“I don’t believe this can be done by us. I don’t think we can do enough for the non-profit sector that can make the kind of progress that we all talk about wanting to make.”
That was an argument presented by Coun. Jim McCrae to support his position to approve the sale of city property, formerly occupied by the police station, to a profit-making enterprise.
Further, McCrae is quoted as stating that the lack of progress on the affordable housing issue in the past 10-15 years is “because the only level of government that I believe can address that playing field is the provincial government.” These arguments were apparently sufficient for McCrae to deny two organizations the opportunity to purchase the property for purposes of developing affordable housing units. Presumably these arguments were sufficient for the other five city councillors who voted with McCrae.
In so doing, these six city councillors demonstrated their intentions of washing their hands of any responsibility and action with respect to affordable housing projects. But they also demonstrated their myopic view of what constitutes a city and their respective responsibilities to ensuring the health and well-being of the city.
A city does not exist without people. People are in cities because of the employment and business (and other) opportunities. Businesses navigate toward cities because of the availability of workers and consumers. Take out any of these components and the city dies.
Included in this population are those who do not have the financial means to avail themselves of housing in a market which is determined solely on the basis of profitability. A population that is deserving of attention not just on moral grounds but also on economic grounds in terms of its contribution, past, present and future, to the vitality and viability of a city. The responsibilities of our civic leaders is to understand these relationships and to facilitate and nurture them.
Where there are people, there is a need for shelter, that is, housing. The market takes care of most of the housing needs. But there are times when it fails particularly with respect to affordability. That is when governments, on behalf of all of us, have a responsibility to step in. This includes city governments. To shuffle responsibility onto other governments is self-serving, hypocritical, an abdication of responsibilities that is convenient for those who do not wish to do anything about the problem or who do not have the capacity to dream of, promote, design and implement projects to address these failures. A failure which simply put reflects our failure.
A failure that may be in large part due to perception. Affordable housing is equated with subsidization or with not-for-profit housing. Both are anathema to our perception of how an economy works or, more to the point, of how we believe an economy should work. If one cannot meet the daily financial means of living — too bad. If profits cannot be made it is a misuse of resources. Yet we see subsidies in the private sector — except that they are called allowances. American executives living in Canadian cities; oil field workers; Canadians living and working in isolated (and in some cases not so isolated) locations; Canadian workers transferred to cities with high housing costs. Subsidies, apologies, allowances that are paid for by the consumer part of the taxpayer. While allowances, sorry, subsidies provided for purposes of affordable housing are paid for by the taxpayer part of the consumer.
In both cases, the issue is not just providing affordable shelter. Subsidies or allowances provide for an adequate disposable income after paying for shelter costs. Something our six councillors missed. Subsidies to persons with lesser financial means, be they in the form of direct subsidies or indirect subsidies for (as an example) land costs, come back to the community, usually at a 100 per cent rate of return, through the local purchase of goods and services. What the city council missed is that these subsidies are an investment, improving the bottom line of businesses as well as improving the social fabric of the city.
As for not-for-profit housing, it smacks too much of being a sustainable economic project — enough revenue to cover all costs, including re-capitalization, except profits. A model that must send shivers up and down the spine of any businessperson. McCrae was right in stating that the city cannot possibly do enough for the “non-profit” sector to address all its needs with respect to affordable housing. However, that is not a reason for not supporting the not-for-profit sector when an opportunity presents itself as it did with the city police station property. The city had the opportunity to do something, however small in the eyes of the city council. The city had the opportunity to demonstrate leadership with respect to public needs.
There are very few opportunities available to the not-for-profit sector to address affordable housing needs in Brandon. There are only two sources for land which offer the opportunity to offer affordable housing to those with lesser financial means — the city or a generous donor. Paying market price for land means either giving up the objective of serving the needs of those with lesser financial means or requiring a commitment from some source for rent subsidies.
It was therefore disappointing that city council could not see its way to support the bid of either one of the not-for-profit organizations. As to the future, opportunities may become available, however, the arguments made by McCrae, presumably on behalf of or supported by his colleagues, offer little hope that these opportunities will have a life beyond being a wish and a dream.
As for the city councillors who voted against affordable housing, it would be much more honest for them to simply state their non-acceptance of the not-for-profit model and their non-acceptance of a role for city governments in affordable housing. This rather than trying to rationalize their position with contrived arguments. Doing so makes a sham of city government.
ROSEMARIE and CHESTER LETKEMAN
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition November 30, 2012