Next CEO of Toronto’s community housing agency faces anti-Black racism fall-out, staff mistrust

·5 min read

At the end of this month, the head of Toronto’s community housing agency — a $9 billion public asset and Canada’s biggest landlord with 110,000 tenants — will step down without a permanent replacement, as the search for his successor was slowed by COVID-19.

Kevin Marshman’s retirement was announced by Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) last June, and he says the agency knew earlier still, having promised two years when he stepped into the role in 2019. But the job was only posted in December.

“I think the biggest challenge was COVID,” said Coun. Ana Bailao, who sits on TCHC’s board of directors and the CEO search committee. “It delayed, significantly, everything.”

The CEO job at TCHC has been an unsteady perch for the last decade, as a string of bosses before Marshman left or were ousted on the heels of damning reports about lavish spending, suggestions of contracts awarded without proper processes, and sidestepped hiring and conflict of interest rules.

Bailao and others credit Marshman with bringing in more stability. With his departure, the reins will be handed temporarily to chief operating officer Sheila Penny.

In advance of the changing of the guard next week, Marshman, members of the TCHC board and tenants discussed the major challenges ahead for the next CEO, from mending longstanding mistrust among staff to responding to a recent report about anti-Black racism in the agency.

The racism report reflected talks with roughly 600 Black tenants and staff. Among the issues identified, it raised concern with the community safety units (CSUs) that patrol TCHC buildings.

In past, tenants said the CSU would connect with parents if a child was involved in “mischievous behaviour.” Now, they were seen to treat youth “like criminals.” Every young Black man consulted said they felt targeted, mocked and unsafe in their own communities, and tenants said the CSU added to the school-to-prison pipeline by enforcing minor infractions.

The CSUs have the power to issue trespass notices on TCHC properties, Marshman said, and he believes that power is still necessary to deal with other issues like harassment.

But he acknowledged that right now, youth who may not be specified on a lease can be repeatedly stopped and given trespass notices. “After so many trespasses, you may get a criminal record,” he said.

The report recommends a full-scale review of the CSU by a “community-driven” task force. Marshman doesn’t believe the solution is to eradicate the units, but backs the idea of “non-policing options” for situations involving youth or mental health concerns.

The report also recommended the creation of a new centre for advancing the interests of Black people in TCHC, which Marshman called a “critical element” to ensuring any changes are actually effective.

Iye Sanneh, a Black TCHC tenant living in High Park, said she was most encouraged by the idea of creating such a centre, where she hopes tenants can connect with one another to form new groups and programs.

She also wants to see the next CEO focus on pathways out of TCHC, citing Toronto’s mammoth social housing waitlist, which is some 81,000 households long.

Sureya Ibrahim, a tenant in Regent Park, is hoping to see the next CEO take more of an interest in addressing violence in TCHC’s communities, including shootings that have claimed the lives of several young Black boys in recent years. A focus on gun violence reduction initiatives was called for in the report.

“I’m sick and tired of seeing every week, all of these incidents, shootings, stabbings, taking place in TCH properties,” she said. “It’s someone’s child.”

TCHC is also still struggling to heal old wounds. During sessions for the racism report, Black and non-Black staff revealed continued mistrust in human resources, caused by leadership and organization shuffles as well as a “history and culture of patronage and nepotism” — and a “toxic” culture that had prevailed despite several employees who created it having left.

Those problems couldn’t be fixed overnight, Marshman said. Some efforts are underway; they brought in a new vice-president of human resources in January, they’re surveying staff about the remaining issues, trying to resolve complaints in 90 days, and looking at using external experts for probes.

Bailao and Coun. Paula Fletcher — also a board member — credited Marshman for his efforts to put TCHC on a better path. But both acknowledged undoing embedded mistrust wasn’t an easy ask.

“I think trust is very easy to lose, and very difficult to gain — even more difficult, I think, to gain back,” Bailao said, calling for a continued examination of TCHC’s policies and processes. The CEO’s attitude was also a key factor, she said, to ensure that policies are followed.

Running TCHC meant running a public organization, Fletcher said. “It’s not a Bay Street corporation, where I’m sure lots of things happen, but the laundry is never out on the line.”

Both councillors say they’re hoping the next CEO approaches the role more as a “mission” than a job, with a clear focus on TCHC’s tenants. Several anticipated changes should make focusing on tenants easier, Fletcher said: the agency expects to pass off its development role to the city in the near future, and is working on the launch of a new seniors housing corporation.

Marshman offered the same hope, saying that focusing on a specific mission — in his case, a restructure plan launched soon after taking over — was a way to “fade the noise of before.”

“That has to be a challenge that you want to meet in your professional life and as part of your values system,” Fletcher said. “We’re taking our time to get it right. We can’t do it over again.”

With files from Jennifer Pagliaro

Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star