TCH needs to do more to address tenant complaints, city ombudsman warns

A new report from the city's ombudsman raises concerns about the way Toronto Community Housing tenants are being treated by the corporation.

About 25% of ombudsman's caseload comes from TCH tenants

The city ombudsman is calling on Toronto Community Housing to improve the way it handles complaints from its tenants. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

A new report from the city's ombudsman raises concerns about the way Toronto Community Housing tenants are being treated by the corporation.

The report, to be presented at Wednesday's meeting of the TCH board, accuses the corporation's staff of flawed customer service and poor communication when dealing with tenant complaints.

Ombudsman Susan Opler says complaints from tenants to her office spiked from 184 in 2015 to to 449 in 2019.

"Ombudsman Toronto has handled more TCHC cases than cases involving any other city organization," the report states.

"Over the past three years, 24 per cent of all cases Ombudsman Toronto handled" were about TCH, the document says.  

Opler wrote the report back in March in response to a request from the TCH board for more information about the nature of complaints the ombudsman was receiving from housing corporation's tenants.

Toronto Ombudsman Susan Opler began looking into the number and nature of complaints TCH tenants filed with her office at the request of the agency last year. Opler found a sharp spike in complaints between 2015 and 2019. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

Last year, about a third of the complaints she fielded from TCH tenants had to do with building maintenance, the report states. About a quarter dealt with apartment transfers. Complaints about rent were the next highest category specified, followed by questions of safety, and evictions.

But Opler wrote that most of the complaints she fielded from TCH tenants last year never should have landed on her desk in the first place. She said the complainants didn't realize that they hadn't completely followed TCH's internal complaints process before coming to her.

"We found that very often, this was because tenants did not know how to raise and escalate their complaints at TCHC," the report states.

"At our urging, TCHC management finally established a new complaints process in October, 2019."

The process, dubbed "Solutions" by TCH staff, is supposed to streamline and clarify the process tenants use to make a complaint.

Coun. Ana Bailão, a TCH board member, said the new complaint resolution service involves local "hubs" that work more closely with tenants in their own communities. The previous system saw complaints handled through the agency's head office on Yonge Street near Davenport Road.

Bailão said she backs the ombudsman's findings.

"As a human being, if you want to put in a complaint and you're feeling like you're not being addressed, you're not being listened to, you're going to go to somebody else. And  that's what happened. They went to the ombudsman," she said in an interview Monday afternoon.

As well, Bailão said she'll be making more suggestions at Wednesday's meeting aimed at making the TCH complaints process more clear.

Coun. Ana Bailã​​​​​​​o says she'd like to see her fellow TCH board members supply tenants with multilingual instructions on navigating the complaints process. (Paul Smith/CBC)

"If somebody calls one of these Solutions lines, can they get service in other languages as well?" she said. "Do we have a translation company that can access that as well?"

The corporation has also, at the ombudsman's urging, added a link on its website that's supposed to help clarify the complaints process.

In addition, TCH has also distributed posters in its buildings laying out how tenants can access the complaints process.

The report offers a few examples of the kinds of complaints the ombudsman's office received that can be tracked to sloppy communications:

  • Not giving tenants clear information and adequate notice when work needs to be done in their unit or building.
  • Not returning tenants' calls or answering their letters.
  • Not giving tenants a clear decision or reasons for decisions affecting them —  regarding transfers or evictions, for example.

The ombudsman's report also recommends that TCH train all its employees to provide better public service.

Opler said in the report that she hopes to see her recommendations in place by the end of the year.

However, "the world has changed since I sent our draft report to TCHC management in mid-March, she said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"I understand that some of the time frames for action that I recommended, and TCHC planned, may now need to be revisited."

TCH declined CBC Toronto's request for an interview, saying it won't respond until Opler has formally presented her report to the board at its Wednesday meeting. But the corporation did provide a written statement.

"Following the Ombudsman's presentation at the June 24 virtual Board meeting, management will update the Board on the implementation of new Solutions team and complaints process, and on steps being taken to increase tenant awareness of our new process," the statement reads.

"While some communications were paused during the COVID-19 response, we are resuming these efforts this summer to improve tenant awareness of our complaints process and the new Solutions team."