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.

“Poor people will be with us forever”

says budget chief Mike Del Grande in this horrifying chat from last summer, echoing that famous line from the Gospels,

The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.

It’s a reference to this verse from Deuteronomy outlining economic policies:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.

Note the subtle difference between the two verses. In the Deuteronomy version, the ubiquity of poverty is in itself a rationale for caring for the poor. (Our budget chief’s somewhat unorthodox interpretation inverts this reading: the ubiquity of poverty means we shoud not care for the poor.)

In the Gospels, however, Jesus puts his own spin on it. Context, beautiful context: he and the crew are in Bethany and a woman anoints him with expensive perfume, and the disciples are outraged because they think she should have sold it and given the money to the poor. Jesus, however, knows that it’s only a couple days away from the Last Supper and he’s totally about to die. So he says, it’s not a big deal, after I’m gone, you can take care of the poor (in place of me). It’s an echo of the parable of the sheep and the goats:

‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

where service to the poor is considered service to God by proxy.

In Del Grande’s interpretation, however, Jesus doesn’t deserve food or shelter or care. Jesus is not worthy of unconditional love — unjudgmental service for its own sake — because whatever state he’s in is probably his own damn fault. Tough love, man. Sometimes love is impatient and unkind, remembers wrongs, and dishonours and humiliates people.

Take it from a true Christian.

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.