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A conscientious objector in the culture war

August 9, 2011

Public libraries vs Tim Hortons. Riverdale Farm vs The Ex.  The people who depute at City Hall vs the people who work and pay taxes.

If I had ever thought the Core Service Review was about saving $700+ million, I know better now. What we have here is an attempt to kindle a culture war.

I refuse to be goaded into the fight.

For one thing I, like most of us, have divided loyalties. I’m an educated, cycling, park-going downtowner. But I also grew up working-class, retain my lowbrow tastes, and value thrift, enterprise, hard work and “say-it-like-it-is” honesty – the very virtues Ford Nation says it prizes.

I also don’t care for a culture war’s weaponry: slogans, old grievances, and crude stereotypes. A few month ago, before the Toronto election, I was moved by an essay by US Quaker educator Parker Palmer called “The Politics of the Broken Hearted.” His description of win-and-lose political dynamics hits close to home:

“I listen to you first to determine whether we are on the same side. If I sense that we are not, I start listening for everything that is misguided, weak, or incorrect in what you have to say. Then I rise to call attention to your wrongheadedness while proposing my “superior” solution.”

The result, of course, is that compromise is impossible. The majority gleefully secures victory. The losers withdraw and lick their wounds, or organize to turn the tables in the next election. And so it goes, and we are all the worse for it.

So what can a conscientious objector say about KPMG’s “options and opportunities” for Toronto’s Affordable Housing Office (AHO)? I have no interest in defending the status quo. But neither do I want dumb decisions – “fresh thinking” that leaves Toronto worse off, not better.

So here is –- not a rebuttal of the KPMG report – but a few simple thoughts to add into the mix.

Affordable housing is not a “downtown Toronto thing.”

Last month alone, St. John, Thunder Bay, London, Kenora, Whitehorse, Dawson City, Kelowna, Vancouver and half a dozen small towns I’ve never heard of announced new affordable housing initiatives. Many of these involved municipal contributions such as free land or waived development charges and property taxes. (In really inspiring news, Ottawa just decided to reinvest $10 million in savings from uploaded social service costs, plus an additional $4 million from the City’s capital budget, in homelessness and social housing initiatives.)

Nor is it a “left wing thing.”

Councillor Mammoliti, the former Chair of the Affordable Housing Committee, championed the City’s 10-year affordable housing plan, and proved to be a Yes-in-my-BackYard crusader. At the overnight Executive Committee meeting Councillor Bailão, the current Chair, was quick to question KPMG about their report’s impact on the social housing waiting list.

They both know that everyone – suburbanite or downtowner, cyclist or driver, Atwood reader or not – needs a home they can afford.

It takes money to get money.

The AHO’s net budget, according to KPMG, is $1.3 million. Over the past ten years, that $1.3 million has delivered an average $36 million per year in senior government funding. Where else can we get 27 federal/provincial dollars for every municipal dollar spent?

Could some of this work be done more cheaply by a non-profit organization, or through consolidating with other City divisions? Maybe. But there is a certain legitimacy in government taking responsibility for allocating public funds. And given the modest savings KPMG describes, I’m not sure it’s worth setting up entirely new administrative systems.

There is a need for debate. 

It’s not about the way the AHO is organized. That’s small potatoes. It’s about how we allocate senior government funding for greatest impact.

Last month the Federal Government announced an Affordable Housing Framework worth $1.4 billion Canada-wide in combined federal/provincial funding. How will Toronto spend its share?

We all have our own priorities. My own faves?

  • City-building initiatives such as the West Donlands, using federal dollars to develop successful mixed-income neighbourhoods.
  • Affordable home ownership – a chance for people with modest means to build equity, at (if I’m interpreting the numbers correctly) 1/9th the public cost of creating rental housing
  • Family units at affordable rents – something the private sector is just not building on its own.
  • The Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program (RRAP). Since 1973 this unassuming program has helped disabled people stay in their homes, created secondary suites, and converted non-residential buildings into affordable housing. From 2005 – 2009, the average RRAP loan to Toronto homeowners or landlords was $8,700 per unit, creating or repairing 924 units per year.

If I were the Housing Queen I’d expand RRAP’s restrictive federal eligibility requirements, pour more money in, and use it as an engine to bring second apartments to those acres of suburban homes with full basements. Can you think of a cheaper way to expand the rental stock and help homebuyers enter the market, without spending a single dollar on public infrastructure?

Someone needs to speak for housing.

In federal and provincial government, we establish ministries to reflect the issues we know to be important — health, education, environment – or the people who will benefit from concerted action: veterans, children and youth, aboriginal peoples.

There’s no more important City business than ensuring we can all afford to live in Toronto, and that our kids can do the same. That’s why we need an Affordable Housing Committee, backed by a smart and experienced AHO staff. Everything else is detail.

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