“When people ask my daughter what I do, she used to say ‘he’s a lawyer,’ and that was it,” says John Fox, general counsel for development matters with Toronto Community Housing (TCH). “Now, she says ‘he builds houses.’ I’m kind of proud of that answer.”
(John Fox pictured at the Regent Park construction site at Dundas and Parliament in Toronto.)
TCH is Canada’s largest landlord — renting to 164,000 people in over 350 apartment buildings — and therefore much of the legal team’s work goes into tenancy issues. But property development is a large and growing part of TCH’s mandate, which requires Fox’s expertise on everything from municipal applications and easements to construction contracts.
“It’s an intense job, that’s for sure,” says Fox. “Since coming here from Bay Street I actually find the days busier. The total hours are less but my schedule downtown never looked like it does here.” Because he’s involved at all levels of the development process, Fox is just as likely to be found talking to tenants or working with a non-profit neighbourhood group, as he is pushing paper in his office. “At TCH you get to participate in the sorts of things you don’t get to participate in on Bay Street,” says Fox. “Like the sessions where we’re talking about how we’re going to plan out a community. Well, no one invites a $500-an-hour lawyer to that discussion normally, but here, if you want to go, you can go.” That kind of hands-on experience, right from the beginning, is more interesting than crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s on a done deal, he says. His hard-hat hangs near his office door so he can grab it on the way to any of the dozens of construction sites he visits.
Montreal-born, with a Bachelor of Commerce from McGill, Fox studied law at Dalhousie University and articled at Aird & Berlis LLP. He worked at boutique firm Byrne, Crosby before becoming a partner in the commercial real estate group at McMillan Binch Mendelsohn LLP. He decided to jump to TCH because of the “once in a lifetime” chance to work on the organization’s landmark redevelopment of Regent Park. The large east-end Toronto housing project is undergoing a decade-long revitalization that will restore the neighbourhood street patterns, double the number of housing units, and introduce mixed-use commercial buildings and condos to exorcise Regent Park’s history as one of the city’s poorest ghettos.
Fox saw it as an opportunity to work on something he felt was truly important to the city. “I actually think — and I don’t say this just to flatter my bosses or anything — but I actually think a hundred years from now when they ask what’s the most significant change in Toronto around this time, I think they’ll say Regent Park.”
There’s lots of other work to do in the meantime. Fox pulls out a map of Toronto and places it on his desk, gesturing to a blizzard of arrows marking TCH developments planned or currently under construction across the city. For the most part, TCH’s housing facilities blend in with the city, ubiquitous but invisible. Fox says that’s by design.
“When I got this job, one of my favourite games to play was to look up the nearest social housing to my friends’ houses, and see if they actually knew where they were.” They didn’t. “I live at Yonge and Lawrence, and if you walk from there to Yonge and Broadway, you pass about 600 units of social housing. And nobody knows that. We kind of like it that way. People should live in TCH units with a sense of pride, a sense of place, that it’s their home, the same as anyone else.”
Name: John Fox
Employer: Toronto Community Housing
First Job: Day camp counsellor
Proudest Moment(s): Every day with my daughters
Worst Course in Law School: Tax
Greatest Frustration: Inconsistent goaltending
Favourite Law Movie: Witness for the Prosecution
Personal Style: Business casual
Photograph by Clint McLean.