By: Jo Ferris-Davies, Senior Technical Advisor, Rooftops Canada
I was very fortunate to accompany a study visit of senior South African social housing sector representatives to Toronto in March. It was a wonderful opportunity to check the pulse of our social housing sector in Canada through the eyes of South Africans with whom I am now working as part of the Rooftops Canada Equal Spaces project.
I left Johannesburg with flowers and trees blooming everywhere and arrived in Toronto to a city of grey. Despite cold, damp weather Toronto shined. At the end of our daily program, I led several neighborhood walking tours pointing out various landmarks including social housing. Seeing the city through the delegates’ eyes reminded me why Toronto is such a great city. We take for granted that we have an affordable, functional transit system. We forget that walking late alone at night in the city is a dangerous practice in so many places in the world. Seeing the diversity of the population and experiencing day to day courtesies from ordinary citizens made me proud to be a Torontonian.
Over the past few years, Canadian social housing providers have been transforming our sector to be more business-like. Great efforts have been made to establish shared services. The purpose of the study visit was to learn from examples of Canadian based shared services and back office practices in both management and development of social housing.
We drew on speakers from across Canada to illustrate what they had put in place and explain the benefits to their sector. All of the speakers were fabulous. – both informative and inspirational. They reminded me of just how creative, imaginative, and efficient our sector can be. Many of the South African participants have since reported that they implemented immediate changes upon returning to their communities and work places. All were influenced by what they heard and saw.
Interestingly although we designed an interactive program around back office practices and shared services, many of the presentations and site tours reflected a community development approach to working with tenants and stakeholders. When Betty Ann Baker talked about the property management efficiencies of Niagara Penninsula Homes, she also talked about innovative social enterprises to support tenants develop small local based businesses. When Lori Anne Gagne presented the back office set up of Victoria Park Homes, she also showcased all the programs they have with outside agencies to bring critical skills and programming for their tenants. When we toured TCHC and Regent Park – the notion of mixed income communities and focused community development practices caught the interest of delegates. These learnings were some of the unintended consequences of the visit.
We will soon meet again in Johannesburg to distill exactly what the sector here will focus on in terms of a back office approach to management and development. But I can say that already one social housing institution has created a full time community development position. Another has adopted the idea of a mixed community – low income social housing mixed with for sale units, and commercial space – as a strategic direction for its board. The changes for some have been immediate and profound. I will update readers of the Rooftops Canada blog as we work through the changes the sector wants to implement in South Africa. Interesting times.