes had originally been designed for full fridges. My own fridge fit perfectly into that space.

Now the housing cult felt it had to install full fridges in the whole building. I had to give up my own fridge, which was better than the cheap jobs they installed. For awhile I was popular in the building with most people, except the superintendent. But this was the beginning of the campaign to drive me out, which had a considerable effect on my health and well being.

the frameup

The local police union did not like me either. I think that had much to do with successfully suing one of them for wrongful arrest. They also did not like the report I sent to them after the Super Duper had returned for the third time. They seemed to interpret it as me threatening "violence" against Duper. All I did was report the facts; the Moslems in the building were going to supply the violence if Duper was not removed.

I later heard that this was indeed the case. Plans were afoot to do something extreme about the Super Superintendent. These people were also indignant about the claim that I had kicked his van; no one saw any dents on it. It was whispered in my ear that there were going to be "132 dents in his head".

But Super's head was moved out of the building again, and as far as I have heard, has never been seen there again. I am glad it did not have to come down to vigilantism, putting someone at risk of a long jail term. But I ask why it all had to come so close to that.

However, after years of being blackballed by the "housing connections" system, prevented from moving to a healthier and happier venue, the whole TCHC portfolio was thrown open to me. They had no choice; they dared not be seen as colluding in getting me arrested.

As one sagacious neighbor said to me; " for each of us, the bullshit here will end when we finally move out". I had finally moved out and moved on.

word from afar

But many of the people I dealt with were still there. A few years later I ran into one on the street, who had been angry with me when I was there. Now he was apologetic. He now thought I had shown a lot of courage in standing up to TCHC. This Moslem group had been trying to get itself organized for several years now, to deal with the drug traffic and victimization going on at 291, and.." every time, they crush us".

As recently as three years ago, I chanced to meet on a streetcar a TCHC employee who had been superintendent of my new building for awhile, and a good one. I learned he had spent some time working at 291 George and understood what I had to say about it. He agreed with me that the situation was hopeless as long as TCHC continued using that building as the dump ground for all the hard cases they are being forced to take in.

He told me that TCHC's latest idea for curing the perpetual open sore of 291 George street was to transfer it to a private management company. That did not work out either.

what's happening now?

So what is going on at 291 George street now? It has been cleaned up before, only to revert again. This three year span seems to coincide with Gene Jones becoming TCHC chief. One of his principles was zero tolerance for drug dealing and anti-social behavior. But a more important one may have been cooperation with the police.

Since my time at 291 George, the city police has been considerably reformed. The local division especially has been cleaned up, as far as you can clean up an organization in which no one can be fired. This was what was really missing during my time at 291; police willing to do their jobs.

The dynamic between the police and the TCHC cult over 291 George had been that the latter had the idea that the former should post cops right in the building, round the clock. Needless to say, that did not go over well with the division. But the response should have been to work with the regular residents to apply pressure to TCHC, not the throw up hands, "so fuck it", juvenile irresponsibility of those police.

I no longer have any inside knowledge of matters at 291 George street, but I think I can make a good analysis of what is behind this improvement. It is not from getting a saint for a superintendent. We had a few good people work as superintendents when I was there. They did not last long. One was harassed right out of the building. Throwing money at a building will not solve anything either, if the underlying problem of incompetent management is not dealt with.

I suspect that the main cause of the 291 George turnaround is the change in the attitude of the local police. In the absence of any other any other pressure on TCHC against using certain buildings as dump grounds, the police had to step up to it. The local community association was always useless; it kept telling the 291 George tenants to "get organized".

291 George will remain a decent place as long as a firm and steady pressure can be maintained on the housing cult.

before my time

But the building has always been a misfortunate child.

The neighborhood was being "improved" around 1984 when the old Filmore's Hotel, a "heritage building", was bought up and turned into an "adult pleasure palace". This was not the kind of improvement the local busybodies wanted. They were even less pleased by the 'singles hotel' which began to be built at 291 George. It was feared that this would be a 'hooker hotel' connected with Filmore's.

The precise origin of the 291 George building is difficult to pin down. The several housing authorities which have subsequently managed it do not divulge much information about this very delicate subject. It is thought that the building was owned and contracted for by the people who owned and developed Filmore's.

The construction company which built it was Tornat. It subsequently built much of the social housing put up during the building program which ended in 1995 when the Harris government began. Tornat then went dormant.

22 deputations were made to the development appeal board of the time against the building's construction. The board noted that most of these appeals used identical language and dismissed the appeals. The layout of the finished building and the original blueprint are slightly different, but they do not suggest the building was intended as a hooker hotel. For one thing, you would not want a five story, 132 room bordello with only one elevator.

However, with construction of the building almost complete, money ran out. The building sat unfinished for some time.

Yet at that time, there was considered to be a severe shortage of housing units for single people with limited incomes, especially in that neighborhood. "Toronto Singles Housing" (TSH) was incorporated by the old Metro Toronto Housing Company Limited (MTHCL), specifically to run 291 George.

The aim of TSH was to create a pilot project for a non profit singles housing project. This was considered a radical idea at the time. Non profit housing was only for families with children, especially single mothers. Single people who found themselves homeless were supposed to go into hostels like Seaton house until they found work and then found private accommodations.

But for various reasons the private market was not providing enough cheap singles housing by 1985. So a mortgage was obtained from Canada Mortgage and Housing, the building was bought from Tornat, and completed. The first tenants moved in over Christmas of 1985.

The idea was to attract a significant number of market rental tenants to the building so as to pay for the subsidized units. But they never could find many people interested in paying market rent for these badly constructed suites.

The building itself is not too bad. It was solidly built, with strong and thick walls, and the heat, sewage, and water systems have worked well over the years despite being overloaded by coming to serve many more people than the building was designed to hold. And, despite years of very bad maintenance.

The problem is that in the final stage of construction, after new money had to be found to finish the building, the suites were poorly finished off. From the original plan of the building, it is clear that it was intended to have central air conditioning. Instead it was finished without air conditioning, and since the suites were not designed with natural air circulation in mind, they are deadly in summer.

early years

291 George was tightly run in its first few years. All tenants had to have jobs or be in school. The superintendant ran things tightly; people who bothered other people were soon gone, often within a week. The few people who had been in the building since it opened recalled that they needed a key to use the elevator.

By 1988 the need for more 'bachelor' type housing units had become so acute that the Liberal government changed the rules and allowed them to be built. However, the lesson taken from 291 George street was that all-singles buildings are not a good idea. Single occupancy suites had to be mixed in with multiple occupancy units so that older, more settled people exert a moderating influence on younger people. George street seems to be the only large all-singles social housing building in Toronto.

After 1988 George street was given to Metro Toronto Housing Company Limited (MTHCL) to manage. However, MTHCL had been set up to manage housing for people over 55 years of age. They did not know how to run a building like 291 George.

the failure

In 1989, MTHCL opened the Jarvis-Wellesley building, and moved much of the George street population over there. After that MTHCL seems to have given up on the building. More undesirable neighbors began to move in.

One thing that would have helped would have been to put a fence around the place but the housing cult was rabidly hostile to that idea. So the back patio of the building was open to the Filmore's hotel parking at that time a center for prostitution.

A door led from the recreation room out into the patio so the Johns began taking the hookers into the building's recreation room. The patio door to the recreation room were locked. but were repeatedly broken open.

Around the other side of the building, the dealers set up a drive through crack emporium. Cars drove down the alley and the dealers vended through an open window without the customers leaving their cars. They tore out several walls.

Finally, MTHCL was forced to put a fence up around the building and to bring security guards into the building to regain control. It was shortly after this, in August of 1995, that I moved into 291 George.

a return visit

I walked by there the other day. The street itself is much quieter. There are still some addicts wandering around like zombies, but no longer drug dealers and their clients lining the sidewalks.

I talked briefly to someone talking to the cops on the front porch. He seemed to be one of the new tenant leaders in the building. He claims that the building is largely settled down but admits there are still a few problem units. He attributes the change to a superintendent who "gives a damn".

I tried talking about some of my own experiences, how we seemed to have the building "cleaned up" only to have it gradually go bad again. He seemed not really interested. But perhaps the stars are finally aligning right for 291 George.

He looked puzzled when I asked him to think of me whenever he opened his refrigerator door. I walked on down the street toward my own more fortunate TCHC home.