Tenants lobby each other in ultimate reality show
Apr 06, 2008 04:30 AM
After the careful planning, the heartfelt pitch and the animated bouts of lobbying, Debbie McDaid did not expect to be tied for the 10th - and last - portion of $1.8 million being handed out yesterday by Toronto Community Housing.
But, with the minutes ticking away, the tenant delegate from Community Housing Unit Downsview (Sheppard Magellan) still had a shot to convince the 26 other voting delegates that her community deserves $123,000 for a new playground, complete with benches, winding paths, gardens and outdoor lighting.
The other delegates locked in this four-way tie for funds had already given their two-minute pitches for community upgrades: CHU St. Lawrence (The Esplanade) wanted $37,000 for a new access control system; CHU St. James Town (South St. James Town 1 & 2) wanted $114,000 for security cameras; and CHU Don Mills Agincourt (Sheppard-Victoria Park) wanted $89,000 for plaster and paint to upgrade crumbling hallways.
McDaid was the last to stand centre stage in North York council chambers, repeating her plea for a safe playground in Downsview.
"We have to do this for our kids," she says, fighting back tears. "They are suffering because they have no park."
For the seventh year in a row, Toronto Community Housing is letting its tenants have a say in how it spends $1.8 million to improve their homes and neighbourhoods during its annual allocation day.
The country's largest social housing landlord, home to more than 164,000 tenants, is the first in Canada to use participatory budgeting.
Since 2002, TCH has handed out $9 million each year for capital priorities identified by tenants in each of its 27 units. Roughly $7.2 million is allocated by Tenant Councils in each CHU for property upgrades, much the same way a city council approves its budget. The remaining funds - some $1.8 million - are doled out collectively at the annual allocation day, where a delegate from each of the 27 units gets a vote.
"It brings all the tenants together to hear all the issues and to decide as a collective where the money should be allocated," says Keiko Nakamura, TCH's chief operating officer, adding that tenant participation has ballooned since 2002.
Yesterday, delegations from each of the 27 community housing units came with a detailed pitch for upgrades. During the morning sessions, each group had five minutes to present its proposal, whether for new parks and playgrounds, better sidewalks and fences or new community common areas, to the roughly 200 people gathered in the council chambers.
With the fervour of a preacher, Robert Atkinson, a tenant delegate from CHU Humber Village (Thistletown 2), pitched for $200,000 for two new playgrounds.
His calls for a safe park for the community's 213 children were punctuated with shouts of "Vote for the children!" and followed by resounding cheers from the audience.
Sandra Ramsay, a tenant representative from CHU Scarborough North (Empringham Mews), had asked for $299,000 to install additional security cameras and lighting to help make the community safer. She made the same pitch last year, but went away empty-handed.
A short time later, she says, a 16-year-old was gunned down in his driveway. Since there were no security cameras in the area, his killer has not been found.
Since only 10 of the delegations - the ones that get the most votes - will get funding, the action doesn't end with the presentations. During breaks and over lunch, delegates aggressively lobby each other.
These are tough decisions to make, say many of the delegates. TCH says it faces a $300 million capital shortfall and the participatory budget takes place in a reality where the capital needs of the 27 units always exceed the available budget.
The delegates vote in private and list, in no particular order, the 10 CHUs they believe need the money the most. They are not allowed to vote for themselves.
By mid-afternoon, the delegates have made their decision and results have been projected onto large white screens at the front of council chambers.
Members of delegations that have been awarded funds clap and cheer - Thistletown has its two playgrounds.
And McDaid, after winning the four-way tie with whoops and cheers and glad hand-shaking, got one for her community, too.
"We've come together before to improve our community," says McDaid of their win. "This is another step up to say it's working, what we're doing is working."
But those who received no extra money, including Ramsay and her delegation from Scarborough's Empringham Mews, droop with disappointment. Merlyn Downs, a tenant representative who accompanied Ramsay, says the delegation will be back next year. "I got the impression we would be up there, I really did," she says. "But we'll keep fighting. We're not going down that easy. We'll come back stronger."