When Democracy is Taken From Us

I had intended to post today about the new Methadone by-laws in London, but that will have to wait until tomorrow as something more pressing has come up.  I first saw it through twitter that there was a luncheon including a number of councillors prior to the budget meeting at which affordable housing was cut.  This has now come to full light through articles in the London Free Press and London Community News.  This is of concern as the Municipal Act prohibits private meetings of council or committees if quorum is obtained.  Although this meeting would not be quorum for full Council, it would be quorum for the Investment and Economic Prospertiy Committee, which looks at “economic issues” and “economic strategies and initiatives”.  Although Councillor Denice Brown denies it in the LCN article, Councillor Henderson states explicitly in the Free Press article that he discussed the affordable housing cut.

I am deeply concerned by this occurrence.  To me this is reflective of a council that has decided quite clearly to drive to a target regardless of the considerations of the electorate.  As councillors are our democratic representatives, these discussions are to be had in the public eye, with full public input.  This is why the Municipal Act prohibits such meetings, because decisions of council are meant to represent us, not be done in secret.  Councillor Henderson’s tone in the article mirrors that of Councillor Orser’s during the meeting, that the general public is some kind of whiny special interest group that is holding back progress.

Unfortunately, although being a veteran of politics, I would suggest that this conceptualization is being promoted by Mayor Fontana.  This was apparent in his opening remarks at the budget meeting, and even more apparent at the recent Planning Committee meeting where he dismissed concerns of neighbourhood groups around development plans that fell outside of existing zoning designations.  The Mayor’s reckless election promises of 0% tax increases for four years, as well as 10,000 new jobs, has put him in a position of having to ignore concerns of the electorate that might make these targets unreachable.  Unfortunately, he has 7 councillors happy to be the brigade in this reckless charge.

Lessons Learned

London just went through its annual budgeting process, and thanks to social media and the new connectedness of the largely under-40 crowd, this generated more interest in this demographic than ever before.  As you can see from my previous posts, affordable housing was a big issue in the debate, and social media allowed us to both care and to learn, so we could care in an informed manner.  Addressing poverty is a Canadian value, and now it was tangible and easy in a local context to see the link to policy-making.

This budget was somewhat of a water-shed moment.  A couple of veteran councillors suggested that they had never received as much citizen feedback on any issues before as they did for this budget debate.  It was clear that we were talking, and it was heard that we were talking, but were we really heard?  On the other side, as mentioned by the Mayor, budget debates always bring a lot of discussion.  Particularly, those groups or agencies that feel at risk will attend in order to defend their interests.  So, would this new level of engagement mean that council would attend to their vocal constituents, or would the buzz be ignored as special interest groups protecting their cash?

Well, the votes were clear.  Councillors who voted to cut housing, disability retrofitting, and union jobs were confident that greater community support was with the 0% tax increase, and that the 1300 surveys, dozens of emails and phone calls, and 75 people in the gallery were a vocal minority, a special interest group.  Councillor Orser explicitly stated so.  The thing is, they’re wrong.  They probably aren’t wrong about the 0%, we don’t have city-wide representative polls asking for a 0% increase and no housing, versus a 0.x% increase and housing, so we can only assume that the election points to a public in favour of 0%.  But rather, they are wrong that we are a special interest group.

The truth is, many of the individuals I sat with in the gallery I had never met face-to-face before.  And, many of the individuals who wrote letters to council had never thought much about affordable housing before.  Rather, we are young(ish) Londoners who by accident or by fate are becoming engaged in our city.  And we know what we want.  We want a city where the rich and the poor can both live comfortably and have their needs met.  We want a city where public transit will move us rapidly from home, to work, to entertainment, and back.  We want a city with trees on our boulevards, in our parks, and in our yards.  We want a city that is accessible to those with disabilities.  We want a city where we can work, regardless of our skill level, and know our jobs are safe.

Unfortunately, the fate of the city is currently being decided largely by the deep-pocketed, traditional political establishment that is appealing to the lowest common denominator.  The valuing of a 0% tax increase is largely based on a skepticism of politics and politicians, a sense that money is mismanaged, so we should give ‘them’ less.  And ‘them’ is a ‘them’ because both politicians and the public have set aside the ‘representative’ portion of representative democracy.  Politicians are no longer seen as members of the community that have the same interests as us, but ‘fat cats’, padding their own pockets off our sweat, blood, and tears.  It’s this belief that will lead us to vote for less and less taxes, less and less public sector employees, and less and less government until it practically vanishes, along with all the services it provides that we don’t realize we value until they are gone.

So this is where we find ourselves, looking towards an ugly future, being decided by those who will be gone by the time it arrives.  We aren’t a special interest group, we are Londoners who care because our futures are tied to this city for the long-haul.  Our task doesn’t lie in educating councillors, because believe me, they know what they are doing, our task is to bring politics and government out of the gutter where the lowest common denominator is rewarded and revive it to the point where we would ask for a 2.5% increase, because we know the London we want, and we’re happy to pay for it.

So for those who felt defeated last night, don’t despair.  In a politics of us vs. the government there will be winners and losers, but in a politics of citizens and government working together, we can only succeed.

So You Want to Talk to Your Councillor

Apologies to my non-London readers, but I need to do one more post related to our municipal politics and the plan to reduce our annual investment in affordable housing from $2M to $1M.  A number of you have asked what you can do about the situation, so here are a couple of options:

Firstly, the issue is covered in this and this post, but in a nutshell this has both economic implications as housing attracts investment into the city at a rate of $7 to each $1 we spend, and more importantly has implications for people experiencing homelessness, as housing is the only known cure to homelessness.  The proposed shift to accompany this cut is to move away from permanent housing supports to temporary ones, at a time when we already have 4300 families on the wait list for affordable housing.

If you would like to let your City Council know how you feel about the proposed cut to investment in affordable housing, you can find their email at http://london.ca/d.aspx?s=/City_Council/default.htm, and be sure to cc csaunder@london.ca so that you message is included in the meeting agenda.

Another simple route for feedback is the survey that has been posted by Councillor Paul Hubert, which can be accessed at http://www.paulhubert.ca/2012/02/budget-input-survey-please-give-me-your-feedback/

Lastly, this whole issue has arisen out of the drive to get to a 0% tax increase.  If you feel that you would rather pay for services than make cuts at the expense of those living in poverty, you can complete and mail in the attached MTIR1 form created by James Shelley.

Thank you for caring for people experiencing poverty.

There’s a Reason We Didn’t Just go the Cheap Route in the First Place

Alternative title: A Cut by Any Other Name Leaves a Scar

If you, like me, were on Twitter on Thursday night, the grief was palpable when the cut to the Affordable Housing Reserve Fund was tabled and then passed.  It hasn’t taken long for the Mayor and Councillors to hear that grief, and they have begun to respond with their rationale.

One of the dilemmas of municipal politics is that in spite of the best laid plans, many decisions and programs are one quick vote away from being over-turned.  Take a fairly benign example from the last City Council meeting.  A developer wants to apply to do a property just west of Richmond north of Oxford.  Staff is requesting that a parking survey be done first, which has annoyed the developer as they are one block outside of an already existing parking survey.  However, for staff to make the best decision on the application, they need the info for the block in question.  Regardless of staff’s reasonable request to follow best practices of decision-making on development, council voted overwhelmingly in favour of proceeding with the application without the parking survey.  Plans and best-practices are trumped by politics.

The same is true of the rationale now being provided for decreasing the annual payment into the Affordable Housing Reserve Fund by $1M.  The Mayor and Councillor White have suggested that they actually have a new plan that allows us to serve more citizens for less.  Unfortunately, this is dependent on our believing that we missed something crucial in the current London Community Housing Strategy that represents the culmination of a 10 year process, was prepared by the leading Canadian consultant on housing and homelessness, involved consultation with 100’s of Londoners and review of over 7000 pages of data and best-practices, cost us thousands of dollars, and included strategies for review and refinement.

The Housing Strategy recognizes the need to increase affordable housing through multiple delivery models, and calls for 375 new units.  This is the number that Council is now suggesting can be decreased.  So, how was this number landed on?  Was it not well thought out?  From page 77-78 of the 2010 strategy, in setting this target the City included consideration of: the housing continuum, indicators of need, funding available, growth of the community, volume of existing housing stock, previous targets and achievements, other City initiatives, other initiatives from other orders of government, policy, local resources, perspectives of persons with lived experience, themes from public consultations, and the timeframe of implementation.  Did the Mayor do this thorough of a job before submitting his last minute briefing note that led to the vote to cut?

Although I make no pretensions to have the same depth of understanding as those who crafted the strategy, I will highlight a couple key points on building new:

  1. It is essential for attracting private investment, which is more than we attract from other orders of government.
  2. It leads to increased tax assessment value in our community.
  3. It means long-term support versus notoriously time-limited and administration heavy rent supplements.
  4. It allows for smart development in existing neighbourhoods such as seeking commercial at grade opportunities.

And lastly, have I mentioned point 5.3 of the Council approved Housing Strategy – “Maintain annual $2 million City investment in affordable housing”?

Affordable Housing is a Good Investment

This is a letter I have sent to the editor of London Community News, as well as City Council:

To the Editor/Mayor and City Councillors,

Affordable housing is a good investment.  Although considered a part of the social services basket, affordable housing carries a number of positive economic implications.  Historically, every $1 of municipal funding has leveraged $3 from other orders of government and almost $4 from the private sector.  This means that the $1M cut to the Housing Reserve Fund represents a potential $8M loss, or at $140,000 per unit, 57 units of affordable housing not built.  Each new unit also represents 2 person years of full-time employment.

Secondly, affordable housing represents a much cheaper way to house people who are experiencing homelessness.  Housing an individual in shelter costs $1,450 per month, jail costs $140 per day, psychiatric acute care costs $650 per day, and acute care inpatient over $1,000 daily.  These statistics are clearly outlined in your Council-approved London Community Housing Strategy.  Therefore, putting money into housing up-front saves us much greater costs down the line.

Finally, building affordable housing is part of the intensification process that saves our communities.  London has a 40% intensification target, of which affordable housing is a key component.  A quick walk through the Old East Village will show you the CentreTown Mall site now being developed, along with the Medallion development on King, which will bring much needed life to a high vacancy strip of Dundas Street between Adelaide and Lyle.

I understand the desire to limit property taxes, but let’s do so in a manner that is best for our community.  I urge you to vote against the recommendation to cut the payment to the Housing Reserve Fund.

Respectfully,

Abe Oudshoorn, RN, PhD

Mixed Up About Markets

London’s Anti-Poverty Strategy: Literature Review is one of the documents that led to the creation in London of the Child and Youth Network.  The purpose of the Child and Youth Network is to eliminate poverty through strategies focused on children.  In the Literature Review both causes of and solutions to poverty are presented.  In terms of causes, they look at economic trends and identify “Deregulation of business…and elimination of trade barriers” as causing increased poverty.  There is a sense that free markets, although generating wealth, do not distribute it well and actually contribute to growing income inequality.  Ironically, in local solutions to poverty, they identify freeing up markets, including:

“Creation of an economy based on a market in which the price of goods and services are determined through the mutual consent of buyers and sellers.  The role of government is reduced to addressing market failures.”

Do you see the irony?  We know that freeing up markets in increasing poverty and inequality, yet there is a desire locally to attract big businesses for local job creation.  This is the rub, where local urgency blinds us to national and international trends.

All that said, market solutions will never be enough to end poverty, as employment in its current iteration will never be a reality for all.  To end poverty, we must look at specific issues for specific populations, not the least of which would be people experiencing homelessness.  And, within this demographic, there is another group that we need to look at if we want to end homelessness, which is people experiencing a substance addiction.  Until we get smart about working with addictions, we will always have homelessness, and as long as we have homelessness, we will have poverty.