Another Never Ending Story

Not having a Plan B, Our Strength.

Mayor John Tory holds yet another press conference to inform us what most of us already know. It’s becoming something of a tiresome pattern, quite frankly. The media gathers. The mayor stands behind a podium that bears a action-denoting placard. He states the obvious. Questions dutifully ensue, invariably winding up with some take on, Yes but, Mayor Tory, what about Plan B?

Or in other words:

anexitstrategy

Yesterday, the mayor told us about the crisis at Toronto Community Housing. Did you hear? There’s a state of good repair backlog, billions of dollars long, threatening to shutter thousands of units in less than a decade and send that many+ of our most vulnerable residents looking for affordable housing in a squeezed environment where there’s already a waiting list, tens of thousands of people long, lined up to get into the very housing that’s in jeopardy of being board up. (See the start of this paragraph.)

Yaddie, yaddie, yaddie. This is news only if not new news counts as news. Why, during last year’s municipal election campaign, David Hains raised a red flag in his Torontoist article. Betsy Powell painted a similarly grim picture in the Toronto Star. tellussomethingwedontknowEarlier this year, the mayor established a task force to examine the crisis.

We know all this already. What are you going to do about it, is what we’re waiting to hear. What’s the game plan? What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

To urge the other two levels of government to get back into funding social housing. Mayor Tory has both ‘moral and business’ cases to make why this should be. We can get a return on our investment and feel good about ourselves while doing it. A win-win. What the hell’s everyone waiting for?

He’s not wrong. The problem is, he’s not the first person to make this point, not even the first mayor to make it. As Ed Keenan points out today, this is a thing nearly a quarter of a century in the making. (An irony sidebar: the man named to head the aforementioned TCHC task force, Senator Art Eggleton, a former Toronto mayor and member of the Liberal government that initiated this crisis when it began divesting itself of the social housing file, offloading to the provinces, and as with any shit stream, it continued to make its way downhill to municipalities. The circle remains unbroken.)iffisheswerewishes

If wishes were fishes, and all that. Yes, it would be fantastic if the federal and provincial governments came on board and began pulling their weight on housing, public transit. It’s an easy argument to make, that they should feel morally obligated to do so. Ditto economically prudent, such investments in key factors for better functioning communities and cities.

Unfortunately, here we still are. All the stamping of our feet, holding of our breath, tubthumping, begging, pleading, blustering hasn’t changed the dynamics. We ask. The feds and Queen’s Park shrug.

So, what’s the Plan B, Matt Galloway asked the mayor on Metro Morning.

Ever the savvy negotiator, Mayor Tory said that he’s not going to talk about any ‘Plan B’ because then the other governments would just tell us to get stuffed and proceed with Plan B. A little game of chicken we’re watching play out.

Except that, as Brian Kelcey pointed out on the Twitter, that’s not how things work, there’s no negotiation. Municipalities make demands, or if they are more politely inclined, ‘asks’. asifNot for nothing, Ottawa and Queen’s Park are referred to as ‘senior’ levels of government. “They either give, or they don’t.”

And if our mayor sees some sort of spirit of giving at either level of government, well, he’s got better eyes than most of us. Just yesterday, in fact, Oliver Moore reported in the Globe and Mail that the province has informed Toronto and Vaughan that the money it pledged to build the Spadina subway extension is going be a tiny bit short, by about $85 million or so. You two make up the difference, would you? And make sure that thing opens up on time or else!

It’s difficult to the point of snapping any optimistic streak in half to see the province pulling out a wad of dough to put in the TCHC pot, moral persuasion and sound business case be damned. Right now they seem much more interested in drawing cash from Toronto rather than make a deposit. The quicker Mayor Tory accepts that fact, the better. Pretending otherwise will only deepen the crisis and make the work that has to be done even more expensive.

It must be difficult for him, this early in to his term, to come to the realization that his influence, his ability to work with the other levels of government might not be as awesome as he thought it was, convinced Toronto voters he possessed. anofferyoucantrefuseI’m certainly not blaming him for believing that other politicians, regardless of where they plied their trade, would want to do the right thing, the smart thing, the moral thing. Keep. Hope. Alive.

But surely the scales have fallen from the mayor’s eyes by now. The current state of our politics is a dog-eat-dog fight for every public dollar out there. We, cities, the province, the federal government, are not partners. We’re rivals, at best agreeing to a you-scratch-my back and I’ll-scratch-yours relationship, not collaborating but always trying to get the upper hand. Unless Mayor Tory is engaged in a much more elaborate and veiled dance, he’s wasting valuable time, blue-skying it and wishing a wish upon a star.

The mayor’s painted himself into a corner, and I’m trying really hard not to think it was deliberate. Maybe he just believed in the rightness of his cause. outofideasIf a fine upstanding citizen like himself saw the moral and business case for billions of dollars of reinvestment in the TCHC, who could possibly disagree? It’s simply a question of doing the right thing.

The alternative is more disheartening, with the best case scenario having Mayor Tory claiming his hands are tied, he has no other choice but to raise the necessary revenue for the city to invest in TCHC itself. He’s been pretty adamant that the property tax base can’t afford the hit, and he wouldn’t be entirely wrong except for the fact the property tax base is funding the Scarborough subway extension and somehow the property tax base came up with nearly half a billion dollars to speed up repairs on the Gardiner Expressway. So yeah, priorities.

Taxes are a necessary evil. Don’t blame me. It’s not my fault.

The darker turn, though, is all this being a pretext for yet another assault on TCHC. A firesale. testedWe can’t afford to maintain these homes anymore, and we’ve been left to our own devices by Queen’s Park and Ottawa. Only the private sector can save us now. By turning the stock over, Mayor Tory can later claim he kept true to the pledge he made to Matt Galloway earlier today that TCHC buildings would not be boarded up under his watch.

Probably sooner rather than later, we’re going to see just how much of a moral issue social housing is to Mayor John Tory.

wearily and warily submitted by Cityslikr

The Source Of The Problem

So, I’m catching up on my magazine subscriptions and I come across this interesting article, toomanymagazinesCanada’s Infrastructure Gap: Funds missing to repair our deteriorating public utilities, in the June 2013 issue of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative’s Monitor. That’s right. June 2013. I’m a little behind. Stop me if you’ve read all this before.

Not to come across the fatalist here but it’s hard to read this report and see how all the plans and platforms we’re hearing during this campaign from mayoral and city council candidates for making Toronto a better place to live are going to make a lick of difference.

You see, there’s one reason, and one reason only this city, along with every other city in the country, is facing the kind of fiscal crunch they’re facing in terms of increased congestion, affordable housing, crumbling, aging and crumbling infrastructure: the near absence of the federal government. crumblinginfrastructure3Ottawa’s where the money is and they’re not rushing to hand much of it over.

And it’s not just a Harper government thing either. For decades now, Ottawa has backed away from its traditional commitments to contributing to municipal capital projects. Liberal red or Tory blue, both have stepped away from the funding table, offering up little more than what is politically beneficial to them.

Here’s the situation, summed up in one paragraph:

In 1955, the federal government accounted for 34% of capital investment. By 2003, it had declined to 13%, the provincial share remained constant at 39%, and the municipal share increased from 27% to 48%.

Even with the bump up of federal infrastructure spending in the face of the 2008 economic crisis, it remains below the necessary level, as a percentage of the GDP, to even help maintain a state of good repair. crumblinginfrastructureThat shortfall has almost exclusively fallen onto the shoulders of cities to deal with as the provinces haven’t really picked up any of the slack left by federal neglect.

While the majority of our tax dollars are bundled up and sent to Ottawa and (in the case of Ontario) Queen’s Park, the level of government with the least ability to generate the revenue now has the most responsibility to pay for the needed infrastructure. Bit by bit, things get put off, ignored, upgrades and expansion are delayed until the work has to be done or even more drastic measures taken. Sell off public housing stock to help pay for upkeep on the rest anyone?

For many people, they make little distinction between the jurisdictional powers of our 3 levels of government. crumblinginfrastructure1For them, they pay all these taxes and watch as things get worse around them. The roads suck. The city’s a little grubbier, more garbage on the streets. Their basement’s flood when it rains. Where’s all our money going? they demand.

And the ground is made fertile for the likes of Rob Ford and his merry band of anti-government tax-haters.

The city doesn’t have a revenue problem. The city has a spending problem.

Truthfully, there’s every reason to think Rob Ford doesn’t make the distinction between levels of government, and who taxes what and where that money goes. He has proven himself to be grossly uninformed about the job he’s been elected to do for nearly 14 years now. crumblinginfrastructure2Don’t rule out the possibility that when he asks the province and Ottawa for more money to fund things like his Scarborough subway pet project, he still adamantly believes the city doesn’t have a revenue problem.

Those damn councillors’ office budgets! $12 000 for umbrellas?!

Unfortunately, cutting all those nice-to-haves won’t build all the need-to-haves to put this city back together again.

We end up fighting amongst ourselves over dollars made scarce by successive absent federal governments. We can’t afford that. And people die, homeless on the street. That’s the federal government’s job. crowdedbusAnd parents are forced to put their kids in unlicensed day-care centres. We need to find efficiencies. And people are crammed tightly together on buses and streetcars.

The fact is, even with the modest types of revenue tools Toronto was given back in 2006 — the ones many of us still rail against — the city alone cannot plug the holes that need plugging, never mind build and expand the things we need to build and expand. Even the province can’t play the white knight and slay the infrastructure deficit dragon we face although, they could be a whole lot more helpful. The federal government needs to re-assume the level of investment in cities it did 50 years or so ago. crisiswhatcrisisProbably even more so, given the level of neglect it’s allowed to happen.

Easier said than done, obviously.

Municipalities remain at the mercy of the provincial governments. Ottawa is in another stratosphere entirely. Where’s the leverage cities have to start making demands of the federal government?

But a good first step might be to recognize our commonalities rather than emphasize our differences. The problems all cities have right now in coming up with the funding to build better, stronger communities and neighbourhoods, to bring our infrastructure from somewhere back in the mid-20th century, notmyproblemstems from one source and one source only. The negligent disregard with which we are treated by our federal elected representatives.

It’s time we started to use our numbers to make our demands better heard in Ottawa. The fact of the matter is, as goes Toronto (or Montreal or Winnipeg or Calgary or Vancouver), so goes Vancouver (or Calgary or Winnipeg or Montreal or Toronto). As go our cities, so goes the country.

unitedly submitted by Cityslikr

Vaughan Gone

We should’ve known something was up when the eye glasses changed, became more bookish.

Aside from the news that Rob Ford had been elected mayor of Toronto, professorpeabodyhearing that Councillor Adam Vaughan was opting for a run at a federal seat comes a close second in terms of a bummer municipal politics turn of events. He provided much of the spark and lightness during this dark term at City Hall, sparing no opportunity to skewer and eviscerate the bumbling, destructive exploits of the Ford administration. Nothing could lift your spirits like an indignant broadside from Vaughan directed at the latest boneheaded malignancy the wrecking crew had cooked up.

He was the poster boy of anti-Fordism, held up as the example of everything that was wrong with the forces of downtown elitism at City Hall. Whippet smart, tart tongued, dismissive and derisive, his detractors, those preferring their politicians dumb and willfully ignorant, labelled Vaughan smug, pompous and arrogant. There’s certainly some truth to that. At times he came across as prickly, impatient with those not keeping up with him. catandmouseThe proverbial inability to suffer fools gladly.

But if his critics were truly honest with themselves they’d admit that what galls them most about Adam Vaughan is that he was right about this mayor and the administration he misruled. Incompetence above all else. How would you say that in Latin? Imperitiam, quod super omnia. The motto emblazoned on the Team Ford crest. Vaughan called them on it regularly and, many times, ill-manneredly.

Should he have been more temperate in his engagement? Maybe. Except, at this juncture, knowing all that we know now, given all that we’ve seen, what would that have accomplished? The Fords brooked no opposition, sought no compromise with anyone who disagreed with them or called them on their bullshit.

It seldom pays to concede to bullies and thugs. Next to incompetence, what the Fords did best was to play the thug card. Councillor Vaughan stood up to that, many times encouraged it, bringing it out into the open for everyone to see.clownthug

During one particularly heated debate, I forget exactly which one of the too many to commit to memory, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti leaning back in his chair and yapping down the aisle at Vaughan. I used to beat up guys like you in high school. Yes, we’re sure you did, Giorgio. We’re sure you did.

Over the past 3 years or so, I was fortunate enough to have some conversations with the councillor outside of the political arena, beyond the political melodrama, to talk about building a city. He knew his shit, and his enthusiasm for transforming streets, neighbourhoods and communities was infectious. It challenged me to try and better understand the nature of what makes cities successfully tick.

I imagine when Councillor Vaughan gets asked what he sees as his biggest accomplishment from his time at City Hall, he will point to the redevelopment of Alexandra Park that is just getting under way. Both in private and publicly, I heard him boast about the process and how it hinged on the input from the residents of the community. This was not going to be his redevelopment or the city’s, but theirs, those who lived there.

manoflamanchaWhich makes his jump to federal politics all the more puzzling.

I get the impetus. Any city councillor worth their salt is going to feel the limitations of municipal governance. There isn’t access to all the necessary tools, especially the fiscal ones, to get the job done on major issues like transit, child care and housing. t must be head-bangingly frustrating to care about these items and know there’s only so much you can do, to battle with colleagues who view such shortcomings as a way not to deal with them.

Councillor Vaughan says he wants to go to Ottawa to finally deliver a national strategy on housing for cities. I truly wish him good luck with that but, frankly, these days, Ottawa is where good intentions and direct, hands on democracy go to die. Olivia Chow, whose vacant federal seat Vaughan is seeking to fill, became an MP with similar purpose in mind, and Jack Layton before her. It’s been some time since the federal government paid much attention to the needs of this country’s cities. Maybe Adam Vaughan can turn that around. I won’t hold my breath in anticipation.

I’m guessing the past four years have been a study in frustration for Vaughan. Time spent mostly trying to push against the reactionary, roll back impulses of the Fords and their ilk. He’s done his hitch. robfordbellicoseWhile I’d hoped he’d be around to help pick up the broken pieces of what gets left behind after this messy weather passes through town, he won’t. It’s going to be a pretty big hole that needs to be filled.

When this term is up, Adam Vaughan will have served at City Hall for nearly 8 years. Rob Ford’s time in office there? 14 years. If you are ever trying to figure out why Toronto faces the problems it does, engages in the kind of politics it does, that’s as a good a place to start as any. Fixing that sort of discrepancy will go a long way to sorting our problems out.

sadly submitted by Cityslikr