Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Condominiums and Affordable Housing

Last week I briefly touched on some of the housing issues confronting people living in Peel as a result of growing income inequality. I wanted to drill down a little on that issue.

The housing issues facing families, especially those on below-average (or even average) incomes is particularly acute. Getting the space needed at a reasonable price is very difficult. For singles, couples or small families one of the solutions offered to the “middle class” seeking affordable housing has been condominiums.

Condos conveniently skirt the social stigma of renting, allows people to accumulate equity and provides some social prestige. In many ways condos have supplanted traditional starter-homes. Starter-homes are typically one- or two-bedroom houses that are usually smaller than others available on the market. They are ideal for single adults or couples without children, or perhaps one child for those in the middle class. I know a lot of peers are living in, or saving for, their home in the sky. In our shift to greater density it seems natural for condos to replace older, smaller residential homes.

Sadly, other factors are at work. As I mentioned last week, starter-homes are now well out of the reach of young adults just getting their lives together and most young families. My recent survey of the Brampton housing market showed that homes begin at $300,000+. Condominiums seem to be the only option below $300,000, at least in this city by my survey. The various condominium markets across Canada have been sources of rampant speculation. Low interest rates, Canada’s strong banking system and overall economic stability have made Canada a very attractive market to invest in. As a result these shoeboxes in the sky are now selling for exorbitant prices.

Given that so many condominiums are now investment properties with the owners waiting for them to accumulate value many are putting them on the market to rent. This is leading to another disturbing trend. From the Toronto Star, condominium-renters are not protected by the same laws that protect people renting a normal apartment. This giant loophole allows owners to arbitrarily and massively increase rents.

The condo boom is fraught with other challenges. There are increasing questions about maintenance fees and consumer protection issues. ONDP MPP Rosario Marchese (ONDP – Trinity-Spadina) has been fighting to improve the laws governing condos for years now. Condo-owners do not have a simple way to have their needs addressed and there is a lot of concern over the long-term structural stability and soundness of these new buildings.

What once seemed like a smart plan for me and my peers increasingly seems like a way to get fleeced. However all the new construction anywhere seems to be new houses, where even townhouses start at $300,000, or condominiums. It is apparent that more affordable options are needed, along with a greater supply of apartments and other rental choices. Not providing affordable housing of some kind will only push people further from job centres and cause the GTHA/Toronto commutershed, which already includes much of central Ontario, to sprawl even further outward, leading to greater problems of employment, traffic, infrastructure expense, and environmental degradation.  

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Worth Reading – April 25, 2013

I haven’t had much time to dedicate to digging for news articles so much of these comes from earlier rather than later. Still worth reading though.

An editorial piece appeared in the Toronto Star strongly criticizing Mayor Rob Ford’s performance. From analyzing the mayor’s schedule he spends far too much time in “private” and not enough doing the city’s business

Astronomers have identified two Earth-like planets orbiting a star not dissimilar to our sun. I love news like this.

From the Hamilton Spectator, the paper attended the CivicAction conference on congestion and got feedback from municipal and provincial leaders. 

Spacing asks a critical question, what to do in a zombie apocalypse in Toronto? 

Chantal Hébert says that the Conservative attack ads against Justin Trudeau (LPC – Papineau, QC) reveal a midlife stagnation

Meanwhile in Ontario the provincial Liberals are readying themselves for an election this spring. As I’ve said many times before I don’t think that we will going to the polls this spring; I believe a fall election is far more likely. Perhaps that will be fodder for a future Tuesday post.

The Star was also at the conference held by CivicAction. Their focus was much more on the Toronto angle. The Star reported that Mayor Ford is the only municipal mayor in staunch opposition to dedicated funding of transit. The consensus on this issue is very encouraging.

Finally, a blog post from Samara Canada’s Kendall Anderson. Anderson offers a great perspective that is often overlooked, MPs and their families. While most people understand that politicians sacrifice family life they rarely consider the real costs involved.

Frustrated by the commute? You’re not alone. (Zombies)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Income Inequality in Peel

A three-part series in the Toronto Star has challenged assumptions about life in Peel. Normally, when I think of Peel, I think of prosperous middle-class suburbs that attract a substantial immigration. While the proportions vary, I would have guessed most Peel residents are reasonably comfortable middle-class. These assumptions bear little resemblance to the changing nature of Peel.

According to the Toronto Star, income inequality is growing dramatically in the region. The description I offered much better describes Peel in 1980 than 2013. In 1980 over 80% of residents of Peel were middle-income. This number has declined significantly. Several factors have combined to change the region. Sifts in the Canadian economy (particularly the decline of manufacturing), high levels of immigration and the Great Recession are just a few of the “causes”. As of 2010 45% of Peel’s neighbourhoods are categorized as low- or very low-income

In part, this transformation is understandable. I’m confident that if you looked at the fringe neighbourhoods or the newest suburbs you would find a high number of middle-income , or better, households. The older neighbourhoods have matured, and the population has diversified. My neighbourhood is somewhat of a prestige neighbourhood in Brampton. When it was constructed, as I understand it, it attracted doctors, lawyers and other professionals. Over the decades the composition has changed. The OntarioProjections census' analysis shows that my neighbourhood is now composed mostly of tradespeople. Based on this alone you can see how it could change the composition. However, there is much more to it than that.

It is difficult to look at this data and not filter it through my own life experience. I grew up in Peel and much of my family lives here as well. Obviously anecdotal evidence is not the end all, but here are some of my and my family’s impressions.

My sister is a few years older than I, but in many ways we’re at a similar point in our lives. We are early in our careers and working to begin our adult lives. A promising job opportunity came across my desk recently and in my excitement I tried to figure out what kind of life I could build with that lifestyle and income. The answer was... not promising. I estimated my potential income at several points and then, bravely, went to mortgage calculators to roughly see the type of loan I could theoretically afford.

The average income in the GTA in 2010 was $44,217, this was roughly the base number I used for my calculations. Based on that the calculators told me that I could get a mortgage of about $160,000. I believe it is safe to say that aside from a couple of condos it is impossible to find a home for that price or less. So, I fudged the numbers a bit. What if I paid more down? What if I made a little more theoretical money? The highest amount of money I got was $260,000. In the neighbourhood I grew up in, similar to whatis described in this article, bungalows and split-level homes routinely sell for $300,000-$450,000+.

Given where average income is, I assume for more people it is only through combined income with a spouse that most people can afford these homes. With a growing number of unmarried, or single-parent families, or merely single adults the issues in finding reasonable housing becomes more difficult. Compounding the problems is the restrictions on basement apartments the municipalities have.

New basement apartments have not been permitted since 1995. This is a very bad idea. Based on my own experience in St. Catharines, basement units can provide much needed income for families and, more importantly, provide affordable housing.

What about employment? I have been remarkably fortunate since leaving university that I have had well-paying jobs in the city of Brampton. While I was looking prospects seemed quite grim. Again, anecdotally, I know many individuals struggling to find work, especially those with higher education. Major centres like Toronto seem like the only places with the jobs that match skills, but commuting from Brampton into Toronto can be very difficult and expensive. My sister works in Toronto and commuted for years. Finally, the expense of the commute became too great and she joined the wave of young people moving from the suburbs into the city.

Since reading the articles I cannot help but look at my community differently, and consider new information through a new lens. I try as often as I can to bike to work. When I’m passing neighbourhoods I try to think about life for the people that live there, and if they are part of the growing low-income population of the city, struggling to get by.

One of the key problems I see facing Brampton and Peel is that we too often think of ourselves as suburbs, or small cities. Brampton is now larger than Hamilton, and Hamilton, as anyone from the Hammer will tell you, is a city. As growing cities we face problems like most cities: employment problems, traffic, growing poverty and income inequality, and increased pressure on social services. Thinking and acting like a city also has distinct benefits and overall is a positive for our community, but only if we properly address the drawbacks and issues facing residents who call this place home.

Below are the links to all three articles:

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Worth Reading - April 18, 2013

It has been a busy week. I have been helping to organize my first political event. This Saturday the Brampton West NDP will be holding a potluck social at South Fletcher’s Sportsplex. Check out the Brampton West NDP Facebook page for more details. As I may have mentioned previously, I am the Social Media Secretary and sit on the executive of the Brampton West NDP. Finally, on a personal note, today is my birthday. :)

The Conservatives have launched their first ads against Justin Trudeau (LPC – Papineau, QC). Andrew Coyne offers his take on negative advertising/attack ads

Similarly, Allan Gregg says that attack ads hurt our democracy more than political opponents. Gregg argues that these ads make us cynical and disconnect from politics.

Martin Regg Cohn suggests that major changes are needed to reverse the dismal trends in our voter turnout. Cohn argues that e-voting is the solution. While I am strongly opposed to e-voting some changes are definitely needed.

Maclean’s offers a summary of the NDP convention in Montreal. It is not a very favourable light, but it is well written.

Given Canada’s job training problems something like a temporary workers program is needed to fill gaps in the short-term until citizens or immigrants can fill the gaps. Tom Mulcair’s (NDP – Outremont, QC) scathing question in the House of Commons has brought attention to temporaryworkers being brought in for jobs that can clearly be filled by existing labour

Another from Cohn, the cancellation of the gas plants in Mississauga and Oakville reveal problems in both NIMBYism and privatization. I’ve been reading about public transit lately and there appears growing evidence that privatization has offered no benefits and just new problems. Clearly the cult of privatization needs to be challenged.

I love this piece. After a new poll showed again that Justin Trudeau would win a majority the NDP released a mock response

Justin Trudeau’s first day in the House of Commons as Liberal leader could have gone better. According to media reports Thomas Mulcair stole the show with his questions on the temporary foreign workers program. 

Michael Den Tandt in the National Post says that Trudeau’s appeal to the public will mean that both Harper and Mulcair will have to work on being more friendly political commodities

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Opening Up Political Parties

Given the two major political events occurred for federal political parties this week I thought it might be valuable to consider the role of parties in Canada. Over the weekend New Democrats gathered to meet at their first policy convention since Tom Mulcair (NDP – Outremont, QC) was selected as leader. While plenty of the fiery left-wing rhetoric and policies were on display the overall tone of the party has shifted towards the centre and moderation. Members of the socialist caucus within the NDP were clearly frustrated by the shift in priorities, but time and time again delegates opted in big numbers for the new direction.

Meanwhile, the federal Liberals wrapped up their leadership convention and anointed Justin Trudeau (LPC – Papineau, QC) as the new leader of the party. As has been well-stated, Trudeau was the heavy favourite to win and did so handily. The Liberals did not end their leadership race with a big final convention. It was a smaller affair in Ottawa where after a week of voting the winner was announced.

I had friends that attended the NDP convention in Montreal. I considered attending briefly but taking time off work, and the expense of a hotel and travel ruled the idea out for me. I lamented these choices on Twitter when a follower of mine reminded me that things would get much worse once I stopped being a “youth”. For those who may be familiar, younger members of political parties receive heavy discounts to attend events. In about a year I’ll be too old to claim that moniker and my participation in big political events will become all the more expensive.

A couple of months ago I authored a piece for Samara on how unresponsive and opaque political parties turned off participation. Related to that initial theme I want to expand on the costliness of participation in Canada. My experience is limited to the NDP/ONDP but I feel there are patterns that must apply to other parties.

First, and most obviously, Canada is a giant country and it is quite expensive to travel. I am fortunate to live in the GTA; many political events occur in the country’s largest city. However, parties try to be fair and move conventions around the country. I would love to visit Vancouver, but the cost to run out there for a three-day convention and spending hundreds of dollars seems unwise.

Second, the actual price of admission/registration to these events is often quite high, at least in my opinion. Paying to be one of hundreds of people voting on issues is a privilege, but given that it is so central to our democratic system one would hope it could be more open.

While I hesitate to praise the Liberal Party the way they orchestrated the conclusion of their leadership event made a lot of sense. Is it logical to hold a big, expensive convention to name a leader when tens of thousands of members will vote and actually being at the convention has no tangible benefit to the participants? In the days of delegated convention, like the last Ontario Liberal leadership convention, attendance is critical. Now that members can vote by mail, electronically or over the phone it seems silly. Therefore, why don’t we extend this idea to the policy conventions. A central event could still be held, but Skype and Google Hangouts could replace convention speeches. Panel discussions could better educate members. Policies could be read in depth and active forum posts could be made to debate the topics.

I am not necessarily suggesting that all party members should be allowed to participate in these matters. Delegates could be given passwords to access the information and participate. From what I understand there are hundreds of resolutions submitted at each convention that do not get discussed. If all are valid then it is only fair all get at least some consideration.

If political parties are going to facilitate Canadians’ participation in their democracy barriers to access need to come down.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Worth Reading – April 11, 2013

This week the Toronto Star did a three-part series on growing income equality in the Region of Peel. Over the last thirty years the Region of Peel has transformed from a middle class suburb to edge cities with a large and growing under-class.

From the National Post, Matt Gurney takes Mayor Rob Ford’s notion that a casino could pay for transit and puts it to the test. If all holds to plan, the casino could pay for planned transit investments in a brief 1000 years.

Speaking of funding transit, again from the National Post, Metrolinx has revealed some of the potential tools to raise the capital needed for infrastructure investments. This includes highway tolls, fuel tax and parking fees.

Andrew Coyne in the National Post wraps up the federal Liberal leadership race. He concludes that of the current candidates Justin Trudeau (LPC – Papineau, QC) is clearly the best choice. There is no doubt Trudeau has grown as a politician during the campaign, but his name recognition dramatically cleared the field.

Brampton Transit is seeking public input on changes to the system and expansion of the Züm along Bovaird. 

It’s no secret that Ontario has serious budget issues. One of the barriers is Ontario’s unfair treatment by the federal equalization program. Martin Regg Cohn lays out the case that the Mowat Centre has highlighted in a recent report.

Brampton has settled on the new ward map for the 2014 civic elections. The public rejected the idea of creating two new councillor positions. I think this decision is short-sighted, but I can understand the public resistance to spend more money on politicians.

Last night’s episode of the Agenda on TVO had a very impressive line-up. First, a one-on-one interview with Dave Meslin advocating RaBIT (Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto). They are seeking to change how we will vote in the next municipal election (at least in Toronto). The main event was a roundtable discussion on how to make parliament matter. Guests include Alison Loat of Samara (whose report inspired this episode), Aaron Wherry of Maclean’s, Nathan Cullen (NDP - Skeena-Bulkley Valley, BC), Brent Rathgeber (CPC – Edmonton-St. Albert, AB) and Carolyn Bennett (LPC – St. Paul’s, ON). An excellent conversation on an issue critical to our futures.

A simple piece that doesn’t tell us much we don’t already know, but the Globe and Mail highlights the big challenges facing the GTA’s economy

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

An Argument Against Cooperation

It is time for progressives in Canada to face a certain reality; electoral cooperation as it is understood is impossible, or at least incredibly unlikely.

The point of electoral cooperation is that the “left-wing” parties (NDP, Liberals and Greens) divide the vote. When put together they form a strong majority, especially when measured against the 40% the Conservatives use to form majority government. Proponents of cooperation want the three parties to not compete against each other in ridings held by Conservative MPs, nominate a consensus candidate and rally behind her/him to defeat the Tories. The winning coalition of New Democrats, Liberals and Greens would then introduce proportional representation for the following election.

The idea has been floating around in some form since at least the 2011 federal election where 60% of voters chose “progressive” parties and instead we got a Conservative majority government. Since that time the issue has been debated by the New Democrats and Liberals and both have seemed to come to some firm conclusions.

In 2011 the NDP held a policy convention in Vancouver. One of the resolutions was to rule out electoral cooperation with the Liberals, and eliminate the possibility of a merger. The resolution was adopted by a majority of the delegates there and it is safe to say reflects (at least to some measure) the membership of that party. In 2012 Nathan Cullen (NDP – Skeena-Bulkley Valley, BC) ran to be NDP leader on an explicit platform of cooperation. While many argue that Cullen’s campaign was buoyed by this plank he ultimately finished third with about 25% of the vote. Tom Mulcair (NDP – Outremont, QC) has never supported cooperation.

In the Liberal leadership race Joyce Murray (LPC – Vancouver Quadra, BC) has also been campaigning on cooperation. Despite the fact that she built a significant network within the Liberal Party it is Justin Trudeau (LPC – Papineau, QC) who will be anointed leader in the near future. Trudeau has expressly rejected cooperation and gone further to suggest that Canadians don’t really understand what proportional representation is, and it would not be good for the country.

Therefore by May 2013 with the Mulcair NDP and Trudeau Liberals cooperation is a dead issue. This ignores the legal, practical and political forces against electoral cooperation. While a simple idea it would force a radical shift in the political culture of our country. I do not believe it is impossible, but it would probably take a long time to figure out, and definitely not something that could be thrown together in the year leading up to an election. That all being said, recent polling suggests that cooperation before the election will be unnecessary.

Eric Grénier from 308 Blog broke down how recent polls would affect seat distribution on his website and for the Globe and Mail. With the Liberals and Tories sitting at about 30% each and the NDP at 25+% it seems that the Conservatives winning an outright majority is out of the question. Part of the explanation is that the Liberals and NDP are strong in different parts of the country. Liberal fortunes are on the rise in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. This badly cuts into the Conservative majority, which is primarily built in Ontario.

Grénier estimates that at current polling the CPC would win 136 seats, LPC 102, NDP 86, BQ 13 and Greens 1. Yes, the Conservatives still win the largest number of seats, but the NDP and Liberals could combine to form a coalition government of 188 seats. Even if the reverse were to happen the Liberals could support an NDP government. The question is what could happen next. Fearing a Tory revival I’m sure Mulcair and Trudeau would be under considerable pressure to introduce electoral reform. Given Trudeau’s position something like instant runoff might carry the day, but even that is preferable to our current system.

I understand the above is predicated on a lot of ifs, but so is electoral cooperation. More important than cooperating before an election our progressive parties should consider cooperating after and permanently ending our antiquated election system.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Worth Reading – April 4, 2013

Hard cuts had to be made to get this list down to 10. 

Eric Grenier of 308 breaks down how a ranked ballot would effect a hypothetical election. Most people have assumed that a ranked ballot would benefit the centrist Liberals, but according to Grenier’s analysis it turns out it is the NDP who come out ahead.  

Andrew Coyne offers a take on the “caucus revolt” in the Conservative backbenches. Coyne says he has sources that say over twenty MPs have been meeting in secret to air their grievances. He interprets the issue as one of democracy, not social conservatism. I have a feeling Mr. Coyne is being a tad over optimistic.

Chantal Hebert raises the idea that the CPC caucus unrest might ultimately lead to a leadership challenge

Jim Coyle of the Toronto Star offers perhaps the best account of the life of recently departed Peter Kormos. I provided a bunch of links on my Tuesday post.

The pressure of university is distorting high school grades. This piece from the Globe and Mail talks about the grade inflation and how it has to burst

Last week’s CBC The National’s At Issue panel had an excellent discussion on the CPC caucus revolt and robocalls. I highly recommend it.

Neil Degrasse Tyson, a prominent voice in popular culture, has an amazing little speech about the importance of space exploration

As I said in the last Worth Reading, criticism of Mayor Fennell’s salary has arrived.

John Lorinc in Spacing breaks down some of the revenue tools Metrolinx can use to pay for the Big Move

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Remembering Peter Kormos

Peter Kormos, the former provincial politician and Niagara Regional Council member, died this past weekend at the age of 60. Mr. Kormos was not widely known beyond his region of the province, outside of NDP circles, or those who follow politics. He was a household name in Niagara and a friend and ally to NDP stalwarts. To me, he was my political hero.

Unlike many of the tributes to Peter Kormos I did not know the man personally, and I see little value in presenting his biography. Instead, I would like to share what I view as my history with the former MPP for Welland.

When I was fourteen or fifteen years old I took my first serious interest in politics. If I recall correctly, I always found it fascinating, but I dedicated to learning all I could about our political system and how it operated. My interest in Canadian and Ontarian politics actually grew out of an obsession with American politics. The Iraq War and the controversial presidency of George W. Bush had been a real catalyst to my political awakening. I was slower to warm to Canadian politics, and less so the provincial scene; truly ironic where most of my focus is given today.

One of the early ways I educated myself was by watching the Ontario Legislative Assembly on cable television. Clearly, if I did not yet seem to be a strange teenager that should seal it. While I had my opinions I had yet to find a political party and so I wanted in part to learn and to understand how a parliament works.

This was the early McGuinty years. The media portrayal and opposition criticism of his government is what built by anti-Liberal bias and a respect for the Tories and New Democrats. The ONDP was in a pretty sorry state at that time. They were not even an official political party having lost too many seats in the previous election.

There was one politician in particular that caught my attention. Peter Kormos was a superb parliamentarian. He would rise in the Legislature and truly eviscerate the government. His critique was sharp and fought for justice and fairness. One particular issue stuck in my head. The ONDP were pushing for support of special education programs for children with autism. McGuinty had promised to continue the funding, and then ended it. I didn’t understand what autism was at the time, but Kormos’ championing of the little guy spoke to me. He was arguably the best orator in the chamber and had a unique flourish and style that was wonderful to watch.

Without Peter Kormos I might not be a New Democrat today. He drew me into the party and firmly aligned me to notion that politicians out of power could do real good. Government is not the purpose of our elected chambers and MPPs (or MPs) have a duty to do their utmost to represent their constituents and what is right.

Not long after this awakening I participated in Ontario Model Parliament as a delegate/MPP for the NDP. During one of our sessions at Queen’s Park my teacher and a few fellow students and I were in the cafeteria. I noticed Peter Kormos walking by and I said who he was, but was too shy and nervous to introduce myself. What would he want with a kid like me? My teacher chased after Mr. Kormos and introduced him to our group. I stood up and shook his hands. They seemed gigantic and callused. My teacher told him why we were there and he asked what I thought about the issues. I explained my position and he listened intently before jovially bursting out in agreement. He explained what he and the NDP were trying to do and the obstacles, but more importantly – he listened.

Years later when I chose a university Brock was second on my list. One of the major enticements for me there was that I could actually live in Peter Kormos’ riding and have him be my actual MPP, and if I was lucky, vote for the man. Sadly I never marked the ballot for Peter Kormos, but I did join the ONDP because I wanted to help his campaign in 2011. He announced his retirement that summer, but I still got to help choose his successor, Cindy Forster, and meet the man again.

Over time the youthful hero-worship wore off, but it was replaced with glowing respect. The man was a parliamentarian through the core and exercised his elected position as a sacred duty. I got to shake his hand again, and spoke with his briefly and he signed one of his old election signs for me, which now rests in my room.

Perhaps the thing I liked most about Kormos was his lack of partisanship in certain things. He was a harsh critic of Liberals, Progressive Conservatives and the New Democrats when he thought they were doing the wrong thing. He had his principles and he stuck to them. I am well to the centre/right of Mr. Kormos, but I deeply respected his commitment to his ideals.

One day we realize our heroes are human, either because they let us down, or because they pass away. I am proud to say Peter Kormos never let me down. He has set a standard by which I measure politicians for greatness and we are unlikely to see the like of him for a long while.

Here are some links to obituaries and memorials dedicated to Mr. Kormos: