Gentrification 2.0?

June 5, 2010 at 11:22 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, cities, homelessness, housing, innovation, jane_jacobs, land_use, social_critique, vancouver | 2 Comments

The title of my post is semi-serious, semi-ironic. I’m ambivalent about gentrification: if it means unslumming, I figure it’s good; if it means homogenization toward a single class (typically privileged) at the expense of economic diversity, it’s probably not-so-good, right?

When I write “Gentrification 2.0,” I’m saying that I’m not sure how this particular example – The Woodward’s Project in Vancouver – will play out. It’s 2.0 insofar as it’s not unslumming in Jane Jacobs’s sense, nor is it private market gentrification. It’s an interesting hybrid.

Canada’s National Post newspaper has started a series of articles about the Woodward’s Project. The reporter is Brian Hutchinson, who focuses on the neighborhood (Downtown East Side) and the social implications of putting a spiffy mixed-use high-rise development into its center. This is an unusual development, however: it has “125 fully equipped apartments reserved for low-income singles, and 75 spacious units reserved for families; 80% of the family apartments are rented at below-market rates” (source), while at the same time it also boasts market-rate condos valued at over $1million and provides the better-off residents with rooftop luxuries that afford (to use a word Hutchinson used) “bacchanalian” excess.

I wrote about the Woodward’s Project after taking my daughter to lunch in Vancouver for her birthday. It’s a fascinating project, and I’m looking forward to reading the entire series. Hutchinson is “embedded” at Woodward’s for a whole month.


March 2, 2010 at 3:02 pm | In architecture, cities, green, homelessness, ideas, land_use, local_not_global, NIMBYism, politics, real_estate, social_critique, street_life, urbanism, victoria | 4 Comments

In yesterday’s post, Thinking out loud on social media platforms, I responded to a comment with an extended rant about Victoria, the pressing strangeness of its people and their often bizarre sense of entitlement:

Much of the strangeness comes from their huge sense of entitlement, which is weirdly crooked, and is based in large part on this crazy notion that, since we live in the best place on earth, we’re entitled to act with an attitude of entitlement – even though we have done nothing to earn it, for what can you do to earn the beauty of nature, which is our only saving grace? Yet the entitlement attitude persists. For example, at the downtown YMCA where I work out, women steal from other women in the membership-plus changing rooms. These are members who pay a premium for a “plus” membership, yet they steal from other “plus” members. It’s the sort of behavior locals might associate with “the big city,” except we’re not the big city. We just think we can get away with shit.

For those who are wondering why I know about thieving at the gym: because I read the posted notices about upticks in petty theft; because I make it a point to talk to people; and because I’ve seen women looking for items that, whoops!, went missing in the blink of an eye. What’s also interesting is that the women who steal don’t just steal from other women, they also steal from the gym. Who would steal from the YMCA, I wonder? It’s all small stuff (the facility’s towels, or other members’ high-end cosmetics, or maybe a $20-bill that’s left unattended in an open locker for a few minutes), but it adds up.

To what? Misplaced entitlement.


Victoria BC


Without a doubt, Victoria is one of the most naturally beautiful (urban) places in Canada. It’s the low-rise yin to Vancouver’s upright, high-rise yang. However, there is nothing, not a single thing, that the people who live here have done to create or to earn this beauty.

Our older residential core neighborhoods are quite pretty – they are densely built up (a good thing) and are incredibly leafy, festooned with an abundance of fabulous trees (which city workers strive hard to maintain), and of course year-round greenery. Some folks start mowing lawns in February. Aside from the bouts of landscaping mandated by the Ministry of Perpetual Gardening (that’s a joke, coined by David Burke), we haven’t, however, done anything to earn natural beauty: it’s just there, and it grows on, just as the Olympic mountains across the Juan de Fuca Strait simply exist, just as the granite outcroppings simply are (when we haven’t blasted them to smithereens to build a subdivision), just as the ocean ebbs and flows.

What we have actually built – particularly since World War II and particularly where it really matters, namely in our downtown where the urban part of our urban existence should shine – is largely awful.

In Vancouver, the beauty of the recent built form is earned. People in Vancouver built it, they built it in the last 30 years, and it looks great. It looks even better set against the unearned majestic beauty of the landscape: looming close-up mountains (very yang and very different from our far-off and therefore yin elevations) and restless ocean, beaches and the thick forests of Stanley Park.

But in the past 75 years, Victoria’s downtown has earned little.

Victoria BC : Old Town, seen from the water (Photo: Robert Beaumont)

Victoria BC : Old Town, seen from the water (Photo: Robert Beaumont)


Old Town (photo, above) and Chinatown are charming, but their structures were finished around the turn of the century before the last one. What was added last century is for the most part a dog’s breakfast – whether we refer to Centennial Square, to the uninspired commercial buildings that replaced older (and actually taller!) buildings, or to the wasteland of one- or two-story buildings lining what should be key shopping streets (which now sport far too many “for lease” signs).

Face it, Victoria’s more recent “pretty” parts aren’t downtown, they’re in the village centers of the older neighborhoods, from Oak Bay Village to Cook Street Village to Fernwood Square, to James Bay, and so on. (And even then, some of those areas would be boring white-bread toast if it weren’t for the trees.) Downtown has been left to languish, and aside from recent handsome Humboldt Valley developments (which the NIMBYs fought tooth and nail), there is little to please the eye.

Downtown as a whole has in fact turned into a slightly watered down version of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (and yes, Vancouver isn’t perfect as it has a huge problem there), with panhandlers, drug addicts, and the mentally ill sleeping in the entryways of all those useless one-story buildings with the empty storefronts sporting “for lease” signs.

I can put a date on when things really changed: in 2005, seeing a trio of emaciated, hollow-eyed addicts tweaking (see def. #4 under “verb”) at 3 p.m. on the SW corner of Vancouver Street and Rockland Avenue was unusual enough to make me call a friend on the neighborhood’s community board: “Hey, I just saw a two women taking their clothes off, trying to hook passers-by, and there was a guy with them who looked like he was their pimp. All three of them seem totally strung out…”

In the five years since then, I’m not surprised anymore by anything I see in my neighborhood or along Rockland Avenue (on my way to the YMCA), even though this is a “nice” area. Junkies, people smoking crack in Pioneer Square (where a sign reminds me that I can’t walk my dog, even as the clean-up patrol daily comes ’round to pick up used needles), human feces, vomit, guys peeing against buildings, people tweaking.

Most mornings (and especially on recycling day), I wake (and fall asleep again) to the dawn-time jingle of “binners” pushing (stolen) shopping carts past my window, in search of bottles to take to the nearby Bottle Depot. In 2005 there was one single binner, “our” binner, in this neighborhood. Now there are dozens, competing for the scraps we might toss out.

I used to write blog posts about how awful this human misery is (looking for this post, I realize I published it as “private” in 2005, meaning that no one was ever able to read it; go read it now, and most especially listen to the singing iceberg, linked at very end). I used to support all the pious studies for how to end homelessness.

But I almost don’t care anymore. It’s so depressing to see this acceptance of drug use and destruction, and to see it wash over every block of your neighborhood and your downtown. Of course the homeless, most of whom have mental health problems as well as drug addictions, are left to fend for themselves by Federal and Provincial governments that have handed the problem to cash-strapped municipalities. The municipalities make all sorts of lovely noises about task forces and helping and asking Mr and Ms Jo-Shmo Citizen to kick in some extra money for shelters, but things have just gotten worse. At the same time, because the poor and the hard to house really are getting shafted by senior levels of government, everyone on the street (which tacitly includes us, the non-homeless residents) feels that they, the homeless, really are entitled to be exactly where they are: on the street, making everyone feel guilty or bad or fed up.

Because (the thinking goes) where else, after all, can they go, given that the services they need are located in the city?

You see where this is going? Here, even the homeless are entitled. Because if there’s one thing that’s true about entitlement, it’s that you don’t earn it. You just take it.

And all the while, we build nothing of beauty, even as those of us who have housing smugly think we’ve done something to earn the natural beauty that surrounds us. That’s why everyone likes to bleat on about the lifestyle here.

Gag me with the lifestyle already.

This isn’t Lotus Land, but we are surely Lotus Eaters: addled into feeling we’ve earned the natural beauty, we’re totally apathetic about actually creating a built beauty, blind to how cheap and ugly-looking Victoria, in particular its under-built and under-utilized city center, has become.

A retired city worker recently told me that much of Victoria’s downtown real estate is owned by families, some of whom have held the property for generations. They don’t need to sell it (they’d be penalized with capital gains taxes on the sale), they make enough from renting the ground floor out to some crap store that sells t-shirts to the tourists, and they don’t bother with a seismic retrofit of the upper story, they just leave it empty. In other words, it’s blood-sucking, half-empty, not-earning-its-keep, underutilized real estate that the trust fund kids can keep in their back pockets, collecting the monthly $5000 to $10000 in rent, all without doing a stitch of work or doing anything useful with the building. That, according to my source, is a big problem with real estate in the city.

Now, if I were running the show, I’d make it illegal to have property downtown that isn’t operating at a minimum of 5:1 FSR. That would put the fear of god into any useless leech who owns valuable land downtown but does nothing with it to improve the commonweal.

But then again, in this city of entitled Lotus Eaters, “developer” is a dirty word. The anti-development NIMBY crowd thinks that development contributes to the city’s ugliness. Oh kids, grow up. Our built city (not its natural setting) is ugly because it’s underdeveloped.


Now, there’s a codicil to this rant…

I believe that the desire to have earned what is naturally given is what underwrites the burgeoning and absolutely exciting currents of outright biophilia that in our region finds expression in land conservation, in stewardship, and in the uptick in environmental groups and causes and projects. The Capital Regional District (that is, Greater Victoria and the surrounding municipalities from Sooke and Metchosin in the west through to Saltspring Island in the Georgia Strait to the east) and the Cowichan Valley Regional District just to the north of us are home to eco-living initiatives gaining world-wide attention. (More on those in a later blog post.)

The biophiliacs are trying to earn beauty through environmental stewardship – and they’re succeeding.

But as a fan of cities, I wish that my fellow urban biophiliacs would spend a bit of energy on fixing our built environment, so that we can earn an urban beauty worthy of the fabulous natural beauty that surrounds us.

I’m not sure whose “job” this is. As far as I can tell, the city’s urban planners are asleep at the wheel, as are the politicians. If I had a magic wand, I’d kick them all to out and do what Vancouver did: hire the best, hire people with imagination. The latter is nowhere in evidence in Victoria, and it’s also missing in our largest neighboring municipality, Saanich, judging by the atrocity of Uptown (a shopping center redevelopment) now under construction.

A new retail/ commercial/ mixed use development in Saanich, BC that just screams Fuck you to the humanity hurtling by

A new retail/ commercial development in Saanich, BC that just screams "Fuck you"


So that’s my wish: I want us to lay off the Lotus Leaves that lull us into thinking we’ve earned the natural beauty that surrounds us, and to focus instead on earning a built beauty that aspires to be the best. And I want the NIMBYs who try to thwart development downtown to take a hike. Come back when you’ve earned the right to contribute, otherwise you’re just acting entitled.

Update, 3/5:

There’s an excellent photo of the Uptown development on Flickr, taken by Glenalan54. Check out the astute comments.

Front-line/Downtown – Community Solutions

April 2, 2009 at 1:25 pm | In addiction, community_associations, crime, health, homelessness, housing, justice, leadership, local_not_global, victoria | 1 Comment

On Monday March 30, the Downtown Residents Association (DRA) hosted a public meeting, On The Front Lines: Community Solutions for Homelessness and Social Issues, at City Hall. Moderated by DRA chair Rob Randall, we heard from Victoria City Councilor Charlayne Thornton-Joe, the Coalition to End Homelessness‘s Jill Clements, the Downtown Victoria Business Association’s Ken Kelley, and Victoria Police Department Chief Jamie Graham.

Rob wrote a follow-up report on his blog – go check it out (especially the comments). Davin Greenwell also posted a great summary, and included photo documentation, so do take a look at it here.

I haven’t commented on Rob’s post, but just left a long comment on Davin’s entry. Click through to read my (partial) response to the session.

One of the categories I’m filing my post under is “leadership,” a quality that Jill Clements of the Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness seems to have, and it’s something we expect from Jamie Graham. We also see it in Charlayne Thornton-Joe.

As I was checking off categories, I also checked “justice,” as I was reminded of Graham’s discussion of implementing Restorative Justice (see Saanich’s program), which we hope to see used more frequently in Victoria. Incidentally, Restorative Justice is modeled on First Nations approaches to crime and social disorder, and reminded me that the American Congress (and Senate?) is modeled on a New World/ First Nations approach (vs. the British Parliamentarianism we still practice in Canada, where everyone shouts at the same time and heckles the opposition). Sorry, can’t provide a link right now, but just think of the concept of the talking stick. Works for me – bring it on.

Comment on BC Supreme Court Ruling re. Camping in Parks

October 19, 2008 at 9:43 pm | In cities, comments, homelessness, victoria | 2 Comments

Tim Ayres is a realtor in Sooke, BC, who blogs about real estate and Victoria issues.  I’ve seen his Twitter updates in the Twitter Local Net, but haven’t been following his blog.  The other day, however, I saw that someone I follow on Twitter twittered that he had left a comment to Tim’s video post, Get Ready For The Homeless in Beacon Hill Park [Video], which asked readers what we all think about the “camping in parks” ruling.

For anyone in BC, the recent BC Supreme Court ruling is …uh, significant.  (And for the best local coverage on this question so far, see the Vibrant Victoria forum thread, Homeless win right to camp in city parks.)

I clicked through to Tim’s video blog and posted a lengthy comment.  However, as it appears to be held up in a moderation queue I’m re-posting it on my blog, too (minus some pre- and post-amble…):

The ruling by (BC Supreme Court Justice Carol) Ross is not helpful if it does nothing to bring the various levels of government together to address the problem of homelessness, and I have to voice my disagreement with comments here that the city should be able to fix the problem.

Far from defending our current municipal leadership — because it has been wishy-washy — I would argue, however, that the cumulative effects of off- or downloading by *all* parties at the senior (Provincial and Federal) levels of government has created the mess we’re in now.

By all parties I’m referring to how Paul Martin’s Federal Liberal government really accelerated the downloading of federal responsibilities to the provinces; how our current Conservative federal government, when approached for help with infrastructure in cities — which includes *so* many aspects — reduced the issue to banalities by replying that “the Federal government isn’t in the business of fixing potholes”; how at the Provincial level, we’ve lost mental hospitals to cut-backs, are failing to provide detox.

Most importantly, I’m also referring to how, we, in urban centres, are subservient to rules laid out in a British North America Act that gave Provinces all power over municipalities because cities were considered unimportant, mere entrepots for raw resource export (which is manifestly no longer the case), and how our Canadian Constitution also fails to take into consideration the fundamental importance of cities to 21st century economies.

And yet the problems of homelessness as well as untreated mental health problems and often attendant drug- and alcohol-abuse as well as the criminality associated with procuring drugs (and paying for them, that’s based on crime often enough) aggregate in our cities. These are problems dumped on municipalities, which in turn can’t seem to deal with them. Yes, people are poor and even homeless in rural areas, people become addicts in rural areas, people lose their minds in rural areas. But when they come for help, chances are they’ll migrate to the cities to seek it, expecting services that those cities are increasingly unable to provide because they’re being asked to do too much with too little.

In case you’re interested, a number of months ago I wrote a blog post about off- or downloading and how the spectacle of homelessness is the last link in that downloading scheme, Connect the dots: two articles by Miro Cernetig and Bob Ransford that should be read together.
What I argued was that we citizens are the last link in that chain: the municipalities have dumped the problem on us — and just as the downloading of responsibilities from Feds to Provinces to Municipalities was ill-conceived, downloading to Joe and Jane Citizen is equally wrong.

It’s wrong for the same reasons: if you download responsibilities (which entail fiscal responsibility) without ensuring that the entity you’re downloading to has a tool kit with which to approach the responsibilities, you’re asking for trouble down the road. When Canadian cities were asked to take on the responsibility for the hard-to-house, the mentally ill, and the drug-addicted, the scheme collapsed. Why? Because there’s nothing in Canadian cities’ toolkit to allow them to create the fiscal arrangements to pay for that responsibility. Canadian cities depend on property and business taxes, while all income and consumption taxes go to senior levels of government. Municipalities can’t keep jacking up property and business taxes, unless they want to drive out their most successful members.

I’m not excusing poor leadership at any level of government. But Canada is set up in a very weird way, and it’s not as easy as some would believe to deal with these problems. There are way too many silos and too many policy restrictions on how cities can be pro-active.

What I would like to see (and ask municipal politicians) is “how are you going to be an effective lobbyist for us?” I would ask, “how are you going to break down the party mentality that sets up us-and-them dichotomies?” — something we see far too much of in Victoria, which likes to nurture an NDP chip on its shoulder and complain about the “evil” Liberals. I’d want to know how you (municipal leader) are going to seek out contacts on a personal level, make sure you meet the right people at all levels of government, how you’re going to *schmooze* and wheel and deal, assemble teams, and break down the g-d-damn silos, so we can work toward the common good. I would not want a municipal politician who has lofty ideals and refuses to get his/ her hands dirty by working with “the other side.” I would specifically support politicians who are ready to throw the old partisanship out the window. At least we who are housed still have windows to throw things out of. Let’s use that.

PS: I don’t work in government or have any professional affliliation with policy making. I am passionately interested in cities, though, and write often about Victoria in particular.

I’ve written several other entries related to housing, homelessness, affordable housing, and so on, but the specific entry I cite above (Connect the dots…) is probably the one most relevant to the crisis we’re dealing with currently.

An Appetite for Change

May 27, 2008 at 12:05 pm | In homelessness, victoria | Comments Off on An Appetite for Change

If you live in Victoria and are concerned about finding solutions to our city’s homelessness crisis, please consider coming to what looks to be a fabulous event at the Canoe Brew Pub on Sunday June 8, from 6 to 8:30 pm. It’s a fundraiser for the Youth Hospitality Training Centre, an innovative program that needs to secure just a bit more money to become reality.

What’s the Youth Hospitality Training Centre? It’s a facility that will provide eight homeless street youth a roof and a bed, and classroom and hands-on training for a career in the hospitality industry. Once the youths are trained and working, they move on into their own independent housing, making room for other at-risk street youth.

The Centre will be housed in a former restaurant downtown, the Taj Mahal, which comes with an attached bed & breakfast facility. It will be operated by the Victoria Youth Empowerment Society, which is an umbrella agency that provides programs for youth in the city. The Centre is quite unique: kids who are currently living on the street will have an opportunity to live in dormitory-style rooms at the Centre, and receive classroom as well as hands-on training programs in the restaurant and food services industry. The bed & breakfast facility consists of 11 rooms, and will serve as housing for the youth, plus live-in, round the clock staff, as well as counselling rooms. There will also be a “mock hotel room” so that the youth in training can learn about room maintenance and service in situ. By the time they’re finished with their program, they’ll be desirable new-hires in the staff-starved local tourism industry. See this forum thread for more info.

Ok, so where’s the party, you’re asking? If you haven’t clicked through to the first link in this post, I’ll paste below the text in full, which should give you enough info to convince you that this will be $50 well spent — on yourself and on the future of youth in the city. And, ok, even on the future of the tourism & hospitality industry, which is badly understaffed here. (Ever wonder why those cafes close at 6 or 7pm? It’s because the owners can’t find anyone to work in them, true! And you thought it was because we roll up the sidewalks after the government workers go home for the day, didn’t you? Not at all — we have an affordable housing shortage plus a worker shortage…)

Here’s the event description:

An Appetite For Change
A benefit for the Youth Hospitality Training Centre

You and your friends are invited for an evening of food, libation and entertainment
Sunday, June 8th, 2008, from 6:00-8:30pm

The best kitchens in the city have generously donated fabulous dinner party packages, featuring fully catered in-home service as well as Chef’s tables for silent auction.
Every bid is also a chance to win an exciting prize!

The event will be held in the Canoe Brewpub’s 1894 landmark heritage building on Victoria’s Inner Harbour.
The reception will be fully hosted by Canoe Brewpub and Chef Alain Léger.

Victoria’s culinary teams have come together in support of making our community a better place. Will you join us?

Ticket price is $50.
All revenue from the event will go to providing opportunities for disadvantaged youth in Victoria.

Tickets can be purchased by email reply to  spc at, by phone at 383-3514, at Canoe online or in person at the following locations:
Victoria City Hall, Canoe Brewpub or The Bay Centre Customer Service.

Free validated parking is available at Canoe and Chintz & Co.

Vancouver Sun article: “Shelters turned away homeless 40,000 times in nine months”

May 23, 2008 at 3:09 pm | In affordable_housing, canada, cities, homelessness, housing, social_critique | Comments Off on Vancouver Sun article: “Shelters turned away homeless 40,000 times in nine months”

Ok, tell me you don’t find this story by Vancouver Sun’s Frances Bula rather alarming: Shelters turned away homeless 40,000 times in nine months? I wonder if there’ll be follow-ups, and whether the count that people were turned away 40,000 times over a nine month period is accurate. If it is, then that’s proof that the Province isn’t doing nearly enough to get a handle on housing, housing affordability, addictions, mental health, and homelessness — not to mention on the portfolio of Children and Families. It seems that of those 40,000 times that people were turned away, it happened almost 16,000 times to women and children.

What a society… No federal housing policy in Canada, obviously nothing much on the Provincial level — and yet the Province is swimming in money, with new gas exploration licenses bringing in something on the order of half a billion dollars?

Look, the cities are bearing the brunt of this crisis. Memo to Province: fix it! Give the cities the tools, kick municipal leaders into action in the right way, do whatever is needed.

Victoria’s problems around homelessness are growing all the time, too — see Rob Randall’s blog entry on the proposed Ellice Street shelter relocation: authorities are telling the neighbours they expect the count of people who are homeless to decline in number. Well, I doubted that when I read it then, but in the wake of Bula’s article now, I really doubt it.

Connect the dots: two articles by Miro Cernetig and Bob Ransford that should be read together

March 24, 2008 at 10:16 pm | In addiction, affordable_housing, canada, cities, crime, homelessness, housing, justice, leadership, local_not_global, social_critique, street_life, taxes, urbanism, vancouver, victoria | 1 Comment

The Vancouver Sun published two articles, nearly back-to-back, which make a lot of sense when read in conjunction: on March 22, we read Bob Ransford’s As cities become more complex, our taxes keep rising and on March 24 we read Milo Cernetig’s Approach to social woes a moral failure by all three main B.C. parties.

These two articles have to be comprehended together. One (Ransford’s) wants people to understand the economics of taxation that underlie municipal finance, while the other (Cernetig’s) wants people to understand how a certain kind of underfunding has produced the horrible social problems we see in our (BC) cities today. Cernetig references Vancouver, but Victoria has similar problems.

I have for some months now picked up on the criticisms of municipal infrastructure funding in Canada — even going so far as to publish a short piece on Vibrant Victoria on Dec.3/07, Victoria’s Choice: to be or not to be …is not the question. The gist of Ransford’s article elaborates on the theme I also addressed in my piece: cities (in my opinion, Canadian cities especially, although Ransford argues that it’s a Western/ First World global problem) are too dependent on single sources of income, primarily property taxes, while so-called senior levels of government (state or provincial, and federal) receive funding from many diverse sources of income: consumption taxes, income taxes, and so on. At the same time, cities are in the front line of having to provide services on every level.

This is lunacy, especially when you take into account the fact that cities generate most of a nation’s economic activity and wealth, and that they also will typically attract the largest populations of people dependent on what is collectively referred to as “services”: supported housing, addiction treatment, food banks, welfare, etc. Poor people come to cities because this is where the services are. Very often, they are in a city’s downtown, which is why you’ll find neighbourhoods in downtowns that become magnets for the visibly needy.

The problem is that these services are underfunded or even non-existent, some having once been funded by one of the two senior levels of government, but now having been off- or downloaded to municipalities.

And there we are, connecting the dots.

The Feds “downloaded” to the Provinces those services that used to be Federally-funded. The Provinces in turn have downloaded Provincially-funded services to the municipalities.

And, …well, the municipalities have no one to download to …except us. And that, in a nutshell, is my argument: citizens — people who live in cities — are shouldering the downloaded costs of all the stuff that all the other levels of government, including the municipalities, used to handle. Beggars on the streets; addicts shooting up in broad daylight; mentally ill people freaking out on corners; homeless people in every nook and cranny of public and private spaces; human feces on the sidewalks and in doorways; used needles in parks and on sidewalks; drug deals transacted openly on downtown streets… The list goes on.

The police refer to the mentally ill who openly use illegal drugs and defecate on the street and sleep in doorways as their “clients.” It seems to have gone by the board that the police shouldn’t be dealing with people on that end of the spectrum of social disorder in the first place — the police should be dealing with criminals and with law enforcement. When the people on that end of the spectrum engage in criminal activity — and they do, because they steal to stay alive and to feed their addictions — the police act like social workers …because that’s the role that has been downloaded to them, too.

Criminals exploit this.

My neighbours, who came home at 11pm on a recent weekend night to find that their basement door had been kicked in by thieves while they were away, thieves who robbed them of various items and who apparently fled just as the family returned home, had to wait for over 12 hours before the police could come over. And why was that? Perhaps they were too busy taking care of “clients”…

We — citizens — are the bottom of the food chain in this story. We — citizens — are the last link to off- or download to. We — citizens — are supposed to feel guilty if we don’t express or display the appropriate level of compassion toward the marginalized. But the citizen might ask herself, “Whatever happened to the idea that I pay my taxes, and that they pay for services intended to ameliorate these conditions?” The citizen still pays her taxes — and pays and pays and pays, if she lives in Canada — and the senior levels of government boast of surpluses. The municipalities, meanwhile, relying almost solely on the property taxes she and the many other citizens in the urban area pay, find themselves shouldering the cost of upgrading ancient infrastructure (sewage, roads, parks, recreation centres, etc.), plus the cost of “helping” the growing pool of service seekers.

But there are no provincial mental hospitals anymore, there is no affordable housing or supportive housing being built by the province or the feds, and all the damage that accrues from this out-casting has been downloaded to Joe and Jane Schmuck, i.e., you and me Citizen Jim and Citizen Jill.

That’s the dot.

Let me just present a couple of extract from the above-mentioned articles. Here’s Ransford:

Am I getting value for dollar for the property taxes I pay to local government? Politicians and bureaucrats at city hall would argue that I am getting more for my dollar than I ever have. Despite the fact that the number of employees at my city hall has grown faster than the rate of local population growth, the people that work there will tell you they are doing much more with fewer resources.

The fact is that cities across the country have become much more complex organizations than they were in the past and they have taken on more and more responsibilities. The federal and provincial governments have downloaded a long list of responsibilities on municipal governments. They have also stopped doing things that they once did as governments and the municipalities have stepped in and taken over where a need had to be met.

Social or non-market housing is a good example. Providing housing for the truly needy used to be almost the sole responsibility of the federal government. They started backing out of this area in the late 1980s and have next to no involvement today in funding what most are identifying is a desperate social need in our urban centres

The role of municipal governments has evolved. No longer do you look to your municipality merely to fix the potholes in the road in front of your house or to build and maintain the pipes that dispose of the sewage when you flush your toilet..

As Ransford points out (on page 2 of the article), a key problem here is aging populations:

The concept of a tax tied to the value of your home is beginning to make less practical sense with an aging urban population that will soon be dominated by retirees on fixed retirement incomes with all of their equity tied up in relatively expensive homes.

There’s only one kind of civic taxpayer and one source of civic revenue. There is a looming danger that taxpayer will soon no longer be able to fund the full cost of what it takes to run a city.

I would further add to Ransford’s excellent summing-up that Victoria’s troubles are uniquely compounded by our balkanized political system, which splits Victoria into many separate un-amalgamated municipalities (the Capital Regional District, which is all of Victoria, is 13 municipalities, each with its own mayor and council, fire chief, police department, and so on). At the same time, the City of Victoria holds the region’s downtown, the place where everyone comes for services — social services that range from food banks, charities, needle “exchanges,” and plain old week-end partying — many of which require policing and various levels of clean-up. Who pays? The City of Victoria, not the surrounding municipalities, which merely take advantage of what the City offers.

Let’s look at Milo Cernetig’s article now. He gets a gold star (in my book) for slamming all the BC provincial parties — too often and for too long, the problems we’re facing have been presented in partisan terms: it’s the BC Liberals’ fault (note to non-BC readers: the BC Liberals are sort of neo-conservative, and have little in common with the Federal Liberals); or it’s the NDP’s fault, and so on. Yadda yadda yadda. Blah blah blah.

Forget about it. That partisan shit has to stop, because it’s obvious that none of the parties have covered themselves in glory here, and that whole partisan shtick is old beyond words.

Here are some excerpts from Cernetig’s piece:

…here’s the fast-rewind of the amazing arc of policy blunders — given to us by a melange of Social Credit, New Democratic and Liberal governments — that I tried to explain.

First, imagine progressively shrinking the province’s major psychiatric hospital, Riverview, to save money. Then, in a cruel twist, offer no safe harbour for many of those psychiatric patients, who politicians told us would benefit from being “deinstitutionalized” and put back into society.

Instead, let large numbers of these truly desperate souls fend for themselves on our streets. Let them line up for a room in those bedbug-infested flophouses our health inspectors, for reasons that mystify, somehow allow to stay open. While we’re at it, we’ll also slow down the construction of new social housing, too, since it’s too expensive.

So now we’ve got all these lost souls begging and wandering the city’s downtown, often in a schizophrenic or crystal meth haze.

But we really haven’t done much about it. We’re not good at the tough job of distinguishing between vagrants (who should be moved on by the cops), or chronic criminals (who should be put in jail by judges) and the truly sick (who should be taken to shelters or hospitals by good beat cops, if we had enough of them).

Nope. We somehow got used to the sight of people sprawled on sidewalks and inside the doorways of the world’s “most livable” city.

There it is: another dot: We somehow got used to the sight of people sprawled on sidewalks and inside the doorways of the world’s “most livable” city.

The “somehow” in that sentence is “downloading.” We have been worn down by senior levels of government absenting themselves from the business of governing (a big piece of which includes providing services in exchange for all the money we fork over), and in the British tradition (within which we exist here), we have taken it uncomplainingly up the rear end, “muddling through” and accepting it all as if it were an inevitability.

That’s why we put up with the sight of what Cernetig describes, put up with open drug use, criminal transactions in plain daylight, and lunatics on our streets. In the British tradition, we are, after all, but subjects of these governments, not its master. Just as every level has downloaded — until there’s no one left to download to except to you and me, so every level absolves itself of accountability, because of course there’s always a higher level to defer to. In the last instance, the senior levels can defer to “the Crown,” a cruel joke referencing Canadian impotence.

The emancipation of Canadian cities is a project so inextricably tied to emancipation from old ways of tutelage and subjugation that it will amount to a revolution if it is ever to happen.

Unfortunately, since there has never been a Canadian revolution, I don’t hold out much hope for the emancipation / empowerment of Canadian cities. Perhaps — counter to my current pessimism — we’ll eventually strike some sort of paternalistic bargain with the “higher” levels of government after all. Since they hold the power already, they might grok the problem and step up, if only to maintain their hold.

At this point, I almost don’t care as long as the downloading stops.

Photograph by Ian Lindsay, from Milo Cernetig’s article.

The caption reads “A homeless person sleeps on a Cordova Street sidewalk in February. Figures show that investing in social housing would save B.C. $211 million annually.”

How Victoria’s Monday Magazine gets it wrong

February 2, 2008 at 10:16 pm | In free_press, homelessness, local_not_global, media, newspapers, NIMBYism, scenes_victoria, victoria, writing | Comments Off on How Victoria’s Monday Magazine gets it wrong

Victoria has a weekly tabloid newspaper called Monday Magazine, which, starting as an alternative publication ~35 years ago, has somehow managed to stay mired in the worst sort of “us and them” thinking that feeds into (and off) the roiling Schadenfreude of the perpetually resentful.

Lately, one of their old writers from some many years ago, Sid Tafler, returned to roost. He is riding the resentment wave, in particular with an article published a week ago Wednesday (Jan.23), when the Jan.24-30/08 edition hit the street, with Tafler’s “Faulty Towers; Empty condos a tragedy of urban planning failure.” The article — full of errors and shoddy thinking, was promptly posted to Victoria’s best online forum for urbanism, Vibrant Victoria, where it received both a thread of its own, Monday Article – Faulty Towers – by Sid Tafler, as well as lengthy critiques.

Some Monday Magazine articles are online, while others aren’t. Tafler’s wasn’t, but the forumer who started the thread posted a scanned version to the thread — if anyone wants to read the article, click through to the thread. Note that the columns of text in the scans run vertically, and you have to finish the first column on the first scan in the first column on the second scan, and so on…

In the next issue of Monday, the magazine printed 3 letters strongly in support and 1 conditionally in support of Tafler’s junk analysis, with one by former architect Roger Smeeth taking the prize for suggesting silly and impossible things. (Again, see the forum thread for really incisive critiques of Smeeth’s letter.)

I too sent a letter to Monday Magazine, dated Jan.26, but since I was critical of Tafler’s odious column, the editors perhaps didn’t see fit to publish it. And so I’m publishing it here on my blog — because I want to make sure that a record of the opposition and criticism that Tafler’s cheap shot provoked never fades from the Google record.

Here’s my letter:

Dear Editor:

I sincerely hope that Sid Tafler’s ears started burning on Thursday Jan.24, when he, with “Faulty Towers” freshly published, attended Charles Campbell‘s UVic lecture on conglomeration in the Canadian press and heard Campbell specifically and vigorously castigate Canadian journalists for their slovenly habits of retailing untruths. “Faulty Towers” is certainly and thoroughly corrupted by untruth and exaggeration, to the point that one wonders whether Tafler’s exercise in demagoguery veiled another purpose. But maybe he is just being jejune.

It’s difficult to know where to begin setting Mr. Tafler straight, because of course he’s just clever enough to appeal to legitimate concerns around affordability, which breathe enough life into his straw man (or is “Condoria” a woman?) for his article to appeal to the credulous.

But let’s just remember that practically all the condos he so abhors sit on what used to be surface parking lots, and they didn’t displace anybody’s “comfortable single-family home with a back yard.” Really, Mr. Tafler: you appear to be concerned about social and environmental ills, yet advocate a hackneyed suburban vision.

Mr. Tafler writes that “the city of Victoria approved 3,000 condo units in the last five years — 800 in 2007 alone, more than any other year” — as if that were a bad thing. I’d argue it’s a great thing: that’s 3,000 fewer “units” going to suburban sprawl; that’s 3,000 more “units” contributing to the city’s tax base (even if some of the owners are absent some of the time, they’re still paying property taxes, which happen to fund a vast part of the city’s budget); and that’s 3,000 potential “units” of people downtown, shopping, recreating, adding life to those streets.

Believe it or not, there are people living in many of those “units.” Good friends of mine live in Shutters, although, since they travelled for the past 2 months, their “unit” is dark. Likewise, you’ll find many empty-nesters who leave Victoria at this time of year to catch some sun. Their “units,” too, will be dark. In the lower price range, you will find investors buying “units,” but guess what? They rent them out, which helps alleviate Victoria’s rental crunch.

What would Mr. Tafler do instead? Have all these “units” to move to Bear Mountain? Would that be preferable? Incredible as it may seem, some of us cheer every time we can wrest some “units” back to our downtown.

Nor did these projects derail some magical solution to homelessness or affordability. It’s not the case that anyone was willing to step up to donate a building to that cause, nor is it the case that city councils can somehow magically wave a wand and make affordable housing appear.

Which brings me to my last point: you have to love the armchair quarterback, second-guessing all those lazy, incompetent city councilors, don’t you? Really, judging from Mr. Tafler’s grasp of economics (a simultaneously shallow and flaccid grasp it is), I’d hate to see him in a councilor’s seat, because I’m sure he’d go mad at the workload and the demands on his attention by every citizen who knows everything about anything better than he, the councilor, does. Those folks, as Mr. Tafler’s own example shows, are a dime a dozen, and when you’re in that seat, they’ll have you for breakfast. I wonder how Sid Tafler would like being made a meal of.

Yule Heibel

Tafler was at the Charles Campbell lecture (about which I’ll have more to blog later), and my use of the word “jejune” specifically points to a rather acid comment Campbell was making about Conrad Black v. the Asper family.

More thoughts on economic development, land use, zoning, quality of life…

December 16, 2007 at 10:18 am | In cities, homelessness, land_use, taxes, victoria | Comments Off on More thoughts on economic development, land use, zoning, quality of life…

…courtesy of further reading in Robert L. Bish’s Local Government Organization in the Capital Region (and continuing somewhat from yesterday‘s entry).

Bish is concerned with explaining the need for and importance of economic development in the region, which is a necessity for Victoria since it relies for over half of its property tax revenue on businesses, and which is necessary “if children of citizens already here are going to have challenging job opportunities in the region instead of having to migrate elsewhere.”(p.30)

What I find especially useful is how Bish explains the linkages between land use/ zoning regulations, coupled with other restrictive regulations, which together can conspire to retard economic development. Bish writes that the following factors influence economic development: “quality of local services, especially transportation and public safety, the regulatory structure, especially zoning and land use regulation, taxes and (indirectly for business owners and their employees) schools and the attractiveness of residential neighbourhoods. These are primarily manageable by smaller local governments except for taxes, where provincial and national government policies also play a role.” (p.25)

We could say that many of these relate to “quality of life” issues. But zoning regulations directly impinge on economic development, which certainly influences quality of life. As Bish puts it,

First, many municipalities in the capital region have the practice of zoning most land into its existing use–and to do so some have hundreds of zoning categories. This means that every significant change in a business land or building use requires a rezoning process, which not only adds time and cost to the process but creates considerable uncertainty with the politics of the rezoning. Several municipalities also have very strong policies against any kind of home based business. These policies on zoning and home based businesses may have a benefit of providing community input on every land use change but they are policies that make business creation, change and expansion more costly. These policies, however, do not require a regional government to change. They do not even require that all municipalities have more business friendly land use policies. They are, however, important enough to merit review in the region if economic development is to be promoted. (emphasis added) (p.25)

Not a week goes by that a resident doesn’t rant in a letter to the editor or at a neighbourhood association meeting about the”evils” of “spot rezoning.” Council is accused of bending over backward for developers, being spineless, selling the “community” out, etc. Yet as Bish points out, the need for rezoning is built into the very fabric as it exists. If you don’t rezone (call it spot rezoning or whatever), you will ossify land use — and retard economic development.

Bish continues:

The second area where individual municipalities play an important role is in their setting of variable tax rates. The B.C. municipal practice of setting business tax rates two or more times higher than residential tax rates (in the capital region the average multiple is 2.76) has made property taxes for businesses in B.C. some of the highest in North America, while residents enjoy some of the lowest property tax rates. Of course one should not be terribly surprised at this result as there are many more residential voters than business voters. That does not make the problem go away, however, and when combined with close to the highest marginal income tax rates in North America, high corporate income taxes and a capital tax, the capital region is not a tax friendly environment for businesses employing skilled professionals. Most of these tax disadvantages are beyond municipal control, but that makes it even more important that municipal governments fix those policies they are responsible for in areas of land use and local business regulation. It also makes it important that the capital region advertise its strongest asset: a diverse range of small municipalities providing attractive options for different lifestyles in a beautiful environment. This is the quality that may offset high provincial taxes to attract the high income professionals that businesses require to the region. (emph. added) (p.26)

Again, clearly it’s the council’s job to create favourable conditions for economic development, yet when they do (and are called to the mat for “spot rezoning”), some people complain how they’re “favouring” developers, and they usually pipe up (and puff up) enough to convince others, who follow the piper. It seems that many people don’t understand that we can’t live off lotus leaves — we have the “strongest assets,” but we also need to attract more vibrant businesses that can pay better wages than the hospitality or service industries pay.

Victoria is now in significant trouble because our downtown is overrun by people who are not “just” homeless, but who openly use and deal in drugs, who shoot up, smoke crack, tweak in broad day light, and make a career of begging for “spare change.” Key areas are festooned with groups of a dozen or so, many with (stolen) shopping carts laden with various possessions. The Province closed mental health facilities years ago, kicked people out, and seems willing to provide free needles (and now free pipes to crack smokers), but cannot find the will to fund detox facilities or asylums, nor is the justice system willing to stop the revolving door model we use for criminals (thieves, dealers) here.

In other words, the Province “downloaded” the responsibility for the mentally ill and the addicted to the municipalities, which don’t have the wherewithal to deal with this huge issue. So, in turn, the municipality has effectively “downloaded” this problem to individual citizens — not only in the sense that we are supposed to step up with private donations (and private resignation), but also in the sense that our shared public spaces are in part thoroughly destroyed. The private individual is suffering the costs of this “downloading.”

And it, in turn, is destroying what Bish calls our — downtown Victoria’s — “strongest assets,” one of which our own ability to believe in this place.

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