After numerous complaints by tenants of safety issues and mistreatment have come to light over the summer of 2021, Kingston Frontenac Housing Corporation (KFHC) has had to answer some tough questions about its business practices. The Pandemic has put the issues in stark focus.
Frustrated tenants complain that they aren’t treated with dignity by staff, that they live in unsafe conditions, and that their concerns are not being taken seriously by KFHC, its board of directors, or The City of Kingston (KFHC’s only shareholder).
In late August, Mayor Bryan Paterson pointed to an upcoming meeting of the City’s Housing and Homelessness Committee as a venue for Kingstonians to share their concerns and hear from the Corporation.
According to the City website, “The Housing and Homelessness Advisory Committee works to ensure that there is a comprehensive understanding of housing, affordable housing and homelessness issues, initiatives and developments. The Committee is mandated to provide advice to Council regarding housing and homelessness-related policies, directives and strategies as well as the implementation of the Municipal Housing Strategy and the 10 Year Housing and Homelessness Plan.”
Mary Lynn Cousins Brame, Chief Executive Officer of KFHC, on Thursday, Sep 9, 2021, presented an update on the state of operations of the corporation at that meeting. Board of Directors Chair, Denise Cummings, was also on hand to comment on governance matters.
What follows is a summary of the 36-minute long KFHC report, which updated the committee on the main functions that KFHC performs in the city, as well as the challenges they have been facing, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Members of the committee and members of the public were allowed to ask questions after the report was delivered.
Issues arising from the Pandemic
After providing a summary of KFHC’s history — governance, strategic priorities, housing programs, and developments in the works — CEO Cousins Brame discussed the direct impacts the pandemic has had on the corporation.
“One of the things I just thought was very valuable for the committee to know about is we’ve all been impacted by the pandemic. And for KFHC, we’ve had to adjust and adapt very quickly,” she said, explaining that KFHC is an essential service and that “one of the things I decided when the announcement occurred [of the pandemic] is we needed to be here for our tenants.”
“So, we adapted to have safety measures and guidelines, but with the focus on supporting our tenants. So, we did maintenance a little bit differently, we decreased the traffic into the office, but we were always there and we have 24-hour on-call [staff] to ensure that we were there for our tenants,” she explained before continuing to provide background. “The City, I have to say, came through, and has been extremely supportive, and were able to provide us with some funding to enhance our internal support services.”
Cousins Brame explained that KFHC was able to hire two full-time staff to help tenants “meet the conditions of their lease.” She then went on to speak about rent in relation to the corporation’s revenue.
“A rent freeze occurred and what that meant is [that] we instantly received a reduction in revenue because we could not increase it,” she said. “At the same time, you can imagine how the expenditures have increased drastically.” No example of drastic increases in expenditures was provided.
She went on, “The province provides some assistance for our funding, 30 per cent, where it’s the City who pays 70 per cent of the funding for us. The province benchmarks the funding; for this year, we received a reduction in the amount of almost half a per cent that could go towards maintenance and administration.”
During the pandemic shutdowns, “In order to keep people housed, the province also set a moratorium on evictions,” Cousins Brame said, noting that she believed this “limited KFHC’s ability to have different ‘tools’ on which to engage tenants and to ensure good neighbours and safe communities.”
She described “a drastic increase in tenant suicide, drug overdoses,” that she attributed to the pandemic, relaying that KFHC has “one building, a small building very close to the main office here. In a year and a half, we’ve had eight deaths, which is very tragic. We have seen an increase in aggression, in anti-social behaviour between tenants, and also towards staff… [It has] just been very concerning, and the living conditions of the tenants has seemed to have decreased.”
No numbers or statistics were given.
“The tenants, during the pandemic, stopped paying rent,” Cousins Brame continued, “And I can tell you the majority of the tenants weren’t impacted due to employment being withdrawn, because about 75 per cent of our tenants are on OW and ODSP and they were receiving extra funds, but at the same time, the tenants stopped paying rent, which resulted in a decrease in revenue at the same time, an increase in rent arrears.”
It is unclear how many of the tenants “stopped paying their rent” as no numbers were given.
Cousins Brame then turned her attention towards the difficulties KFHC has faced during the pandemic with regard to pest control.
“Like most of us, tenants were concerned for their health and safety [because of COVID], and [that] limited access for maintenance and pest control,” to their apartments. As a result, “there’s been an increase in pest infestation, as well as some greater damage has been done to the units.”
Because of this, she said, “We’ve got a backlog of maintenance orders. And as we’ve moved through the phases of reopening, tenants have been become more comfortable to have their maintenance issues addressed.” This, she asserted, has resulted in “a large backlog of work orders.”
“We have to prioritize the work orders according to need. And so, for some tenants, their need might be pushed back, and I assume that’s causing them much frustration, and we’re trying to work as quickly towards them as we can,” Cousins Brame explained.
CEO provides ‘reality check’
Next in the report came “Challenges and Concerns” KFHC has as an organization.
Cousins Brame explained, “I wanted to give a sort of a reality check as to where KFHC is today and some of the concerns and challenges that we’re facing. For KFHC, we try to house our tenants, as long as possible. We have eviction prevention measures in place because our goal is to keep people housed, and often the tenants have many issues, they’re vulnerable. And we want to keep them with us as long as possible and stabilize tenancies.”
“So often KFHC receives little recognition or support for how we’re operating to keep people housed with us. As I mentioned before, we’re seeing an increase in the complexity of tenant needs: mental health, addictions, aggression, violence, and the lack of daily living skills, and ageing,” she expressed.
“One of the things that seem to be a recurring issue for KFHC is tenants look to us — and we’re the landlord, we’re not a social service — to deal with their many non-landlord issues. For example, we get several calls a day about, you know, ‘somebody said something on Facebook and I don’t agree with it’ or ‘somebody called my dog a name.’ So, tenants often reach out to KFHC for issues that aren’t related to their tenancy.”
The CEO said that KFHC works in collaboration with any kind of social service or agency to secure supports for its tenants, but at the same time, “we’re a landlord and would need to maintain confidentiality. There’s a lot of services and mental health services that tenants are receiving. Throughout the years KFHC has done a wonderful job, I think we’re sort of holding the gap, we are trying to maintain these tenancies.”
“And often when people receive housing with KFHC,” she went on, “They often feel they’re housed, the issues go away, and that’s not the case.”
Cousins Brame reminded the committee that, in the 1990s, many supports for mental health were eliminated across the province, and “so, what has happened is they’ve come to KFHC, with or without supports that have been withdrawn over the years.”
“And secondly, all services are voluntary. So, you can imagine, when a tenant doesn’t feel like they need to be meeting a counsellor or having support, and they stop any kind of involvement, that impacts their living, but not only their living, but also everybody in the building and the community,” she explained.
“So, for KFHC, as I mentioned, we’re an employer, we’re continuing to monitor safety issues of this stuff. We provide staff debriefing. And we also provide training to the staff on how to interact with our tenants. One of the things that we’ve recently done over the last two years is all staff are trained in Mental Health First Aid.”
At this point, Cousins Brame went through a series of slides with photographs demonstrating the deplorable conditions that she said were examples of how “about 10 percent” of KFHC tenants keep their rental units.
Cousins Brame finished her presentation on a positive note.
“One of the things we’re happy to have happened, now that things are safe to reopen, is our tenant advisory committee that reports to the board, that’s being reinstated. I’ve talked about our collaboration with other social services. Emergency services — we have the highest number of calls in the city. So, all partnerships, anybody willing to support our tenants and KFHC, are more than welcome.”
“While I’m here I want to just advocate to the City; if we can still receive funding for the enhanced internal housing support, that additional staff has been so beneficial,” she emphasized.
“Something that you may not know [is] that at KFHC we have a formal partnership with Queen’s University and St. Lawrence College. We do clinical placements of nurses, occupational therapy, and the students help, providing programming and assistance to our tenants. We’re also involved in three research studies because there’s very little research done on social housing, so if KFHC can help and we can learn, we are very willing to participate.”
Housing and Homelessness Committee questions for KFHC
City Councillor Bridget Doherty asked Cousins Brame how much pest control costs per year.
“Currently, we’re spending over $100,000 a year, but it depends on the need. If we have a major infestation, then the cost would go up. Last year alone, it was about $175,000 So if you take that and add it to the garbage, and you look at our maintenance budget, it’s almost a third of it is spent on the garbage and pest management,” Cousins Brame divulged.
Andy White, a human rights advocate for marginalized people and citizen appointee to the committee, expressed gratitude for the presentation. However, she said, “I felt a little bit concerned at one point; it sounded like you’re blaming all the tenants for everything and then you were presenting all the problems that you have with no real solutions. But I feel if the board itself was able to step back, it has the solutions, that you just need to come together better to create something a little bit more concrete.”
“Obviously, mental health will always be an issue, and you are a landlord, but you’re also hoping to make tenants more comfortable and you have the resources from the University, from all of the other city departments. You are able to, I think, come together as a board, look at the whole situation and all of the tenancies, and actually build something a little bit more concrete so that if somebody has a situation, your staff has a list that they can make a phone call or direct [a tenant] to a place that they can go. I think it just needs to be a little bit more structured,” White continued.
“I also received emails from tenants, and [Councillor] Bridget [Doherty] actually worked with me to let me know some information, but [the tenants] are still quite apprehensive about follow-through. I also heard information in regards to people that are coming forward with complaints that they are starting to be harassed by management, which doesn’t impress me, one little bit. I hope this is not the case, and I hope it does stop.”
Cousins Brame responded, “I respectfully hear you. I know there are tenants that appear to have some concerns and issues. I can confidently say that staff nor management are harassing tenants. We have a complaint line, I can tell you that very little complaints are filed. I can let you know that the Board of Directors receives ongoing reports of complaints of key performance indicators on a monthly basis, and that we’re working to deal with all our tenants, their vulnerabilities, and we’re addressing their needs.”
“At the same time, we’re limited as a landlord, and our involvement,” she continued. “The only thing that we have is a contractual agreement with the tenant and ourselves. Not only do we have to meet the need of each tenant, but all tenants, and that’s something that we strive to do. As far as the board, they have strong governance, and they have strong oversight of KFHC.”
At this point, Denise Cummings, Chair of the Board of KFHC addressed the committee, on behalf of the board.
“The board has had one meeting and has a second special meeting scheduled to look at all of the concerns that have come to light over the last number of weeks, to scrutinize what activities and programs and measures the corporation has in place to ensure that we are treating tenants respectfully and that we are putting them in a position where they can live in a home and our environment. We have identified a number of different actions that we intend to take in the next while. That includes things like getting our Tenant Advisory Council back in place with a reporting relationship to the board, and a few other measures like that.”
Cummings went on to say, “We do have a very significant level of accountability from Mary Lynn [Cousins Brame] and the team. We get a report each month of all of the maintenance requests that have come through and the status of them being completed. We have a similar kind of report coming to us around complaints, and I feel that we do have strong governance and oversight of the work being done by the team.”
Andy White replied, “Thank you for the information Denise; I’m glad to hear that there is actually going to be a special meeting. I hope that the tenants are able to actually see the results publicly so that they know themselves what is happening without having to get hold of other people to speak on their behalf. I hope we can move forward. Because this is obviously a big, huge situation, and I hope other community organizations will reach out, and we can all work together to make that, well, I guess, for example, a better area to live in.”
“So I’m hoping, too, that people will also be able to have a way of connecting to people that have complaints, you know, maybe yourself Denise, or somebody who they could feel comfortable enough to present the issues to. I’m glad to hear that there is supposed to be a board meeting, and I look forward to hearing that things are going to progress and move forward.”
At this point, Francesca Creet, tenant representative to the committee, seemed to take issue with her fellow committee member.
“Andy, with due respect, I think that you have put Mary Lynn in a hard place, position, and it’s just not that simple for everyone to come together and solve this. I think you sort of put her between a rock and a hard place and, from her presentation, I really feel that she and her staff are doing everything they can given the problems at this point. So, let’s hope for all our sakes, that things improve, but it is what it is,” Creet expressed.
Councillor Jim Neill then posed a question about the publication of board minutes. The minutes, though available, are not easily accessible on the corporation’s website. Interested parties should click ‘More’ at the end of the menu at the top of the page, and then scroll through over 20 options before coming to the tab for the minutes themselves, the most recent of which are from the board meeting which took place on May 31, 2021. The website make no mention of when the next meeting or meetings are scheduled.
Tenant representative Creet then asked about hoarding in the tenancies, stating, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a mental issue, as opposed to an economic one, although, obviously, the economic straits don’t help. This is the first I have seen this mentioned on our agenda, how are we working to help this out?”
Cousins Brame answered, “We [at KFHC] participate in the hoarding coalition that is in the city. There’s limited funding for that. It comes down to who was going to help the tenant clean it out, whose responsibility is that and what kind of companies are available, who pays for it? But what we have done in the past is actually paid contractors, had the unit cleaned out, and within a very short time, it reverted back to the same. So, I agree with you in some aspects, it’s a mental health sort of condition and issue, but how do we initially get it cleaned out, and how do we ensure that services stay in there and that the mental health issue is provided support? That’s sort of our challenge today.”
Michelle McCaugherty, a citizen appointee on the Committee, asked, “ because you’ve identified that there’s definitely a lack of skills in some of your tenants, is there a plan to, maybe in the future, provide some type of supportive housing to those individuals?”
The CEO responded, “I can say right now it is not our plan to provide supportive housing. That would be something that would have to go before the board, and that would be something that the City would be looking at.”
Doug Yearwood, a Ph.D. student at Queen’s University who studies comparative sociology, was the first member of the public to address the presentation by KFHC and the reaction to it by the committee. First, he commended Andy White’s comments that seemed to get verbally slapped back earlier, saying he agreed with her.
“To me, it sounded like there’s a bunch of excuses that are being made by the head of the Housing Corporation for why things are the way they are. What I didn’t hear is that KFHC is actually listening to the tenants who are raising concerns and that they are going to be addressing the problems. I heard her blaming basically people for being poor, or having pests, their mental health, that they’re drug-addicted. So it’s disappointing to hear that.”
He went on to say that he had actually been distributing pamphlets in the area of Kingston’s Rideau Heights neighbourhood while the meeting was occurring, and had stopped to listen to the KFHC CEO’s presentation on his cell phone with some KFHC tenants. When Yearwood asked the tenants, ‘Does this resonate with you?’ “they just laughed, so they don’t take what she’s saying seriously, they know that it’s a lie. I was just speaking to someone in the Heights 20 minutes ago who said that they had about an inch and a half of water in their bathroom because there’s flooding and that it didn’t get addressed for months,” he relayed.
Maintenance by KFHC, in Yearwood’s experience, “is all just dealt with in such piecemeal ways, where you have one guy [who] comes out for an hour and sprays one part of the home when they know for a fact that there are bedbugs and pests infested everywhere to the foundation. I really think that there needs to be pressure applied on Kingston Frontenac Housing Corporation to deal with things in a systemic way, to stop blaming people for being poor, drug-addicted, with bad mental health,” he said.
“I mean, those are all the excuses. So, I really want to commend Andy’s comments, I think that they were probably the most useful interventions that I heard here today.”
Speaking to a Councillor
In the weeks following the report, Councillor Bridget Doherty, who actually also sits on the governance board for KFHC, agreed to speak publicly on record about the matter. Councillor Jim Neill declined a request for comment.
“COVID showed the flaws in our system. The flaws, in my opinion, always existed, but the system is very good at hiding it, and COVID brought it to light,” Doherty said.
From one perspective this was positive, she said, “because how the heck do you change things by pretending it’s not there? I think it can lead to positive change. Having these conversations is also important. That’s why I wanted to talk to [the media] about it, because I do really, really care.”
Many of the generalizations in the KFHC report and presentation were not questioned. For example, in the presentation it was mentioned that “tenant’s stopped paying their rent” and that suicide and violence had increased due to COVID, but no proof or data related to these assertions was given. Councillor Doherty reflected on those assertions and why they were not questioned.
“As a board member [of KFHC], I didn’t ask any questions because I have that information in front of me and I get it monthly. But I can’t speak to the others. I don’t know why they didn’t ask more except for that they’re more, I think, an overarching advisory group, but they certainly could have and should have asked more questions.”
In the report it was stated, “We [KFHC] have a complaint line, I can tell you that very little complaints are filed. I can let you know that the Board of Directors receives ongoing reports of complaints of key performance indicators on a monthly basis and that we’re working to deal with all our tenants, their vulnerabilities, and we’re addressing their needs.”
After discussion regarding multiple tenant complaints not addressed in the report, and the fact that one KFHC staff member has been named in numerous disparate complaints of using abusive language and intimidation, Doherty conveyed that change is needed.
“As a board member, again, I can’t get into operations, but we need to make sure that we have a system in place for concerns to come forward. They did have a system, they had a tenant advisory group that was cancelled because of COVID,” she said.
Not only was the tenant advisory group cancelled, but some tenants also were never made aware of its existence according to previous reports.
“There needs to be a way for people to complain, that’s not just the complaint line, I certainly recognize that and I have, actually, for quite a while,” Doherty said, adding that, if a staff member is consistently flagged, “these are governance issues that I can bring up. And so, I am definitely going to look into this, that needs to change.”
Doherty reported that the KFHC board of governors has had two recent meetings, “after that meeting [of the housing and homelessness committee] we had our second meeting, and the board is working on all the things we’ve heard, and the things that you have raised, complaints and communications. The board is definitely going to be looking into things, into some governance solutions… We do need the provincial government to help with this. There are certainly improvements that need to be made, and it is important to hear everyone’s concern. It’s better to treat everybody with dignity.”
Doherty finished, “We’ve had very important opportunities to communicate in a respectful manner, and we’re missing opportunities as the corporation to do that.”