Building a Progressive Political Movement at City Hall

Luke Savage, a writer of the Broadbent Institute, published a piece in the Globe and Mail this morning titled “Biting cold exposes rot in city’s attitudes to poverty.” (January 8, 2018) He describes an internal debate in Toronto’s civic administration and then goes on to comment.

Expensive housing proliferates while the needs of middle and low income people are ignored

“This apparent conflict over data has ultimately exposed a much deeper rot, not only in Toronto’s overall attitude towards poverty and homelessness, but in the character of the political consensus that governs it – one that has elevated the market above all else and substituted real human needs for cold economic calculus. Indeed, the city has increasingly become a place of public decay amid private affluence; one where underfunded infrastructure and social services are allowed to co-exist with scorching condo booms and lucrative financial speculation; where an expensive rental market quite literally drives people onto the streets; where, amidst unfathomable wealth, some citizens are forced to suffer in the cold while officials prevaricate about the availability of shelter beds in overcrowded facilities.”

This is a powerful condemnation and Savage points directly at John Tory, Toronto City Council, and other politicians for, “a penny-pinching ethos … that has meant cutting costs and reducing the quality of public services while slashing taxes and public spending.”

This is a good summary of John Tory’s politics and the administration that he leads at city hall. In fact, this approach is typical of almost every municipality in Ontario – keep costs as low as possible, hold the line on property taxes, provide approvals for private developers to build condos and expensive rental accommodation, ignore demands for affordable housing and the crisis of poverty. This is the agenda of the majority of our municipal politicians at a time of unprecedented wealth, and the growing crisis of the poor, young people, and the middle class.

The question, then, is what are we going to do about it? This is an election year and politicians are already working the back rooms to raise the funds and the supporters to get re-elected. This we know. There will never be a change in Toronto politics until a majority of progressives are elected to city council.

There are many reasons why change is difficult: the lack of political party system, the power of incumbency, the low levels of political participation in the grass roots, particularly in the suburbs, and the lack of information at a community level that can hold politicians to account.

It is time to build a progressive political movement in Toronto, Hamilton and across the GTA.

Cities and Commutes

Oliver Moore published an interesting summary of the use of cycling and public transit in the November 30th edition of the Globe and Mail. He gleaned the information from a recent Statistics Canada report.

In 2016, he reports, 74.0% of workers in Canada commute to work by car, truck or van as the driver, 12.4% on public transit, 6.9% walking or riding a bicycle, 5.5% as a passenger of a car and 1.1% by other means. Almost 80% of all Canadians commute in private vehicles.

Bike riders on the Martin Goodman Trail in Toronto

In large cities “active” commuting is on the rise. In Toronto 6.7% commuted to work by cycling or walking, in Montreal the figure is 7.2%, and in Vancouver 9.1%. In the B.C. City of Victoria, the number is 16.9%, the highest in the country.

Moore points out that in the last 20 years “the number of people using bicycles as their main method of commuting nearly doubled, rising 87.9%.” At the same time “the number of people using public transit increased 31.5%.”

Large cities are seeing the most changes. Across the country almost 80% of workers commute by private vehicle, but in the three largest cities, it drops to less than 70%. In Toronto almost one in four commuters use transit, the highest in the country. Vancouver has seen a doubling of transit users in the last 15 years, since the SkyTrain rail network opened.

Despite the rise in the use of transit and cycling, gridlock of the streets continues to get worse in the large cities. In Toronto, the average one-way commuting duration in 2016 was 34 minutes, Montreal 30.0 minutes, and Vancouver 29.7 minutes. Not surprisingly, the general rule across the country is that, the larger the city, the longer the commute.

The question remains, how are we going to build more livable cities, if commuters continue to use private vehicles to get to work or school? There are a variety of answers.

  • Stop urban sprawl and increase the density of existing built up communities.
  • Build better transit, particularly high speed, rapid transit like subways, LRT and commuter trains.
  • Encourage cycling across the urban areas by building dedicated, safe bike lanes.
  • Make the pedestrian experience safer by widening sidewalks and improving crosswalks. At the same time improve and beautify the public domain by making walking on city streets more enjoyable.
  • Discourage the use of cars in the congested districts of our cities by narrowing streets, creating pedestrian only streets, and other traffic calming improvements.

Climate change is another very important issue when it comes to our use of cars and trucks. We will never reduce our greenhouse gas emissions until electric vehicles become the norm.

Housing crisis for middle-income families


This is an item extracted from the “City Building Bulletin” of Ryerson University. It describes one of the reasons why we have a serious housing problem for middle income families. Bill Freeman

Condos under construction in Toronto

A new report called Bedrooms in the Sky: Is Toronto building the right condo supply? by the Ryerson City Building Institute (CBI) and real estate research firm Urbanation examines GTA condos under development to see if the coming supply will accommodate the city’s changing demographics.

“We are building an all-time high of condos, but not enough missing middle housing that’s suitable for a range of family sizes and income levels,” says Cherise Burda, Executive Director of CBI and a report co-author. “Although we’re building tall, we’re still building small units like studios and one-bedrooms. This will have serious consequences for future residents.”

The report finds that 94,000 condo apartments will be completed in the GTA over the next five years—the highest number on record—and most will be in buildings over 20 storeys. At the same time, only 38 per cent of condo apartments in development in the City of Toronto are two bedrooms and larger. The researchers suggest this will make it especially difficult in the coming years to accommodate “up-sizing” young families and downsizing senior citizens leaving their single-detached homes.

 

Montreal and Toronto: the politics of change over status quo

Contrast the Montreal civic election, held yesterday, November 5th, with the last Toronto election held in November 2014, and you will understand why party politics is the only answer to the dysfunction with municipal politics in Ontario.

Valarie Plante, the new mayor of Montreal

Yesterday Valerie Plante became the first woman mayor in Montreal’s 375 year history. Not only that, her party, Project Montreal, took the majority of seats on council. Plante and her party ran on a platform of change. She advocated an expansion of the subway system, and a large investment in social housing, among other issues.

Denis Coderre, the incumbent mayor, took the election for granted. He appeared arrogant, ignored the mistakes of his administration, and brushed off the attacks from the opposition until the very last days of the campaign.

What is remarkable about the Montreal election, from the point of view of a Torontonian, is how the party system in Montreal facilitated fundamental change. Coderre, and his status quo political party named after himself, was decisively swept from power. The Montreal electorate wanted change and the election delivered it. That is a sign of a vital democracy.

That simply could not, and will not, happen in Toronto, and the reason is there are no political parties in this city. Every municipal candidate runs as an individual. They are ward healers in the worst sense and incumbents win over and over again.

I have written about this in my book, The New Urban Agenda, and more recently in an article called, “Toronto Politics and the Possibility for Change,” published in a book called The Rise of Cities, edited by Dimitrios Roussopoulos. Let me repeat some of the arguments I made because they are very relevant for those of us concerned about our city.

Since Toronto was incorporated in 1834 there have been 72 mayors. 45.8% of the mayors have been lawyers or other professionals, 43.2% were from business, the rest journalists and one a union organizer. On the present council only 31.8% are women. Despite the fact that today over 50% of Torontonians are visible minorities, only five, or 11.4%, are come from visible minority groups. Toronto council is not a good representation of the social characteristics of the city’s population.

But the most striking factor in who gets elected municipally in Ontario, Toronto included, is incumbency. In the 2014 Toronto election only one incumbent councillor was defeated out of the 44 members. Once a politician is elected it is very rare that they are defeated. Incumbent politicians have so much advantage over other candidates, that they have to do something very drastic to be defeated.

As a result, Toronto city council has become static, even ossified. Councillors tend to be old, white, male, and their votes on issues reflect their conservative political views. This does not signal a healthy democracy. Council is adverse to taking risks, or promoting new ideas. They vote in favour of development, and support cars over cycling. They are very reluctant to increase property taxes. They claim to support subways and transit, but only if another level government will pay for it. They admit that poverty, and affordable housing is a crisis, but they will not spend money to solve or ameliorate the problems.

Contrast Toronto politics to the dynamic change that happened yesterday in Montreal, and it is obvious that political parties at a municipal level make a difference. A political party, and the policies that they promote, give an identity to a group of politicians running for office. Voters are able to make a real choice based on their perception of the leaders and their policies.

In Toronto we have none of that, and so we have a politics that is uninspiring and unable to face change. It is a dysfunctional politics that will never provide the leadership we need.

(Thanks to Andre Picard, of the Globe and Mail, for his coverage of the Montreal election.)

Democracy, Neoliberalism, and Participation

In my latest book, Democracy Rising: Politics and Participation in Canada, I argue that our representative democratic form of government is failing us. Elites, particularly wealthy corporate elites, have captured the political system to promote their own interests.

Not only does government favour corporate development and profits, in the belief that this will increase the country’s wealth and employment, but we have a tax system that benefits the wealthy. The off-shoring of wealth to avoid taxation has become a serious problem. An economic and political system has been developed that benefits the 1%, while the rest of us languish.

All of this inequality, and concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, is justified by the ideology of neoliberalism. This is a self-serving theory that promotes rapacious capitalism, inequality, low pay for workers, poor working conditions, and attacks the welfare state as unnecessary and unaffordable. Neoliberalism goes so far as to argue that competition is the natural state of the human condition. It is good for the country and economy because it leads to efficiencies and innovation.

It is a theory that has been adopted by the corporate and political elite in virtually all of the developed countries. Today Donald Trump is the leading advocate, but Canada suffered from the ideology for almost ten years with the Stephen Harper government. Justin Trudeau is leading a government that is pushing back neoliberalism, but the conservative assault on minor tax reform measures shows just how ingrained this ideology has become.

To challenge this ideology in Canada, we have to begin by developing a different ideology, one that stresses co-operation and participation. Competition is not the natural state of the human condition. It was co-operation that led to the development of our civilizations, and working together in a co-operative way is the way we interact at work, politics, public institutions, and private corporations. Humans have a remarkable ability to work together to achieve collective goals.

We have to challenge the neoliberal ideology of selfishness and greed by promoting a participatory culture. I see it emerging everywhere I go: environmental groups, trade unions, co-ops, community groups, clubs, and sporting associations. Democratic organizations are everywhere in our society. They are run democratically, and they provide the way that people can participate. (Last weekend I attended a public meeting about Toronto’s Waterfront called “Waterfront for All.” Well over 300 people were there to talk about the new neighbourhood that is emerging in the city. It was inspiring to see how citizens want to participate in the task of rebuilding our city.)

We need to reform our parliaments and create a workable system of proportional representation, but above all we have to challenge neoliberalism and advocate that we need co-operation, engagement, and participation in all aspects of our lives. That is the only way that we will develop a caring, egalitarian society where everyone has the chance to develop to their own potential.

Nuclear disarmament and city politics

Many Torontonians like to think that we are light years ahead of other Canadian cities on progressive issues, but as this posting from CATCH News clearly points out, our friends in Hamilton are away ahead of us.

Personally, I am distressed that our Liberal government in Ottawa instructed our representative to vote against a UN resolution, “to prohibit the development, testing, production, manufacturing and possession of nuclear weapons.”

All of the countries who have nuclear arms voted against this resolution. The Canadian government fell in line with the Americans as did all of the NATO counties except Holland. Despite this, the motion passed by a large margin in the UN General Assembly.

Read what happened in Hamilton and you will understand why I think Steeltown is a leader in progressive politics.

Bill Freeman

CATCH News – August 14, 2017

Ban on nuclear weapons

They gathered last week celebrating last month’s United Nations treaty banning nuclear weapons, mourning Canada’s refusal to support it, solemnly remembering the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and affirming in unison their commitment to real security. The Dundas councillor brought greetings from “peace mayor” Eisenberger, noting Hamilton is officially a nuclear-free city, all while two presidents rattled their bombs in an international competition for who is most willing to bring an end to life on earth.

The Hamilton Mundialization Committee’s annual reminder of the consequences of nuclear weapons took place in the city’s municipal service centre in the old Dundas town hall. It heard a specific message to Hamilton from Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the Hiroshima attack 72 years ago and a peace activist who was unable to attend in person as planned. Her statement pointed particularly to the UN decision “to prohibit the development, testing, production, manufacturing and possession of nuclear weapons” that was approved by a lmost two-thirds of the world’s countries on July 7.

“For the first time nuclear weapons have been unconditionally stigmatized as standing outside the international humanitarian law,” she stated. “In no uncertain terms this treaty declares to the world that nuclear weapons are illegitimate, illegal and immoral.”

Canada joined all nine nuclear-armed countries in boycotting the UN vote as well as the three years of conferences leading up to it. Japan and all NATO countries, except the Netherlands, also didn’t participate with the latter casting the only ballot against it. Iran, Sweden and Switzerland voted in favor as did Mexico, Cuba, Ireland, Iraq, Egypt, and most African and Latin American countries.

North American media largely ignored the UN action. The United States, France and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement declaring: “We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it. Therefore, there will be no change in the legal obligations on our countries with respect to nuclear weapons.”

In June Prime Minister Trudeau characterized the initiative as “sort of useless” if it doesn’t include countries that actually have nuclear weapons. An NDP motion calling on Canada to participate generated a lengthy House of Commons debate on June 8. The Liberals argued the treaty is “premature” and will be “ineffective”.

The NDP motion only won support of the Bloc Quebecois and Green Party leader Elizabeth May. The Liberals and Conservatives combined to defeat it 245-44. Petition cards urging Canada to ratify the treaty were distributed at last week’s meeting and can also be endorsed on-line.

In the gathering Councillor Vanderbeek spoke on behalf of Mayor Eisenberger, noting that he joined Mayors for Peace in 2006, a group committed “to the total abolition of nuclear weapons and the attainment of lasting world peace, and to the solution of such problems as starvation, poverty, the plight of refugees, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation in cooperation with the United Nations.”

She also recalled that Hamilton “has been declared a nuclear-free zone which means that no nuclear weapons are to be located in Hamilton or to be moved through Hamilton.” The meeting also heard a letter from the mayor of Nagasaki and one from Hiroshima read by a student who had participated in Hamilton’s fifty-year-old exchange program with Japan started by Dundas. The mayors of both cities are urging the Japanese government to ratify the UN treaty.

The meeting concluded with recitation by the attendees of an anti-war “Pledge of Nagasaki” and a community affirmation that read in part:

“We declare that we are at peace with all people of good will. We require no leader to tell us whom to call ‘enemy’ or whom to call ‘friend’ or what to call ‘security’. Instead we affirm that our earth’s security rests not on armaments, but in the fairness of adequate housing, food and water; in the justice of safe and renewable energy; in the legitimacy of meaningful education and work; in the integrity of economic order that gives everyone access to our earth’s abundance; in the honesty of political process to which all people contribute; and in the decency of human relationships nourished by cooperation and love.”

More on Red Hill

This is an article published by CATCH News, a Hamilton citizen online newsletter. Red Hill Expressway has been a controversial local issue for decades. It illustrates how local citizens understand the consequences of projects like these far better than the traffic engineers.

Bill Freeman

CATCH News – July 17, 2017

Red Hill and Trump

The Red Hill Parkway was born in controversy and continues that history, most recently focused on the large numbers of crashes on the valley expressway and the even greater numbers of trucks. All of this appears to be connected and may shed some light on current US events.

More than any other Hamilton road, the valley parkway is political, steeped in decades of angry debate between multiple factions long before it was opened ten years ago. The idea for an east end expressway across the escarpment arose in the 1950s, but where to put it generated an epic debate where passion and politics overruled engineering and road construction know-how.

That gave Hamilton an ‘expressway’ that follows a route largely determined thousands of years ago by the landscape-carving effects of the waters of a meandering creek. That meant not only more curves than engineers prefer for major highways, but a lot of ups and downs to move motorists from the valley floor to the intersecting roads serviced by interchanges on top of the steep challenge posed by crossing the escarpment.

Additional politics determined that there are six of those interchanges along an eight kilometre stretch – Dartnall, Greenhill, King, Queenston, Barton and the QEW – with each of the latter five sited barely a kilometre apart. That’s also far more than road engineers recommend and has meant that on-ramps from some interchanges complicate drivers’ attempts to take the subsequent off-ramp.

Media attention has focused on pavement quality and lighting, but the basic layout required to build a road down a creek valley may be much more significant. It certainly is more difficult to change. So is the simple fact that most traffic comes off of either the QEW or the Linc – both with higher posted speeds.

Drivers doing their usual 120 km/hr are presented with what seems to be a continuation of the highway. Not surprisingly they tend to try and maintain their speeds with unfortunate consequences. Changing that ultimately that may require stoplights at either end of the valley and other measures beyond signage.

That’s further complicated by thousands of heavy trucks utilizing Red Hill and the Linc as a shortcut between the QEW and Highway 403, as well as a way to avoid the frequent high winds on the skyway bridges. Some city councillors seem surprised by this activity and have ordered staff to do a count, but it was obvious the trucks would be attracted to a route that’s a full nine kilometres shorter than via the skyway.

Friends of Red Hill Valley, one of the groups that opposed the valley route, not only loudly predicted this short-cutting, they even tried calculating the numbers. Volunteers (the author was one of them and also chaired the group at the time) did a 24-hour count at the Freeman interchange in Burlington and found that 4500 trucks a day were shifting between the QEW and the 403.

In 1950s several locations were possible for a north-south expressway but by the late 1970s when the municipal politicians selected a valley route, other potential options such as Centennial Parkway or Kenilworth Avenue (and later Woodward Avenue) featured established businesses and residences. Thus valley defenders were countered by groups based along those arteries and that intensified the politicization of the decision-making.

The provincial government unsuccessfully tried to broker a compromise 60 km arterial road using at-grade intersections and avoiding much of the creek valley. A federal environmental assessment of the project offered a final chance to flag safety issues but councillors spent over $4 million on court action to stop that from being completed.

So Hamilton got an expressway whose route was determined not by professional road engineers but by dueling citizen groups and the politicians responding to them.  South of the border we’re now seeing many other examples of decisions guided by alleged “common sense” trumping science and expertise.

 

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Participation and Democracy Rising

When I set off to write a non-fiction book, like Democracy Rising, I try to explore the subject as comprehensively as possible, but after the book is written, edited, printed, and in the book stores inevitably I come across material that I wish that I had included.

Sign and white blaze on a tree marking the Bruce Trail

Democracy Rising is a good example. The thesis, or major idea, of the book is that if we are to have a vibrant democracy the people must be engaged, and the most effective way for us to do that is through grassroots organizations that encourage the participation of its members.

The book starts off by describing the limitations of representative democracy and to show how elites have been able to dominate our political institutions for their own benefit. But the important material in the book is the discussion of how ordinary people have transformed our country through organizations such as the progressive movement, trade unions, co-operatives, the environmental movement, and community groups.

It is the participation of citizens in grassroots organizations that has strengthened our democratic practices and the book concludes by showing how we can make them more effective. We will never have an effective democracy until we have a truly participatory democracy.

This was an interesting book to write. I have been a community activist all of my adult life and Democracy Rising gave me the opportunity to write about those experiences and the organizations I have been involved with. Those who have read it have liked it, but the reality is that I did miss some opportunities. Here are some examples I could have included.

  • The Bruce Train is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. It was a group of keen hikers who came up with the idea of a walking trail from Niagara Falls to Tobermory along the Niagara Escarpment. They mapped out the trail, got permission from private landowners to cross their land, wrote brochures and articles describing the trail, set up a governing councils in different regions to look after the trail and advocated protection of the trail with the Ontario Government. It was a massive effort and it was all done by volunteers. Today the Niagara Escarpment is part of Ontario’s Greenbelt Plan. It is a remarkable story of how the participation of people can make a difference and change our political practices.
  • Another example is the growth of land trusts. Community land trusts are private non-profit organizations that acquire and hold land for the benefit of the community. In rural areas often land trusts are set up to protect land from development and hold it in a natural state indefinitely. In cities land trusts are usually set up to make land available for affordable housing. This is a growing movement that is having an impact on many communities across Canada. Again, it is all being done by volunteers.

Those are two dramatic examples of people participating in their communities, but think of the scores of different organizations that exist in Canada. These are some that I am familiar with: Jane’s Walks, food banks, athletic associations, volunteer social service agencies, and so on and so on.

Participation, engagement, the development of grassroots organizations, these are all things that contribute to our democracy because they encourage public participation in meaningful ways on issues of public importance. Social media is a very effective way to develop and promote organizations like that and engage in the discussion of issues.

But before we dismiss books in favour of social media as the tool for organizing and grassroots politics, let me give a last appeal. Writing a non-fiction book is a way to explore a subject or an issue in a comprehensive way. That’s what I tried to do in Democracy Rising. I did miss some things, but then that is inevitable. It is the ideas in the book that will stand the test of time.

Housing, assets, and affordability

The housing market, particularly the affordable part of that market is suddenly going through  major changes. I was skeptical that the efforts by the Ontario Government to cool the market last month would make any difference, but it looks like I was wrong.

I have been hearing various rumours that prices were dropping. Just yesterday a friend, involved in buying, selling and renting property, said that prices in Toronto have dropped at least $100,000 and they may go down even further.

This morning in the Globe there is an article saying that prices have dropped so much that, “the most panicked buyers are trying to back out of deals.” (Carolyn Ireland, June 2, 2017, “Stressful times as real estate compass twirls”) This, along with the uncertainty of the market, could well make new buyers very cautious and that could lead to further drop in prices.

Not everyone, of course, will like the drop in prices. Those who own houses have felt some satisfaction in the rise in their net worth with the inflation of real estate prices, but those who want to get into the market, particularly families with modest incomes will be delighted.

The real problem with housing is around affordability. Those with upper incomes can look after themselves. It is those with middle and low incomes that are caught because they simply cannot afford to get into the market. In a country like Canada, where the major asset of most people is the house they own and live in, being shut out of the market means they lose the opportunity to build financial security.

I am talking about myself here. Home ownership was burned into me by my father when I was young when he told me that the major asset the family owned was the house we live in. That simple explanation stayed with me.

I bought my first house when I was in my late 20s. Over my lifetime I was out of the market for periods but I always scrambled to find ways to put the money together to buy another house. Today, it is the major asset I own with my partner, and I attribute that good fortune to the lesson my father taught me decades ago.

A lot of people lose that opportunity when house prices are high. But there are other options.John Lorinc has an article in the Globe about developers who are building affordable housing for people with modest incomes. (John Lorinc, June 2, 2017, “Developers take a new look at ‘affordable’”) The best known is a developer called Options for Homes which builds affordable condominiums. They take a low down payment and recoup the money when the condo is sold.

The Daniels Group is involved in the redevelopment of Regent Park and Tridel is a partner in the rebuilding of Alexandra Park. As Lorinc explains, other groups are getting involved in the effort to provide affordable housing, and the provincial government will require private developers to set aside units in their buildings for those with modest incomes.

But the pessimist in me continues to worry that this will not be enough. Housing is an essential, a fundamental right, but it is more than that. Those with low incomes will still be not be able to purchase houses and that means they will be unable to accumulate an asset that will see them through hard times.

Housing affordability is inextricably connected to income inequality.