Conservation Authority playing landlord with low-priced rentals

Pictured is one of the homes owned by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.

Pictured is one of the homes owned by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority.

Sue-Ann Levy, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:22 AM ET

TORONTO - Despite regular pleas for more public money to help prop up their watershed management efforts, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority is sitting on 118 homes valued at $35 million, the Toronto Sun has learned.

And TRCA CEO Brian Denney -- who cashed in with about $340,000 in pension and wages in 2013 -- is living in one of the homes that are being rented, from all signs, to a limited pool of TRCA staff and others with ties to the conservation authority at modest rents of anywhere from $759 per month to at the most, $1,800 a month.

Former Toronto budget chief, Mike Del Grande, who presided over three TRCA budgets, knew nothing about the existence of the homes or that they were being rented until told by the Toronto Sun last week.

While there is nothing legally wrong with renting them, Del Grande thinks the homes are not being rented at market values considering $1,500 gets one a two-bedroom apartment -- and not a very good one -- in his part of Scarborough.

"If these homes aren't attracting market rent, they're basically giving subsidies to the people in there," he said. "It seems the rents were picked on the fly."

Del Grande said the proper procedure would have been to go in there and get a real estate appraisal to determine what the house would command on the open market.

But that does not appear to have happened. According to Lori Colussi, TRCA's manager of leases and risk management, the homes are advertised on Kijiji, Craigslist, through e-mails to staff, word of mouth and in Renter's News -- but evidently not on MLS.

Colussi indicated by e-mail that when a home become vacant, they evaluate the rental rate and research the market to see what "other comparable rental" properties are charging to ensure they are "in line with current market conditions." She adds that the TRCA uses the guidelines established by the Ontario Housing Tribunal to determine rent increases.

Spread throughout TRCA's 44,000 acres, the 118 homes have been accumulated over the years as part of their "aggressive land banking program," says TRCA CFO Rocco Sgambelluri.

The TRCA itself has been existence since 1957, following Hurricane Hazel, and in 2012, received $49.7-million of its $96-million 2012 budget from municipalities and the provincial and federal governments. The remainder comes mostly from user fees and some fundraising. Toronto taxpayers contributed $7.8-million, about half of that coming from Toronto Water accounts.

Of the 118 homes available for rent, 40 are located in Toronto, mostly in the Rouge Park area. A total of six TRCA staff, including Denney, currently live in the homes. Only two are vacant at the moment.

It was hit and miss as to which members of the TRCA board actually knew about them.

When contacted, Jack Heath, deputy mayor of Markham, said he had no idea the TRCA owned 118 homes and that Denney lived in one of them.

"Quite frankly, I don't think it's an item that's ever come up for us to discuss," said Toronto Councillor Vince Crisanti when told of the 118 homes. "I find that at TRCA, there are a lot of best-kept secrets."


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