From Participatory Budgeting to Co-operative Tenant Control: An Alternative Policy Recommendation For Toronto Community Housing

Annual budget discussions are underway at Toronto City Hall.

The board of directors in charge of Toronto Community Housing (TCH) approved a $1.3 billion budget for 2016, inclusive of capital and operating expenses, on December 3, 2015.

Details of the budget (“a line-by-line breakdown”) are typically revealed behind closed doors and that has raised questions about the accountability of the board and the ability of tenants to play a meaningful role in the crafting of a relevant budget.

This post, which incorporates an abridged version of a policy paper I wrote on TCH’s participatory budgeting process, proposes transformational change in the Toronto Community Housing budgeting process.

Specifically, I contend that 100 percent of the control over Toronto Community Housing’s budget process must be handed over to TCH tenants via co-operative and deliberative budgeting.


Toronto Community Housing  is a huge organization with a crucial mandate. Located in Canada’s most-populous city and the capital of the Province of Ontario, TCH provides housing for 164,000 low and moderate-income people in 58,500 homes. The agency, created by the City of Toronto in 2002[1], is the largest public housing provider in Canada and the second-largest in North America. Among the communities TCH serves are refugees, recent immigrants, seniors, people with special needs, families and single people.[2]

Toronto Community Housing buildings in Moss Park. (photo/SimonP/Wikimedia Commons)
Toronto Community Housing buildings in Moss Park. (photo/SimonP/Wikimedia Commons)

The Tenant Participation System

Toronto Community Housing’s Tenant Participation System is described by Leighninger and Lalic as an overarching initiative designed to “integrate people, allocate resources in ways that reflect” the needs of residents, “solve problems and find solutions for…complex problems.”[3] Their case study, entitled Toronto Community Housing’s Tenant Participation System, examines how the system involves TCH residents in developing a Community Management Plan and Participatory Budgeting. Since 2002, TCH residents have been involved in a participatory budgeting process to funnel resources from the agency’s budget into several identified priorities.[4] The priorities identified during the TCH Participatory Budgeting process have included: “upgrading exteriors, grounds, recreation rooms, lobbies, hallways, playgrounds and other green spaces.”[5] As of this writing, Toronto Community Housing’s Tenant Participation System is an ongoing initiative.[6]

This analysis explores the study conducted by Leighninger and Lalic on the Tenant Participation System as it operated in 2009. Two specific processes are expounded upon: the community meetings held during the development of a Community Management Plan and the agency’s annual Participatory Budgeting initiative. Approximately 6,000 people participated in the process in 2009.[7] The authors tell us that the enlistment of participants was open to all and involved “targeted recruitment.”[8] Professional facilitators were involved in the face-to-face discussions.[9] Those impacted by the Tenant Participation System included Toronto Community Housing tenants as well as the agency’s board of directors and its executive leadership ─ in total, about 164,000 people.[10] The goal of the process was to “[empower] large numbers of low- and moderate-income people to take part in the [decisions] about their living situation and conditions,” Leighninger and Lalic tell us.[11] It “helps to integrate people, to allocate [resources] in ways that reflect peoples’ needs, to solve problems and find solutions for the complex challenges.”[12] Leighninger and Lalic do not tell us if the participants required any specialized knowledge before engaging in the process.

Toronto Community Housing hosted 10 meetings over the course of four days in October and November 2009 as part of its public consultation process on the Community Management Plan, the authors tell us.[13] The participants were asked to identify solutions for the future to the issues TCH faces and to identify two priorities on which TCH should focus.[14] Ideas from those meetings were then used to develop the Community Management Plan.[15] The plan was a three-year guide (2010, 2011 and 2012) that identified three priorities on which the agency was to focus.[16] The first priority, “Strengthening People”, emphasized the creation of an environment in which Toronto Community Housing tenants can succeed by connecting them with services and employment opportunities as well as providing opportunities for residents to communicate “issues of concern.”[17] The second identified priority, “Strengthening Places”, highlighted the agency’s responsibility to provide “clean, well-maintained buildings”, public spaces, a safe environment for tenants and investments in its building stock.[18] Some underperforming buildings were to be removed from the agency’s portfolio.[19] The final priority, dubbed “Strengthening Our Foundation”, described an aim to improve customer service, work toward a healthy workplace, keep an eye on agency expenses, reduce risk by identifying responsibility and holding employees accountable and improve communication with “tenants, staff, partners and stakeholders.”[20]

On the subject of its Participatory Budgeting process, Toronto Community Housing employs community workshops to assist with gauging priorities for the money the agency sets aside for this initiative.[21] In 2009, TCH allocated $9 million in capital funds for Participatory Budgeting, Leighninger and Lalic note. The agency spent a total of $218.4 million in capital funds in 2009.[22] Of that total, $174.4 million, or 79.9 percent, was spent on capital repairs.[23] Toronto Community Housing allocated 60 percent of the $9 million it set aside in 2009 for Participatory Budgeting to “Operating Units, depending on their size.”[24] An Operating Unit is internal language used by TCH to describe how the agency groups its buildings together.[25] Another 20 percent of the $9 million was distributed “equally across” the units.[26] The final 20 percent of the $9 million was allocated by residents based on what the operating units were perceived to have needed, such as the “upgrading [of] exteriors, grounds, recreation rooms, lobbies, hallways, playgrounds and other green spaces.”[27]

Policy Recommendation

Resident engagement has the potential to create a transformative environment at Toronto Community Housing. Done well, tenant participation in the operation of Canada’s largest public housing authority may help create social linkages instrumental in empowering tenants to take greater ─ and ultimately full ─ control over the authority, which should be the final goal of the Tenant Participation System: a move toward tenant co-operative control.

To implement this substantial policy shift, several structures are recommended as needed to be implemented. Firstly, the agency’s board of directors must be tenants executing decisions approved by the wider general body of tenants. These internal decisions, ideally, must be the product of deliberative tenant assemblies during which the decision are approved via a voting system of direct democracy or alternatively, a smaller group of tenants representing TCH constituencies. The structure proposed here is similar to that of a government executive acting on the decisions of a legislature (one composed of a large body of people voting individually or a smaller group of representatives). Secondly, tenant control of the capital budget must increase every year. In 2009, $9 million of the total TCH capital expenditure of $218.4 million ─ or about 4 percent ─ was allocated to tenant control via Participatory Budgeting. That percentage must increase per annum until 100 percent of the capital budget is controlled by tenants. Municipal employees with specialized knowledge, acting as facilitators, may continue to guide the budgeting process until such time as they are no longer needed by the tenants. Finally, the TCH tenant budget should be subject to discussion at City Hall, as it is currently. These policy recommendations arguably serve significant functions: improved, authentic participation by Toronto Community Housing tenants, transparency of the budget process, respect for tenants in the allocating of TCH resources and the development of empowering social linkages for a traditionally marginalized population in Toronto.

[1] Toronto Community Housing, “About Us,” (accessed November 29, 2015).

[2] Matt Leighninger and Jovana Lalic, “Toronto Community Housing’s Tenant Participation System,” Participedia, (accessed November 29, 2015).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Toronto Community Housing, “Tenant Participation,” (accessed November 29, 2015).

[7] Leighninger and Lalic, “Toronto Community Housing’s Tenant Participation System,”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Toronto Community Housing, “Community Management Plan 2010-2012: Executive Summary,” (accessed November 29, 2015).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Toronto Community Housing, “How Participatory Budgeting (PB) works,” (accessed December 7, 2015).

[22] Toronto Community Housing, “2009 Annual Review,” 5 (accessed December 7, 2015).

[23] Ibid.

[24] Leighninger and Lalic, “Toronto Community Housing’s Tenant Participation System,”

[25] Toronto Community Housing, “Our Housing,” (accessed November 29, 2015).

[26] Leighninger and Lalic, “Toronto Community Housing’s Tenant Participation System,”

[27] Ibid.


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