The Cheat Sheet: July 16 City Council

I make no claim as to what will make headlines, but these are the interesting items I found. You can check out the full agenda here. Did I miss anything important? Let me know.

The big-ticket item will probably be a new motion to cancel previous plans to replace the SRT with light rail and instead build three subway stops, which won’t go as far, will serve a smaller geographical area and less people, cost about a billion dollars more, and run at a loss. But who’s counting? Since the province is apparently willing to indulge us…siiiigh Continue reading The Cheat Sheet: July 16 City Council

Councilwatching: Apr. 15 Executive Committee casino meeting

Executive Committee, Meeting 30, April 15, 2013

I set my alarm for 7 but woke up at 8:45. With no time to eat before I dash out the door, the bike ride to City Hall feels more arduous than it should. Or maybe it’s just the tires, flabby after a winter of neglect.

But whatever, it’s still a marathon committee meeting, and those are always fun, right? In the masochistic way that councilwatching can be described as fun, anyway. I’m too late to get into Committee Room 1, but everyone knows that the real fun to be had is in the overflow room, Committee Room 2, where you can applaud, heckle, and cheer with impunity from cushy chairs. You can also bring in food — a must for surviving several hours of deputations.

There’s several other Scoobies there as well. Paisley and I take turns liveblogging at Astrid’s new site while Jude and Cityslikr snark on Twitter. Many more people are following from afar. It would have been just like old times, but this meeting has kind of a different feel from the budget ones, or even transit. The hefty speakers’ list has surprisingly few of the “usual suspects” that I’ve come to know and love since that memorable July night, the people various councillors have insinuated are lefty union plants paid to be there. There are, however, quite a few union members, singing the praises of union jobs and expressing their hopes that a casino will bring more. (And, as far as I know, that’s all it is — hope, not a guarantee.)

There are also many people paid to be there because they are casino lobbyists. Lobbyists wouldn’t be lobbyists if they weren’t slick and smarmy, but casino lobbyists, especially the Americans, are something else. Though for them it’s not a casino, it’s an “integrated resort” that will provide everything visitors want yet not suck money away from local businesses, that will “give back to the community” and provide “empowerment”. They put buildings in cities; that’s “city-building”, right? Ughghghghhhhh kill me.

The pro-casino side is not a monolith. There’s the Vegas people, MGM people, who want it downtown, somewhere like Exhibition Place. Our homegrown Woodbine folks want it in Etobicoke and harp on the jobs talk and rally outside with slogans about horse racing. Some local businesspeople expect “bleed-out” from a downtown facility (that is the word they used I am not being facetious) or maybe, if they’re celeb chef Mark McEwan, hope for their own place inside. There’s even sort of cranky academics in the Norm Kelly mold to debunk statistics about gambling addiction.

As I get progressively grumpier, kept awake with a steady stream of sugar and caffeine, I can’t help but wonder how we got this far, how councillors have really ended up extolling the virtues of tacky casinos when the only thing that ever drew them to the idea in the first place was the lure of a mountain of FREE MONEY! that was only ever hypothetical. We might get $150 million and solid union jobs and glittery ponies to fly us to work! Well, I’d like a glitter pony too, but I’d sure as hell look it in the mouth first.

If only the councillors on Executive Committee, who have demonstrated the ironclad political will to cut public services and sell off affordable housing, had the gumption to consider an alternative revenue tool — one that has zero risk of enabling addiction, increasing gridlock, starving local businesses, going massively over budget, etc. And rather than profiting off the most vulnerable, it could be made proportionate to people’s wealth or ability to pay! It’s called a tax and I do wish they would consider it.

And with that rant delivered to Twitter, I have to hurry back to my co-op, where our little finance committee is meeting to go over the draft budget. Things have been moving along quickly and I would have gotten to depute that day, but it doesn’t really matter that much when you get the feeling they’re not listening to you anyway. They’re listening to the people who wined and dined them.

The largest parts of our budget we can’t really do anything about, because it’s mortgage payments and necessary capital projects and such. But for one section I did have an idea about something we could do differently, something that would cost us this year but might help solve a problem in the long run and that maybe the membership would go for. And the other committee members thought it was a good idea! And we asked the accountant to look into it! It’s a thing! It came out of my head and now it is an actual thing! Something I said made a difference!

And afterwards, even though it is sort of out of the scope of the budget, we discussed Whatever Is To Become of Us (after we pay off our mortgage and our operating agreement with CMHC ends). We have an unusually high proportion of units that are subsidized by CMHC, more, one of our expert guys tells us, than we will be able to maintain after the agreement ends. So we might have to start phasing out subsidies. But that’s easier said than done, because, well, these are our neighbours. It’s one thing to say, that is a sensible financial policy, and vote for something that will never affect you. But when you’ve watched kids grow up, and you say hi to someone every morning, and if they get sick or lose their job and can’t afford rent and might face eviction and you yourself have been on ODSP or OW and know how impossible it is to live on that, when a subsidy is available that might save them — that’s a different matter, isn’t it? Then you have a motivation to come up with different ways of doing things, and we did talk about some.

We also talked about the mind-melting ridiculousness of RGI (rent geared to income) housing and social assistance, which I’ve ranted about before — how you have to report your rent to OW/ODSP, who calculate your payment from that, but how you have to report your OW/ODSP income to housing, who calculate your rent from that, and — aaargh! It’s a silly thing but it’s immensely cathartic to talk to people who just get it, who know exactly what you’re talking about, even if you don’t see eye-to-eye or know how to solve the problem (yet). It’s been a lousy day for a lot of reasons, but I came away feeling much better.

So I guess those are my priorities. At the end of the day, I would much rather sit around the table with a few people who get it, and get things done in my tiny corner of the world, than waste my skills spilling my heart out to more powerful people who have no interest in having me around and will only consider listening to me if I jerk them off exactly the way they like it. Yeah, I’m bitter, and no, I’m not just talking about politicians. Time to go to bed and do it all over again tomorrow.

Poverty infrastructure

In Desmond Cole’s story on the City staff report on homelessness, he concludes,

Toronto’s shelter system was never designed to meet the needs it now struggles to address. According to the report, shelters now sometimes serve as permanent or semi-permanent housing for people who should ideally be in some form of assisted-living housing.

And it occurred to me, not for the first time, that this is a defining feature of our poverty infrastructure, a. k. a. the social safety net. Homeless shelters, food banks, and distress lines were only ever meant to be emergency measures. But all of these services have regular users because there is nothing else there to meet people’s basic needs. Instead of permanent affordable housing, people use shelters. Rent is so high that people are chronically unable to afford food, so they rely on food banks. Because adequate preventative mental health care is inaccessible, they call the distress line number posted up by the Bloor Street viaduct for suicidal jumpers.

It is a strained and unsustainable system that various levels of government, which ostensibly want to wipe out poverty, are slowly divesting themselves of, and “downloading” to private enterprises or individuals.

We have essentially refused to hire family doctors, and if anyone gets sick there is no help until you are in such critical condition you need to go to the emergency room. And because the emergency room is only designed to get you out of emergencies, no one will help you get healthy enough so that you don’t need a doctor at all.

You may now return to your regularly scheduled wankery about transit funding. Good night.

Section 37, Affordable Housing, and Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

It’s a constant source of rage and despair for me to see glass condos and “luxury townhomes” going up around town while the affordable housing waitlist stretches to record numbers. (161,266 people total [PDF] as of January, in case you were wondering.) And, as you know, Bob, since all those new developments mean more Section 37 funds,

—oh, what’s Section 37? Basically, the zoning rules say what kind of stuff you’re allowed to build, and if they say you can only build a tower 6 storeys high, and the developer wants to build one 12 storeys high, Section 37 of the Planning Act says they have to pay some extra money that offsets the extra load on local infrastructure, or goes to benefit the community.* Like, streetscaping, or a daycare, or something.

It’s not a tax because that’s not allowed; the money doesn’t go into some citywide pot because that would make it a tax**; the exact amount, and the nature of the benefit, gets worked out with the city councillor for each development. Anyway

I naturally wondered if we couldn’t kill two birds with one stone and use Section 37 money for affordable housing. It’s totally an approved use. They can build it elsewhere in the neighbourhood, or they can set aside units in their condo. Because the current rules about it are kind of restrictive, the Planning & Growth Management Committee asked the city planners to revise them so it’s easier to do.*** And today, yes, today, they are talking about it at the committee meeting!!!****

I went to a very interesting open house on this back in November, where the planners explained the upcoming changes. You can read the report yourself to see what bits they’ve added (bolded here). From the list of possible incentives:

i. purpose built rental housing with mid-range or affordable rents, land for housing, affordable ownership housing, or, at the discretion of the owner, cash-in-lieu of affordable rental or ownership units or land;
j. a maximum of 20 individual affordable rental units, located in a registered condominium, provided the units are owned and operated as rental housing by a registered non-profit housing provider satisfactory to the City and meet established criteria, including securing through an agreement the maintenance of affordable rents for at least 25 years and rental tenure for at least 50 years. Such units will be deemed to be rental housing notwithstanding the definition of rental housing that would otherwise exclude condominium-registered units.

(However, after public consultation they’ve decided to remove the cap on rental units, and take another look at the 25- and 50-year requirements (some people think that’s too long; others, not long enough). None of this is written in stone yet.)

So, what’s the problem here? Why aren’t we all jumping for joy? What are some of the possible drawbacks of this approach?

The York Quay Neighbourhood Association thinks that “the affordable housing shortage in Toronto is so acute that we foresee all future Sec. 37 funds flowing towards this desperate need” (PDF), which is painfully adorable, you just want to ruffle their hair. WHO’S A GOOD CONCERNED CITIZEN. YOU. YES YOU ARE. GO FETCH. As a planner present at the open house told me, affordable housing, which calls up stereotypes of bedbug-ridden welfare scroungers bringing down property values, is “poison” to developers. The councillor has to push for it, and the developer has to agree to it, and because it’s something negotiated rather than mandated, you can’t make either of them do any particular thing. Developers make less money if they have it on-site, and they think it’ll bring down the property value if it’s built off-site. Councillors are inclined to side with developers as well; nobody wants to be seen as unfriendly to business. There are a few councillors who consistently negotiate for more housing in their wards (Vaughan, Wong-Tam), but that is entirely because they feel like it. There is no way to make, say, Doug Ford get a developer to opt for affordable housing rather than daycare.

(Can’t we make rules about this stuff? you might ask. Short answer: it’s called “conditional zoning” and “inclusionary zoning” and it’s up to the province, which has taken absolutely no action on it despite the fact that they’re theoretically in favour of it and people do keep putting forward motions and such. Write your MPP.)

Similarly, you can’t say how many units have to be set aside. Nor, it seems, can you add a clause saying “not all of the crappiest units, either”. That all is settled on a building-to-building basis. There’s nothing keeping anyone from setting aside a handful of terrible condo units for the non-profit and calling it a day. It’s too scattershot an approach to help the vast numbers of people who are inadequately housed.

The even deeper problem, which City staff are totally not rushing to point out, is that “affordable”, as the city planners are using it here, doesn’t actually mean, you know, affordable. Most of us hear “affordable housing” and think something like 30% of gross income, TCHC waitlist, bedbugs, etc. LOL NO. Note the inclusion of “mid-range” rent and “affordable ownership”***** in the guidelines. And “affordable ownership” doesn’t mean, like, those programs at Regent Park. “Affordable ownership”, as we were told at that meeting, means average sale price. Dear everyone, do you think the average Toronto home’s sale price is affordable?******

And lest you think I’m just pulling shit out of my ass, ACTO (Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario), who are slightly more in touch with reality than the YQNA, also point this out in their letter (PDF). They also note that over the past sixteen years, only 1,589 “affordable” units have been secured as rental housing. And over half of those were “mid-range” rent rather than, you know, actually affordable. If you think that slightly expanded guidelines will dramatically change that…I’ve got a bridge to sell you. They’re not gonna make a dent in the affordable housing waitlist, which is sitting at about 87,300 applications.

This is the main problem with using a planning tool never intended for the purpose to secure, you know, a basic fucking human right: case-by-case negotiations relying on individual goodwill (but mostly capitalism) will never, ever, ever replace legislation, policy, and investment in infrastructure. Like, ever.


* If you’re wondering how a community benefit takes the weight off local infrastructure, the Federation of North Toronto Residents’ Associations feels your pain (PDF).

** It would be wonderful if all city councillors understood this but they don’t.

*** They mentioned two cases where condo units were set aside for affordable housing:

  • The Charlie, a condo near King and Spadina, where four units throughout the building are to be owned and operated by Kehilla, a Jewish affordable housing nonprofit

  • Artscape Triangle Lofts in Liberty Village, where 20 of the live/work artist spaces are rentals and the rest for sale

Such cases didn’t count as Section 37 benefits at the time, but under the new rules, they would. This would ideally allow more affordable housing to be created.

**** Ideally I would have finished this post in, like, November, but ehhhhhhhhhhh~

***** Who the hell is the affordable ownership lobby? Who’s in their pocket? I really want to know.

****** If your answer is “yes”, 1. fuck you and 2. shouldn’t you be reading Toronto Life?

Diary of a councilspotter: The roof over our heads

Friday, February 17, Executive Committee Meeting 17

Had to miss the first half of the special Executive Committee meeting on TCHC for a meeting with an Ontario Works caseworker so she could verify I’m broke and gainfully unemployed enough. This one’s new. She asked what I did my degree in; I told her “Philosophy” and she laughed in my face. Hey, I’d be laughing if I were her, too.

When I got there they were a few dozen deputations in. The crowd was the usual housing activists and scattering of cranks, plus a good contingent of regular folks who rarely go to these things, many clearly here out of desperation—unpracticed in public speaking, with choked-up voices and often halting speech. It takes a lot of bravery to go down to City Hall and beg a bunch of callous old guys not to sell your house out from under you.

—Sorry. It’s hard for me not to go all Joe Fiorito on this. But I think that if you were serious about eradicating poverty here in Toronto, a solid affordable housing strategy would be the place to start, and it’s absolutely fucking infuriating that a gang of small-government ideologues with six-figure salaries who don’t give a shit about poverty are the ones managing the crisis.

Crisis, eh?

As of December 2011, there’s a record-breaking 82, 138 households on the affordable housing waitlist (PDF). The list is growing by about 7.5% each year, but they house only 4–4.5%. We’re in this situation because—stay with me here—market rent housing is unaffordable (especially for the working poor and people on social assistance), which drives up demand for affordable housing; but more people want to move in than are moving out, because market rent is unaffordable.

What we really need is to drastically increase the amount of affordable housing available. Selling off property as a stopgap measure—in effect, cannibalizing TCHC’s own assets for one-time funds—would be moving backwards. So what are some things we can do? I thought of a few:

  1. Enter into partnerships with other organizations, like co-ops, which would take on some of the cost (and potentially develop into affordable housing independent of TCHC).

  2. Provide rent subsidies to people currently living in market rent housing, which Team Ford seems to favour. I’m not sure whether this would be more or less cost-effective.

  3. Use Section 37 funds, which developers pay in exchange for getting to put more units in their buildings, to subsidize a percentage of units in new developments. Right now the money goes towards neighbourhood improvements, but (I think) there’s no reason why it can’t be repurposed. Recently Habitat for Humanity has proposed acting as a go-between.

I favour door #3, because it a) actually creates more housing stock, b) takes advantage of the current condo building boom, and c) uses money we’re already getting, rather than some hypothetical amount the province or the feds should really cough up and totally won’t. But I’m sure TCHC will need to rely on multiple strategies to get out of the hole.

The political option

So rookie councillor Ana Bailão, chair of the Affordable Housing Committee, offered the mayor a compromise: sell only some of the properties, the ones which are vacant and unliveable, and establish a working group to report back this fall on better solutions. Given that the majority of Council would be behind her, Ford had no other reasonable choice. At the meeting, this pissed off deputy mayor Doug Holyday, who loosed one of his spittle-flecked old man rants on how Bailão’s compromise was “the political option”, as opposed to selling all 675 properties right away, that being “the business option”.

Protip, Holyday: that option’s “political” too. It’s all fucking political! The whole principle of “running the city like a business” is a political ideology. In practice it means whatever the fuck you want it to mean—as we saw during the budget process where Team Ford argued strenuously for businesslike practices like selling off assets without consideration for the revenue they brought in, and during the transit debate when they rejected the most efficient and economical option in favour of a prohibitively expensive subway dream.

No one else on Executive Committee bought Holyday’s argument either, voting for Bailão’s plan in the end. Unfortunately it probably just bought us some time. So I’m thinking about one of the deputants I saw—a mother flanked by her two kids, sitting on the bench outside the library nervously practicing her deputation—and worrying. What can you do? Where can you go when nobody gives a fuck?

You can now get back to fussing about Gary Webster. Good night, and good fucking luck.

Twenty-two hours in Toronto

“We’re fucked,” I scribble in my notebook as the meeting opens. Inexplicably it is in a small committee room rather than the Council Chambers, so they’ve had to open two overflow rooms and set up a projector and chairs in the lobby. With over 300 people registered to speak, the meeting is going to be ridiculously long. Nevertheless, proposals to move to the Council Chambers and take an overnight break have just been summarily shot down. A motion is passed to let people with children and people with disabilities speak first, but not without Councillor Mammoliti protesting that now everyone will claim to have a disability. This pettiness from the Executive Committee does not bode well for the process ahead, which Mayor Ford describes as separating the “must haves” from the “nice to haves”.

As you may know, KPMG’s “opportunities” for savings are not what strike most people as merely nice to have. They include the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, library branches and services, the Affordable Housing Office, the Community Partnership and Investment Program (which funds, for example, public health initiatives, youth activities, and cultural events), Wheel Trans, and more. (There are murmurs of indignation in the overflow room as the consultants give their presentation.)

This raises the question of how wise it is to cut them for one-time savings. What will the long-term impact be? Might, say, cutting funding that aids the homeless add a larger burden to policing or public health, and end up not saving money at all? Not to mention that many of these programs also save us money or stimulate the economy and receive funding from higher levels of government, so we must also look at how much revenue we stand to lose. But when the visiting councillors brought this up with the KPMG consultants, they replied stolidly again and again, “That was beyond the scope of our report.”

Only a few deputants are able to speak before it’s time for the lunch break. It’s drizzling in Nathan Phillips Square. People with umbrellas line up at the food tents for jerk chicken and ceviche and samosas. A small group of historical re-enactors from Fort York do military drills to a fife and drum. Yep, just a typical day in Toronto.

Later in the meeting the committee will just want to get things over with, but the earliest deputants receive multiple rounds of questions from councillors. Budget chief Cllr. Del Grande attempts to badger the deputants into making all the numbers add up, provoking cries of “That’s your job!” from the overflow rooms. Cllr. Mammoliti reminds each person from local Arts Councils that “of every dollar the provincial government collects in taxes, we get eight cents.” Eight cents, man! And you would have us squander it on art and culture!

Memorable deputants include Kim Fry, who likens this to the Harris government’s “manufactured crisis” and fires back spirited retorts to skeptical right-wing councillors; a neurosurgeon who brings in her very young son “to give him a voice” on zoos and libraries; a young blind woman whose voice shakes with rage as she describes her long struggle to qualify for Wheel Trans; and Kevin Clarke, who swoops in in a blue cape and promptly gets tossed out by security.

A young man named Miro Wagner shares a short fable about “a house called Toronto”, and a foolish contractor who knocks out the ugly pillars in the basement, then declares the house is too heavy and talks the residents into selling off all the furniture and appliances so the house doesn’t collapse. This is just the first of several creative deputations—later on, a guy in a Radio 3 T-shirt reads a speech which I gradually realize is a poem off his iPhone; at the peak of absurdity, Desmond Cole delivers his deputation through a sock puppet named Roy (sadly, no councillors asked follow-up questions); and Susan Wesson delivers her defence of libraries through song.

One woman actually gets a laugh out of Rob Ford as, summing up their political differences, she says, “…and I ride my bike to my gay friends’ wedding!” The only other time he shows interest is when a deputant mentions being a football coach. He drinks can after can of Red Bull and vanishes for long periods of time. Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday takes over. He comes across as a bit more chill—for one, he lets people finish their sentences as their time’s running out, and has a less sulky demeanour in general. But the most dedicated councillors aren’t on the Executive Committee; it’s mostly Janet Davis, Kristyn Wong-Tam, Adam Vaughan, Gord Perks, and Mike Layton who rarely let a deputant go by without questions.

Maureen O’Reilly of the Toronto librarians’ union receives one of the most enthusiastic receptions as people file in with stacks and stacks of petitions and everyone in the room—the rooms!—claps and chants “Save our libraries!” This Youtube clip gives you a pretty good idea of what the night was like: Cllr. Mammoliti being a dick (he threatens to move to adjourn the meeting), Mayor Ford mangling poor Cllr. Mihevc’s name, Cllr. Davis being a mensch, Cllr. Perks essentially thumbing his nose at the Mayor as he asks Mihevc’s question for him, and the public cheering their heads off.

And the seventeen-year-old girls from Crescent Town, talking about how their community centre has improved their neighbourhood; and fourteen-year-old Anika, sobbing as she begs the Mayor not to close libraries; a zookeeper and a parks worker, a med student and a professor; countless ordinary middle-class people saying that they will happily pay higher taxes to keep these things open, because it’s just the right thing to do.

A couple times Cllr. Perks dashes in with freshly refilled pitchers of water. “That’s how it should be,” says someone approvingly, “they’re supposed to be serving us.”

The guy sitting across the table from me brings a box of Timbits to pass around the room. Then suddenly there’s boxes of coffee from Tim Hortons and Starbucks, and cookies, and crackers, and juice. Pie and vegan desserts appear from nowhere. Fresh fruit. (All this in the wee hours of the morning. Where is it coming from?!) There is a general feeling of camaraderie between complete strangers. The people sitting next to me apologize for not being able to stick around to hear my deputation and wish me luck as they leave. Those of us near the end of the list commiserate about the long wait.

Finally I go up and say my bit, and listen to some of the people who have been there since the morning finally getting to say their bit. Himy Syed reels out a list of practical tips for each councillor, culminating in “Councillor Matlow, please unblock me on Twitter.” Dave Meslin, in plaid pyjamas and toting a stuffed bunny, commands great respect as he speaks calmly to the Committee about his disappointment in the whole process.

There is certainly a lot to be disillusioned about. When I read about the Mayor saying he would sit there for days, as long as it took to hear everyone, I guess I assumed that he would do just that—listen. Instead he clearly wanted to get it over as quickly as possible and made no attempt to engage with people. And having the meeting run all night shut out a great number of people who wanted to have their say. I am upset about Mammoliti, who went out of his way to be an asshole to as many people as possible. I am just generally let down by how the Executive Committee were really just there because they felt obliged to be, and those hours and hours of words just went in one ear and out the other. Like Meslin said, the process itself was disrespectful. It was designed with one end in mind: cutting public services as quickly as possible. That’s all.

But I was elated to be there, because it was also a celebration of Toronto. As one deputant (who had been there since 9:30 in the morning; I sat next to her first thing) said near the end of the meeting, “The nice-to-haves are what make this city worth living in.” It was a long, riotous, passionate, often irreverent tribute to the best of our city: art, nature, diverse community. It was a plea for (and by!) the poor and hungry, and a defence of the neighbourhoods some people call “bad” but which we know as our vibrant, resilient homes. It was testimony to the power of public libraries, which I now believe to be the very soul of Toronto. I am so proud to see my neighbours affirm that the fortunate should help out the needy, and that our worth is not measured in a budget surplus, but by how we treat our most vulnerable.

Pardon a little digression. After I came out as queer, I found I couldn’t just carry on as before, with the only change being the number of genders I was attracted to. Rather I came to discover entirely new ways to love, some which I have no name for, some that I had never imagined, some which I never thought I would feel. And it is still happening, and it’s surprising and a little frightening every time. What I learned last week was how it feels to really love my city.

It’s a pretty good feeling.