Sunday, June 28, 2009

Walking the Talk

A small crowd showed up a last week's council meeting, to protest the proposed rezoning of an area on the west hill to allow for Northern Spruce Housing to build duplexes on privately owned land that used to be a school yard.

While I'm all for more people coming to council meetings to see what goes on there, I'm not particularly fond of people who pack the audience area in the hopes that mere numbers will persuade members of council to vote according to their wishes. Some may find it intimidating to speak against the majority opinion, and it is - it's hard to go up against a crowd.

But as members of council, we need to think of the needs of the whole city, not individual neighbourhoods. And we need to speak up for the principles that we, as a council, have agreed to.

Ostensibly, the argument is that this will remove "green space" from the area. Two points on that - it isn't considered green space by the city, because it's privately owned land. It may be a convenient place for people in the area to walk their dogs, but it isn't a city park. I'm surprised that those who were advocating to maintain this area as part of their green space didn't protest when the city turned over park area near St. Anne's school - green space - to the school board to pave over for additional parking for the school. But we heard nothing from residents about that loss of green space. The second point is that the west hill area has more green space than many other areas of the city - more than 6 hectares per thousand residents. The only area of the city with more is Carlton Park, with almost 8 hectares per thousand residents. The area with the least - Midtown, with less than 1 hectare per thousand residents.

It is an issue, particularly in older neighbourhoods - how to ensure an ongoing supply of green space? We need long-term planning for this, not a policy of allowing its removal sometimes, but protesting other times.

From the various comments made by presenters, it appears that the real issue is that they would rather not see rental housing built in their neighbourhood. I understand the concerns, but I'm more concerned about what encouraging such segregation says about us as a city. The assumption is that those who rent rather than own their homes need to be kept out of certain areas. We have a housing shortage in this city - there is not enough decent, affordable housing for singles or families. We need to be building more good housing, and ensuring that it is well-managed, not restricting where these homes can go.

In my last term on council, I proposed that we require landlords to have to meet certain standards for their properties, and if those standards are not met, then the landlord would not be able to rent out substandard properties. Right now, I'm appalled at the living situations that some people are forced into, because they have no other choice. When Andrea and I first lived in Prince Albert, we rented a house from a non-resident landlord, which was in such poor shape that in the winter, ice formed on the inside walls. Doing repairs around the house to improve things was strongly discouraged. That house, thirty years later, is only now under a demolition order. Perhaps if that landlord had been forced to meet certain standards in order to rent, that house would still be habitable. In any case, this current council has shown no interest in following up on this idea.

Council speaks a great deal about the need to improve housing in the city, as a solution to many of our social problems. In fact, we are signatories to the UNESCO Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination. One of the actions that we have signed on to in this document is to "support measures to...promote diversity and equal opportunity in housing". At the Canadian Housing Renewal Association conference in Toronto that I attended earlier this year, I posed the question to one of the speakers about setting aside areas in communities where rental housing wasn't allowed. That, he said, was exactly what not to do if you truly support integrated, diverse communities.

As a council, we need to recognize that it's not enough to sign proclamations - we have to then take the actions that will allow the spirit of the proclamations to become reality. If we're not willing to do that, then perhaps we need to consider the implications when we sign onto something, if we aren't willing to stand up and be counted when we are faced with a room full of people who aren't interested in change, at least, not in their neighbourhood.

On a different topic, a blog reader asked what the city pays to support the Rawlinson Centre and the Art Hauser Centre each year. First, financial statements from either operation are extremely difficult to come by - I've asked several times, and the most recent ones that we've seen are for a couple of years ago. Last year's subsidy for the Rawlinson Centre was $300,000. For the Art Hauser Centre, the annual loss varies between $400,000 and $600,000 each year.

I wasn't here when the Comuniplex (now the Art Hauser Centre) was built, but I do remember the grandiose plans for the Rawlinson Centre, one of which was that schools could have their Christmas assemblies there. However, the cost of renting the Rawlinson makes that impractical for schools, and even the local theatre companies don't use it except for special events like this year's provincial drama festival. So we have a wonderful facility that is dark most nights of the year, unable to pay its own way. That's part of the reason that I've been so persistent in trying to find out what the operating costs will be for the soccer centre - because we'll likely end up picking up a big part of the tab for that facility as well.

"How far would Moses have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt?" - Harry S Truman

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