“It’s another level of government and we’re really not supposed to dictate what they do.”
— Coun. Garth Rice, (South Centre), criticizing a motion put forward by Coun. Jim McCrae (Meadows) urging the province to withdraw Bill 7.
“I think it’s really important that we not get distracted by this clarion call for a definition, because affordable means something different to everyone.”
— Mayor Shari Decter Hirst, who also called a council discussion about the
need to define the term “affordable housing” a “red herring.”
The Brandon City Council table is a strange place to be these days.
Strange, in the sense that our councillors and mayor seem to have been afflicted with an odd sense of how government is supposed to operate. Monday night’s council meeting was a prime example.
Much of the evening’s discussion focused on a recently introduced piece of provincial legislation called Bill 7, which recently received first reading in the legislature.
The bill would give municipalities the power to require developers to include low-income housing in new residential developments. It’s a piece of legislation that Brandon’s mayor — who was quoted in the government press release that announced the bill — has staunchly defended.
Yet, as the Brandon Sun reported this week, following presentations by several delegations to council — some in favour of the bill, but most against — a majority of councillors approved a motion put forward by Coun. Jim McCrae to request the province withdraw Bill 7 and renew consultations with developers. In fact, only the mayor, Coun. Garth Rice and Coun. Jan Chaboyer (Green Acres) voted against the motion.
Over the course of the rather frank discussion that followed the presentations, council members made a few comments that — in two cases in particular — simply made little sense.
While it seemed a little churlish, the fact that Rice questioned whether McCrae — a real estate agent — was in a conflict of interest in bringing forth the motion because he makes a better commission from high priced housing than affordable housing isn’t necessarily an unfair question. That, however, is an editorial for another time.
No, the comment that really made us question Rice’s sincerity is the one quoted above, where he suggests that the City of Brandon has no business telling the province whether or not to pass its own legislation.
Questions over Bill 7 aside, are municipal governments simply supposed to bend over each and every time the province makes a decision, even if that decision is not in the best interests of that municipality? And by extension, are provincial governments not allowed to publicly criticize or support federal policy?
In his defence, Rice was more likely reacting to the passage of the motion than suggesting that municipalities should know their place. But that kind of quote can come back to haunt him — either in council or on our editorial pages.
When it comes to questionable comments, however, Decter Hirst’s quote above really takes the cake. How on earth can a council — or any government for that matter — measure the success of any policy or program that it has initiated if no parameters have been put in place to begin with?
Consider, for a moment, that the City of Brandon took advantage of the powers offered under Bill 7. If the city does not or cannot define exactly what it means when it talks of affordable housing, how could it hope to dictate terms to local developers?
Yes, affordable housing means something different to everyone. That’s exactly why governments have had so much difficulty in building policy around the term. It lacks focus.
As we have noted before, the provincial government does have a definition — affordable housing should not cost more than 30 per cent of before tax household income. And we have previously reported that the city has decided to limit eligibility for affordable housing to those families with an income that does not exceed $65,000.
That’s a start, but it’s not enough. Council appears to be operating in a cloud on this issue, and the province’s proposed legislation, which simply offloads responsibility to municipalities and the private sector, has not helped to clear the air one bit.
Conflict of interest or not, McCrae and the majority of council were correct. The province should go back to the drawing board for Bill 7 and this time have meaningful consultations with developers.
And in the meantime, council needs to clarify what exactly “affordable” means to Brandon before it goes any further on this file.