Of many things

Full Text:

APPALACHIA STANDS OUT as a section of the eastern United States long regarded as a symbol of poverty and exploitation. But as several visitors from Wheeling Jesuit University observed during a visit to America House, it also represents a proud people with a strong tradition and culture. The visitors, two Jesuits and a lay faculty member, were in Manhattan to seek foundation funding for the university’s recently established Clifford M. Lewis, S.J., Institute, and they also were eager to share with us their enthusiasm for this new project. The institute is a center of research and action whose priorities include attention to community development, education and ecological concerns–pressing issues in an area where unemployment is high and positive opportunities few for Appalachian residents.

Of-many-things-1

Ecological concerns are of special significance because of the mining industry’s negative impact on the region of West Virginia where the university is located. One of the visitors to my office was the institute’s first executive director, Joseph Hacala, S.J. He described how mining methods have ravaged whole sections of central Appalachia. The newer methods include strip mining and so-called mountaintop removal, which have resulted in flooding and the pollution of rivers and streams. Similarly, the impoundments–waste ponds for rinsing coal after its removal from the mines–created by older extraction methods continue to burst, destroying homes as their waters rush down the hillsides and adding still further to the water pollution.

Father Hacala went on to note that much of the land surface and most of the mineral and other natural wealth of central Appalachia is owned not by the people who live there, but by outside commercial interests. One might call it the absentee-landlord syndrome. “The profits are large,” he said, “but the owners haven’t paid back to the local communities an amount commensurate in value to what they have taken out.” As a result, tax bases are so low that little has been available to residents in the way of health care, education and jobs. Although some owners claim to be providing employment, such jobs are relatively few, because newer mining methods make more use of heavy machinery than of human labor.

But the institute’s focus, Father Hacala emphasized, is not to attempt to solve individual problems, ecological or other, but rather to promote the kind of community organizing that will empower the people to build their own futures by addressing the major issues they face. Toward this end, in collaboration with the local Hopeful City project, several task forces have been established. One concerns economic development and focuses on creating not more minimum-wage jobs, but jobs that pay a living wage. Another deals with housing. Much of what exists is deteriorated rental housing for which landlords show little accountability. Still another task force revolves around youth services. But all of them aim at empowering the people themselves.

Of-many-things-2

But who, I asked, was Clifford M. Lewis, S.J.? Father Hacala explained that at the invitation of one of the West Virginia bishops, Father Lewis–an area native, like Father Hacala–had come to help found Wheeling College in the early 1950’s. The new institute named after him has its roots in a pastoral letter signed in 1975 by all the Appalachian bishops on the campus itself. Its title is This Land Is Home to Me, but its subtitle, “A Pastoral Letter on Powerlessness in Appalachia,” points to the heart of the longstanding problem. In addressing this powerlessness, the institute is involving both faculty and students in research and action.

Many of the students are low-income local people. “There are no B.M.W.’s in our parking lot,” Father Hacala said. Their fathers are often employed in the mines: “One month they might work and then be laid off the next month.” Greater empowerment would give them and all Appalachians a stronger voice in shaping the destinies of their own communities. Empowerment would also be in keeping with the vision of the bishop’s statement: “a dream of simplicity and justice.”

Greens Win Historic Board of Supervisors Seat in San Francisco

Full Text:

In a breakthrough victory for the Green Party, Matt Gonzalez became the first Green elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in a December 12, 2000 run-off election.

Gonzalez swept to victory by a 66.1% to 33.9% margin, despite being overwhelmingly outspent by his opponent Juanita Owens. Owens was backed by San Francisco Democratic Mayor Willie Brown’s political machine and received over $200,000 in soft money expenditures from the San Francisco development community.

With the election of Gonzalez, San Francisco overwhelmingly becomes the largest US city to elect a Green (750,000), followed by Madison, WI (210,000), Hartford, CT (130,000), Salem, OR (130,000) and Berkeley, CA (110,000).

Gonzalez’s victory comes in San Francisco’s liberal 5th District, which stretches from the Western Addition and Haight-Ashbury to Japantown, and which contains many young, politically active voters, renters and a significant poor black population

A public defender and affordable housing advocate, Gonzalez joined the Green Party in October, after having been a Democrat for many years. He wrote an editorial “Why I Turned Green” for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, on why he changed parties, and addressing whether his switch would hurt his chances in a district with 33,519 Democrats and 2,735 Greens.

The Democratic Party in San Francisco includes sanctioned Democratic clubs that engage in massive soft-money campaigns against good progressive candidates. What do I have in common with these clubs and the tactics they employ? I don’t have much in common with them at all. So I joined the Green Party. I decided I am not going to vote for candidates who support the death penalty or oppose gay marriage. I’m not going to vote for candidates who oppose campaign-finance reform or value the corporation over the individual. Nor will I give the local machine party any legitimacy by remaining a part of it”

Some urged Gonzalez to wait to change parties until after the election. In his editorial, Gonzalez responded. Why should I wait? Shouldn’t the voters in District Five have the opportunity to vote against me because I’m Green? And what kind of impression would I be making on folks whom I’m asking to trust me if I can’t even be honest about my own party affiliation?

Greens-Win-Historic-Board-of-Supervisors-Seat-in-San-Francisco-1

The local Democratic Party attacked Gonzalez with an ill conceived direct mail campaign attempting to associate Gonzalez with the situation in Florida, saying “its about the Supreme Court, stupid” and “doesn’t this guy get that Nader may have caused Gore to lose in Florida,” along with a photo of Owens together with Tipper Gore–as if being seen with Tipper Gore were an asset in liberal Haight Ashbury.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian endorsed Gonzalez, saying:

…his positions on the district’s most pressing issues–gentrification, homelessness, tenants’ rights–are solidly progressive and particularly well reasoned. A highly regarded lawyer, he’s fluent in policy matters but never loses sight of the human consequences of political decisions. And he has brought a unique and thoughtful style to the stump, treating campaign events and debates not as occasions for sloganeering but as opportunities for discussion. He’d be an open, accountable, and engaged member of the board.

Gonzalez’s campaign energized San Francisco Greens who were also active in the Nader for President and Medea Benjamin for US Senate Green Party campaigns, and drew Greens from around the state to come to San Francisco to work for Gonzalez as well. Gonzalez and his volunteers walked the entire district, visiting almost every residence at least once, and ran an effective “get out the vote” operation on election day.

With the election of Gonzalez, California Greens won 13 races in 2000. There are now 32 California Greens holding elected office, including 19 city council members (www.greens.org/elections). In Sebastopol, CA in November, Greens won two seats to form the second-ever-Green city council majority in the US. Three new California Green mayors have also been appointed since November–Larry Robinson (Sebastopol), Tim Fitzmaurice (Santa Cruz) and Mike Feinstein (Santa Monica), bringing to five this year. Santa Monica is also now the largest US city to have a Green mayor. Nationally Greens won 33 races in 2000 and have 79 Greens holding elected office in 19 states. A record total of 275 Greens overall ran for office in 2000, in 32 states, the District of Columbia and American Samoa. This is more than twice the previous high of 131 in 1998.

Mike Feinstein, elected to the City Council of Santa Monica, is now mayor of that city.

* Preserve rent control.

* Mandate affordable housing component to every new apartment building.

* Stop unfair rent increases for capital improvements.

* Strict oversight of non-profit housing development.

* Supports the creation of housing cooperatives to assist low income people in obtaining home ownership.

* Save Section 8 housing.

Local, Universal Health Care

* Save SF General Hospital’s model health programs.

* Implement voter-approved universal health care in San Francisco.

Workable Solutions for Homelessness

* Accountability for city’s treatment on demand for mental health and addiction abuse service.

* Develop and promote a comprehensive city-wide strategy for homeless services that helps provide educational and vocational training.

* Work with state and federal officials to increase funding of homeless services in San Francisco

* Supports drop-in facilities for homeless to make counseling acessible and promote public health.

A Return to Open Government

* Committed to city officials complying with the Sunshine Ordinance.

* Increase oversight of SF School Board, Redevelopment Agency, Human Rights Commission and Housing Authority.

* Support of Instant Runoff Voting, reducing government waste and saving taxpayers millions of dollars.

Greens-Win-Historic-Board-of-Supervisors-Seat-in-San-Francisco-2

Limit on Big Money Influence

* Create Municipal Utility District to end PG&E’s monopoly.

* Support public financing of election campaigns and the immediate disclosure of soft money contributions.

* Will not accept campaign contributions from lobbyists and corporations.

Livable Neighborhoods

* Limit chain-store encroachment in order to support local businesses and preserve neighborhood character.

* Implement traffic calming measures in order to better protect pedestrians and bicyclists.

* Encourage responsible community law enforcement.

* Increase MUNI service to Golden Gate Park and along North-South corridors.

Urban Environmental Protection

* Committed to Naval Shipyard cleanup in Bayview/Hunters Point.

* Supports more bike lanes and fostering multi-modal travel.

* Close JFK drive in Golden Gate Park on Saturdays.

* Committed to building the Octavia Boulevard Project without unnecessary delays.

Economic Justice for Working People.

* Supports a living wage with health benefits for all employees of businesses that contract with the city.

* Supports the right of workers to organize and will fight any effort to encroach upon that right.

* Supports domestic partner benefits.

* Supports comparable worth legislation to ensure pay equity for all.

Human Rights

* Supports gay marriage.

* Support the availability of medical marijuana.

Build it: they’re coming: The need for affordable rental housing is critical across the country. But private developers can’t deliver it

Full Text:

In the wake of the devastating terrorists attacks, as the nation slips into recession, so many issues have understandably fallen to the bottom of every government’s agenda. But the acute shortage of rental housing is a problem that should not be ignored. Construction began on just eight rental units within the boundaries of the former city of Toronto last year; only 133 units were started in all of metro Toronto. Twelve went up in Calgary. Sixty-six in Winnipeg. The few developers that even go near the business usually avoid the construction of costly concrete apartment complexes. “We cannot afford to build rental housing in apartment form,” says Mitchell Cohen, president of Toronto-based developer the Daniels Corp., which is putting up three-bedroom townhouses in Mississauga, Ont., with rents of $1,580 a month. “The cost of construction is so high with all the levies and taxes that the rents we could charge would not cover our costs, let alone provide a return on investment.”

Build-it-they're-coming-The-need-for-affordable-rental-housing-is-critical-across-the-country-But-private-developers-can't-deliver-it-1

The situation is serious — because the need is pressing. The children of the baby boomers, the baby boom echo born between 1980 and 1995, are starting to look for rooms of their own. More than 200,000 immigrants are arriving each year. Existing buildings are deteriorating. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities says the nation should be producing 45,000 units per year until 2010 just to keep pace with new demand. Instead, the supply has been pitiful. Across the country, in centres of more than 10,000 people, developers erected a paltry 9,075 rental units last year. (At the same time, they put up more than 21,000 condos. Some of those were rented, too, but not often at rates the needy would consider.) By contrast, in the early 1990s, when the federal and most provincial governments still had subsidy programs, more than 27,000 rental units rolled onto the market each year.

Worse, even if developers could somehow meet today’s demand, most tenants could not afford the rent. David Hulchanski, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies, has calculated that between 1984 and 1999, the median income of homeowners increased by five per cent — while the median income of renters actually dropped by three per cent. That is because, in the tough economic climate of the 1990s, many renters lacked the skills to maintain income growth, let alone scratch together the money for a down payment. But rents increased by 23 per cent between 1989 and 2000. And that cost is not likely to decline: competitive rental markets don’t exist when vacancy rates are below three per cent. They’re below that amount in many urban centres. “Many tenants have a social need for housing,” says Hulchanski. “They just don’t have enough money to generate effective demand. They can’t pay the rents that would allow a developer to break even.”

No one wants to go back to the bad old days when Ottawa put up the buildings — and managed them. It was a formula for disaster. But, belatedly, governments are inching towards a solution. Ottawa has earmarked $680 million for housing over the next four years — and asked the provinces to match that amount. Originally, Alfonso Gagliano, minister responsible for Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., suggested the two levels of government contribute up to $12,500 apiece per unit as a subsidy to private developers who erect rental housing. In return, the developer would pledge to maintain affordable rents for 10 years. But the FCM calculated that such contributions would still leave the units out of reach for low-income households: the rent for a modest unit in Vancouver, for instance, would gobble up more than 30 per cent of the income of households earning less than $33,000 per year.

So Ottawa and the provinces are now working on a compromise package — which they hope to unveil at their next meeting in Quebec City on Nov. 30. Ottawa will raise the level of the contribution for each unit — and allow provinces to claim credit for existing programs such as Quebec’s Acc?s-Logis, which provides social housing subsidies. Provinces, in turn, are bringing cities into the partnership. Fewer units will be built — but they will be more affordable.

Build-it-they're-coming-The-need-for-affordable-rental-housing-is-critical-across-the-country-But-private-developers-can't-deliver-it-2

Different provinces will also be able to use the money in different ways: Newfoundland needs to renovate existing housing stock; Winnipeg has devised a remarkable program to help North End families purchase their own homes — an initiative which is reducing the twin ills of absentee landlords and drug dealers. “We want to start construction as soon as we can,” says a senior federal official. “We have been very flexible.”

Most important, Ottawa and the provinces have put together a group to find longer-term solutions. Last year, the federal government pared the GST on construction materials for rental housing — and it is also backing rental housing with its $2.65-billion infrastructure program. Now, both levels of government are looking at breaks, ranging from total GST elimination on rental construction materials to a cut in the cost of CMHC mortgage insurance. Budgets are tight. But this must be a priority. “Unfortunately, the only market solution for affordable housing today is slums,” says Toronto councillor David Miller. “This is a place where you need government.”

Montreal’s housing crisis

Full Text:

Montreal appeared to be in better shape on the housing front than other major Canadian cities early in the year 2000. At the time, the vacancy rate was three per cent, compared to 0.7 per cent in Ottawa, and 0.9 per cent in Toronto and Saskatoon. Moreover, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $506, compared to $916 in Toronto, $864 in Vancouver and $739 in Calgary.

Nevertheless, one in ten Montreal tenants had to spend more than 80 per cent of their income on housing; according to the 2001 census, nearly 50,000 households found themselves in this untenable condition.

The situation has deteriorated in the last four years. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) reveals a vacancy rate of one per cent in the greater Montreal area, giving the city the unhappy distinction of ranking third with respect to the rental-unit shortage in urban areas in Canada. First and second place went to two other cities in Quebec: Quebec City and Sherbrooke.

The Impact

Scarce rental housing has many adverse consequences. For the fourth consecutive year, the authorities had to take emergency measures on July 1, Quebec’s traditional moving day. Families with children were given shelter, furniture and belongings were placed in storage, and 24-hour hot lines were set up. Hundreds of those stranded in the moving-day housing crunch stayed with relatives or friends, for anywhere from a few days to a year.

Rents, still lower than elsewhere in Canada, but catching up quickly, have been rising year after year.

Discrimination is also becoming a bigger problem. Many landlords are taking advantage of the low vacancy rate to refuse to rent to welfare recipients, families with children, or members of visible minorities.

More and more tenants are forced to leave the neighbourhoods where they have support networks of family and friends in order to find a place to live. Sometimes they must even leave the island. Furthermore, gentrification already underway in certain neighourhoods has accelerated.

Homeless shelters are now inundated all year long, as are the centres providing assistance to new immigrants and shelters for women who are victims of domestic violence.

Montreal's-housing-crisis-1

No End in Sight

With the boom in residential construction, the rentalhousing shortage will eventually come to an end, as it did in other Canadian cities. However, the housing crisis will persist. Instead of an overall shortage of rental units, there will be a lack of affordable housing for low-income individuals and families.

This is already happening. CMHC’s last Rental Market Survey revealed a vacancy rate of 3.5 per cent for units renting at a monthly average of $900 or more, compared to a vacancy rate of only 0.6 per cent for units renting at $600 or less.

Real-estate developers are willing to build rental housing, but they are simply incapable of building housing that that can accommodate poor tenants’ limited financial means. Unfortunately, it is precisely this category of tenant that is growing in Montreal.

It would be a mistake to look for a solution to the lack of affordable housing in the construction of more private housing, since current prospective tenants are not sufficiently affluent to sustain market demand. The only solution is non-market or social housing.

5,000 Units and Beyond

The paucity of rental housing in recent years, combined with the pressure brought to bear by various housing committees active in many Montreal neighbourhoods, led government officials to step up investment in social housing–contrary to what happened elsewhere in Canada. In January, 2002, Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay launched Solidarity 5000, a program aimed at building 5,000 low-cost housing units in Montreal by the end of 2005.

The program is still far from meeting its objective: to date, only 1,000 units have seen the light of day. However, there will be major follow-up action. During the City of Montreal’s public hearings on its new urban plan, Quebec housing-rights coalition FRAPRU argued that social housing should comprise half of all the housing units built in the next ten years.

Montreal's-housing-crisis-2

To reach this goal will require a firm commitment by the City, as well as funding from higher levels of government. While the overall shortage of rental housing prompted the Quebec government to maintain or increase funding for social housing, with media interest in the housing crisis waning, how long can it be before social housing becomes the target of cutbacks by Jean Charest’s Liberal government?

The outcome will depend in large part on the ability of community organizations in Montreal to adapt their strategies to changing realities. It is neither the first time, nor is it likely to be the last, that these groups have faced such a challenge, but at this juncture, the stakes–the fate of Montreal’s low-income tenants–are particularly high.

For the last 25 years, Francois Saillant has been the coordinator of FRAPRU, the Front d’action populaire en reamenagement urbain, Quebec’s housing-rights coalition, which represents 90 groups across the province.

(translated by Andrea Levy)