In Defense of Gene Jones

The City of Toronto ombudsman Fiona Crean has released two reports in two months that are highly critical of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC — the second-largest social housing provider in North America after New York) and especially critical of the President and CEO, Gene Jones. Jones is an American, known as the social housing Mr. Fix-It and was offered the job after several scandals within TCHC. Some of these included the willy-nilly eviction of vulnerable seniors (at least one of whome died as a result), a $700 million backlog of repairs, horrible conditions for many tenants, while staff were engaging in kickbacks and holding $40,000 Christmas parties. The place had to be fixed and Gene Jones was chosen to be the man to clean it out.

The new Ombudsman reports focus on implementation of recommendations to protect vulnerable seniors and one released this week focuses on human resource issues. It speaks of 80+ management staff being fired/retiring/quitting, how this created chaos and a “culture of fear” where employees fear for their jobs on a daily basis, and how senior management — and the CEO especially — ignored proper processes, fired people without cause and in general treated the places like their own little kingdom. After all, all of these people no longer working for the corporation has to be random, right? And people are up in arms, calling for the firing of our CEO, because the man clearly doesn’t know what he’s doing. Doesn’t have a vision. 

And I might believe that, if I my only source of information was the Ombudsman report (more on that below). If I didn’t know TCHC. 

I have been a TCHC tenant for over 18 years and for most of that time, been active in the tenant engagement process, which is mandated by the TCHC stakeholder agreement with the City. I know about this organization from the inside. And I'm here to tell you a very different story.

They say Gene doesn't have a vision. That's not the case. Gene’s vision is to put residents first. And this is apparently such a novel idea that no one has figured it out. Not the Ombudsman, not the Board of Directors, not the multiple reporters and commentators who have been gleefully picking over this issue like a flock of vultures.

Gene arrived at TCHC two years ago and immediately sent a clear message that things were going to change.

Within days, Gene started visiting communities and buildings and everywhere he went, he handed out his card and encouraged residents to contact him. So we did. And every time we did, he responded. When we invited him to Tenant Rep Council meetings, he came. When we invited him to other committee meetings, he came. He arranged community meetings to listen to the concerns of residents and he responded. Gene made himself accessible to residents.

This is not a case of a CEO being more accessible than any other CEO. This is that Gene is the first CEO to ever be accessible to the residents. Period. In my 18 years of living in this community, I have never even seen one of the previous CEOs in person, nevermind had their email and cell phone number and been encouraged to contact them. Now? If we have a problem with a process or a staff member, we shoot him an email, he responds right away at any time of day (even at midnight) and he deals with it.

Before Gene, TCHC had a culture of blocking tenants, stonewalling change and co-opting and eroding the tenant engagement process. That stopped two years ago. One of the first things that happened was that Gene put the staff directory on the Toronto Housing website. Prior to his arrival, we couldn’t reach anyone in senior management. As a Tenant Rep, I would eventually prove my trustworthiness enough to get the direct line to my area Manager, but it was with the understanding that I shouldn’t really use it and I should definitely not give it to any of the tenants in my building. Now I can reach any TCHC staff I need and they are expected to respond to me in a timely manner and with respect.

Sounds perfectly reasonable? It didn’t used to be. This alone has been revolutionary.

As for the “culture of fear.” I have the opportunity to work with a lot of staff, from building staff to middle and senior management. None of the people I know are afraid. They are working really hard to make this a better place, but they are very good at what they do and so many more of them are now thriving. Gene holds you to a high standard and if you work to meet that standard — and so many of the staff do — you have his full support.

Let’s talk about the 80+ staff who are no longer with TCHC. A few of the 45 who were fired were let go due to corruption, but by no means all of them. But TCHC had a culture. It had a culture of complacency, a lack of protocol and processes, a lack of competence. This culture was dedicated to blocking residents from knowing what was going on, as well as our ability to work effectively with staff. In the two years prior to Gene’s arrival, there was a concerted and coordinated effort by the Corporation to erode the tenant engagement process. There were deep systemic issues. I didn’t know all of the 80+ staff who are no longer with the organization, but I did know enough of them. And when the news hit of the ones who were fired, a lot of tenants drew deep breaths of relief every time and said “now we can get things done.” And instead of it being the same old thing where we were offered hope and then sucked back into a morass of obstacles, instead there were now clear lines and hard work and actual change.

And that’s another thing that no one’s talking about. The fact that it was necessary to clean out staff to the tune of 80+ individuals in order to deal with the corruption and systemic issues that have been perpetuated by the old guard and staff deeply mired in the restrictive TCHC culture. Because that was the reason these people retired, resigned or were fired. Because they were not meeting the new standards or actively working against what was best for residents. 

From this resident’s perspective, it was a long time coming and the change has been unbelievable. TCHC is now transparent, staff are accountable and responsive to residents. This is the difference that Gene has made. 

Gene received a mandate to clean out TCHC and he is doing just that. I believe that the current problems are based in the fact that he is pursuing this mandate with vigour. Because it wouldn’t surprise me if they meant that he should clean out TCHC, but not… y’know… quite this much. It also wouldn’t surprise me if much of this is political, because TCHC is a highly politically toxic creature. I’m not going to go into detail on the Ombudsman’s report, except to say that I thought her office was supposed to be objective and neutral. The extremely snarky tone of the April 22 report belies that obligation and makes it look as if she has a political agenda.

For years, no one has cared about TCHC residents. Gene does. And this is why I, and so many other residents. love the man and would follow him anywhere.

It is essential that Gene Jones be given the opportunity to complete his mandate. And I hope that the Board of Directors of TCHC will put residents before politics and give him - and us, the residents - their full support.


Anonymous said…
That sounds like he was doing a great job. It is too bad he didn't follow the rules then so he would be able to continue doing it. Unfortunately, as an employee for the municipal government you cannot hire whoever you want, and give raises anytime you want, unless of course you are the Mayor. There are policies and procedures.
Mark Dowling said…
Compare Jones with Andy Byford, who brings the same concern for customers without the attitude that he just decides things and underlings just have to make it happen without regard to whether it is appropriate.
Anonymous said…
I am simply appalled at the behavior of the THC Board. For all of Toronto, this is simply a disgrace and downright shabby treatment of an individual who was hired to clean up that 'snake pit' and somehow get the dilapidated THC ship headed in a better direction. The THC system for change just isn't there and all the complacent workers who did things 'as usual' without any sense of urgency to make a difference should all be happy now. Unfortunately the residents of all of the THC buildings are now having to go back to a non-responsive, let-them-rot attitude that is simply a disgrace. Toronto should be ashamed of its attitude and actions towards Gene Jones. As a city you've certainly taken a step back into the dark ages. It's a travesty from every angle.
AlisonH said…
Please send this post to your newspaper, the radio station, Gene Jones himself (sounds like he needs every bit of backup he can get right now) and anyone else you can think of. Thank you so much for writing it and for standing up for a man clearly trying his best to do right by his fellow man and especially for those most vulnerable. Such a rare and good thing. Well done, Gene and Lene.