A lesson for transit agencies – think outside the box on affordable housing

In all the recent discussion in Toronto regarding revamping Section 37 in Ontario and providing proper allocation for affordable housing, especially along the Avenues, there is no talk on where these types of units will be located.

Sure there has been a recent trend in Toronto’s development industry towards building of new market-rate rental housing units instead of condominiums, but that still does not solve the problem of affordable housing.

Sure we will applaud Vancouver developer Westbank Corp to committing to rental housing at the corner of Bathurst and Bloor replacing the storied Honest Ed’s.  But these until will also be market-rate rental.

But therein lies the problem of providing appropriate levels of affordable housing along transit corridors where many of its riders are located.  University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski’s report “Three Cities within Toronto” much of the middle income will be all but gone and lower income residents will be located in the peripheries by 2025.  This is assuming that there will be no major policy changes that in the next 10 years, especially ones that lead to affordable housing and equitable income distribution according to the report (Hulchanski, 27).

The lack of affordable housing in cities has become a national crisis in cities on both sides of the border and action must be taken. Los Angeles Metro is being encouraged to get in the game.  In the Los Angeles Times editorial, they encourage Metro’s Board of Directors to vote yes on providing affordable housing along transit lines. 

On Thursday, Metro’s Board of Directors will consider setting a goal that 35% of all apartments and condos built on land no longer needed by Metro be set aside for low-income residents. To that end, the agency would, for the first time, offer its land for lease or sale at below-market cost for projects that include affordable units. In addition, Metro would kick in $10 million to a new trust fund that would provide seed money to developers to build low-income housing.

35% is a good starting point but it realistically might be whittled down to 25%-30%.  Those are aggressive targets that are not even encouraged within Ontario’s Section 37 guidelines.

TTC, for example, already has a Property Development Department.  The Property Acquisition Management Plan outlines criteria on takings for acquiring property which includes their Secondary Exit Strategy for subway stations.  Many of the other transit agencies resort to their city or region’s real estate departments for taking on rapid transit projects.

It already is a foregone conclusion that many residents of these newly built high rise condominium projects masked as transit-oriented development will use their cars more than using transit.  It is those lower and middle income residents who are captive or choice riders who use transit the most.  It makes good business sense for transit agencies to explore this opportunity.

It is essential that transit agencies across Canada look beyond its ridership numbers and operations and collaborate with other city departments to follow Los Angeles’ lead. It’s time cities be creative by thinking outside the box on affordable housing.

UPDATE: The Metro Board of Directors approved the Mayor’s initiative to have 35% of their properties developed as affordable units. Press release here.

Ambition personified – Regional Governance Research

Earlier today, I posted this photo over social media.

IMG_20150325_124950
Chicken scratch aka Regional Governance notes

As followers of this blog and on social media channels know, I have been supportive of assembling a regional governance model for the Greater Toronto area, beyond the various special purpose bodies and regional groups that exist in the region.

As I set of on a journey towards completing courses within the Masters of Public Administration degree, this is the research I plan to embark on.

For those who cannot read my chicken scratch (I apologize to my future colleagues and professors in advance), here are the questions I hope to answer within my research:

  • How do we fend off the perception will be another level of government?
  • How do we not make the mistakes in the development of a Megacity/Unicity model of Toronto and Winnipeg?
  • How will this governance model encourage direct participation/engagement?
  • Manpower/human resources while avoiding duplication
  • What will be the financial benefits/costs to such a governance structure?
  • What to do with the current regional municipalities of Peel, Halton, Durham and York?
  • What will be the geographic boundaries?  Who stays and who goes?
  • What will be the makeup of political representation?
  • Planning, health, transportation, infrastructure, housing, water and environment should be the key areas within this structure?  Are there any others that should be included?
  • What will intergovernmental relations look like?  Funding, MOUs and grants
  • How could this model be different when it comes to developing an innovative culture.
  • Are there benefits of replicating the US model of metropolitan planning organizations like SCAG, SEMCOG, etc?
  • What will the relationship be with the federal and provincial governments?  Advocacy groups role for organizations like AMO and FCM?
  • Economic development and marketing of region – How will organizations like the GTMA and TRBOT play a role, if any?

Much of my research will be conducted utlilizing the professional knowledge and experience I’ve gained over the years; knowledge through the courses I will be taking; and, secondary research and primary research from questions I ask to politicians in all levels of government and those in the advocacy organizations I mention.

I maybe well ahead of the game here, but it is definitely something I am looking forward to doing in the next few years.  I am sure there will be many other questions to be asked and answered. Maybe some of these questions will be modified.  By the time I begin this research, I may focus on one program or policy area specific to regional governance.  It is a start.

What do you think?  Am I missing anything?  Please post your comments.

Transition is almost complete.

I had been contemplating what to write about in my next blog post.  I had several drafts written but never completed them.  They were of course planning policy related.  But given my career transition, I wanted the blog post to be positive.  It is always easy to harp on the past – positive or negative.  It is about moving forward and learning from your experiences.  I even contemplated shutting this blog down altogether.  I trudge along.

So as an introduction to the re-born Urban Strategist blog, I wanted do a little storytelling.

Defense of the planning profession no more.

Several years removed from my second degree in urban planning, and jumping from job to job in the financial sector and co-op housing, I went to work for the Canadian Urban Transit Association in 2006.  This was not the first time I applied there.  I was rejected twice before but was subsequently given a third chance after the person they hired resigned.  Coincidentally, him and I met that same year at an event and had become friends ever since.

I was stubborn and wanted to be involved in land use planning.  Never received that opportunity in Canada so I took my talents to the Los Angeles where I worked in regional transportation planning.  In the 3 years, I learned enough about project management, policy analysis and development, grant application reviews, and regional governance.

For the next 7 years, I learned about transit service planning but I was not satisfied.  Some people enjoy that work, but I don’t.  It isn’t for me.  I definitely needed a change in direction.  During that time, I said to friends and colleagues I wanted to get back into what I enjoyed – regional governance and strategic thinking.

The last straw came in a leadership course I completed just before I resigned.  I was an angry person and was juggling things at home.  One thing was for certain – I needed a change.  Coaching, mentoring, strategic planning and change management on top of policy work were things I enjoyed.

Maybe all those organizations who rejected me was a sign that I should not be in planning profession altogether.  I’m not a technically sound individual.  It would sicken me to read posts utilizing planning verbiage. My mind doesn’t work like that.

After copious amounts of networking, attending and planning events surrounding the planning profession, and paying for a useless planning designation, that was it. It was time to do something else.  I had to remove myself from the industry, which meant even reinventing myself on LinkedIn and removing connections that I would no longer be associating myself with.

Summer of 2014 and the journey beyond

Various personal events clouded my judgement even further. I needed to get back on track.  I was desperate and needed something to happen fast.  The first was career counselling.  Plenty of introspection was involved.  One of the exercises was to think of which animal I represent.  I am a bear –  Tough on the outside and very sensitive on the inside.  Fast forward to several weeks ago, unbeknownst to me, I realized that I am a brown bear according to Native American astrology.  Funny how things work.

I volunteered and was very active on two local political campaigns.  I had been enticed to run on several occasions and was asked once while in Alberta.  In the end, I thought better of it and knew it wasn’t for me.  I still wanted to do behind the scenes policy work but receive recognition for it.

One of the bucket list items was for me to obtain a graduate degree.  On the third attempt, I will finally get that opportunity where I will be working towards a Master’s of Public Administration degree from Western.

I also revamped my resume to reflect my career transition into policy analysis and government relations.  Even with my research I intend to focus on governance.

Several weeks ago, completed the True Colours Test again.  Although I knew I was critical and analytical, what I didn’t realize was that I have a desire to analyze systems and I am drawn to technical occupations.  Then I thought about it, maybe it made sense.  While in my two transit planning positions, I always wanted to find ways to change the network or even the departmental structures, but again, I wanted to go in a different direction.  Earlier I said I detested technical work dealing with the mundane and repetition.  Maybe it had to do with the profession I chose?

Conclusion

Everyone has a direction in life and will have different paths to getting there.  I have taken the long winding journey. I learned plenty along the way.  I learned to overcome the challenges.  I was desperate for action but asking people who I didn’t know well enough to help me with that direction was not the answer.

This blog will now reflect discussions on policy and governance. I won’t be distraught by those who stop following this blog.  I look forward in building a new professional network and rebuilding my career.

A language change is necessary

In 1994, I read Reinventing Government for a book review in a human resources class in my senior year. Bill Clinton was President and the Republicans controlled the House and the Senate.  Jean Chretien was Prime Minister. The language was different.  The steering.  The rowing.  Citizens as taxpayers.  Passengers as customers.  Government should be run by a business.  These were times where neo-conservatism speak seeped into everyday language, and still does.

Working in the transit profession, I could not wrap my head around the change customer over passenger.  In transit speak, we would talk about passengers.  Passenger counts, passenger riders, passengers per capita, etc.  But when we talk to passengers who ride transit, the language changes.  It is about the “customers” who ride transit.  Like there is a fear of those transit ridership will be lost.  Transit is funded by property tax dollars in Canada, and by other means elsewhere in the world.  Transit is not going anywhere.  It is an alternative means of transportation aside from the automobile, bicycle or even walking.

But here is what irks me the most.  TTC’s Customer Charter, which was released today.   Ok, maybe irks is too strong of a word.  Bothers me might be more a propos.

Who is really going to read or call out the TTC if they fail to come through on their promises?  Maybe the odd transit foamer, TTC Riders or hard nose stingy politician?  All that matters are the large improvements to the system.  Passengers want to move, with improved service and comfort.  There are many big picture thinkers, like myself, who rely on a strategic plan.  Citizens or passengers should be thinking beyond the short term snippets and view long term improvements and the system’s resiliency.

Whether it is a business or public organization, improvements are inevitable.  This is what happens in the age of social media and where gotcha moments are the norm.  These are the Tim Horton’s voters as mentioned in Susan Delacourt’s “Shopping for Votes”.   Tim Horton’s voters were those who would not normally vote. Citizens don’t care about policy statements that cannot be summarized in a Facebook post or in 140 characters.  My concern is that the language has been dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.  As a result, there is no vision.

This is not about moving backwards and bucking trends.  A new public service movement is necessary.  What that will look like has yet to be determined.  But a language change is necessary.

The Greenbelt Act needs to grow up, but not the way one real estate policy professional thinks.

Greenbelt-logo

I was looking to find the source of a couple of Jennifer Keesmaat’s tweets on the Greenbelt:

I found this article: Has Toronto’s Greenbelt done more good than harm? Written by Tom Curtis who calls himself a “Toronto-based real-estate policy professional.”  

In doing some investigation through LinkedIn and piecing parts of the article, I found that “Thomas Curtis”, was a Senior Policy Advisor with the Realty Management Branch at the Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure until May of this year.  Like me, he is unemployed so I am not going after him on that.  Also his education and experience is London-based, so he referenced his experiences from there.  Curtis touches on how the Greenbelt Act is currently under its 10 year review. So is Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, better known as Places to Grow. You cannot address one without the other.  He failed to mention the precursor to this legislation, the Provincial Policy Statement, which was updated this past Spring.  These are the critical flaws to Curtis’ article.

Flaws aside, he is highly critical of the Greenbelt Act.

Meanwhile, Greenbelt legislation has been introduced, premised on controlling the GTA’s urban growth boundaries. This, along with municipally-enforced density and height restrictions, heritage building protections and NIMBYism, impedes any effort to balance the supply of housing stock with demand. The result of this imbalance has been extreme and it is highly visible: hyper-development and Manhattanization of the downtown core, rapid gentrification of neighbourhoods, severe overcrowding of the transit system, and skyrocketing rents and property values.

There is a balancing act that must take place when any policy is developed. Development, transportation, community development and environmental issues are all taken into account.  While the legislations, with the adherence of Toronto’s Official Plan to directs the city to build up instead of out, there are other factors that should be addressed.

In 2005, the Neptis Foundation wrote about the Greenbelt’s shortcomings in its report on the draft of the Greenbelt Plan.  In it of note with respect to addressing urban sprawl, not much has changed.  We are still speaking of such issues as traffic congestion, the environment and development pressures.

I have been critical of the maintenance of heritage buildings and NIMBYism in the past.  But Curtis totally makes some intriguing points in the latter half of that paragraph.

I have been critical in how we have developed our tower neighbourhoods. The housing market is skewed towards young single adults who are part of the creative class.   Families who want to live downtown need to make rational economic choices and sacrifices.  Condos are smaller in size.  Newer developments either have limited or no parking spaces, so does one sacrifice closet size or having a vehicle at all.  Even decisions about how many children to have come into play.

Second, gentrification may not be a bad thing at all. it is inevitable that neighbourhoods cannot stay intact without necessary change.  But when it comes to social justice issues, therein lies the problem.  New immigrants maybe attracted to the city, but can they afford living in these revitalized neighbourhoods.  Black communities tend to remain stable and are pushed out of necessity.  Do planners, urbanists, developers and policy makers have an understanding of cultural issues?

Third, overcrowding of the transit system has absolutely nothing to do with the Greenbelt plan and everything to do with the underinvestment into our transit infrastructure.  The City and the region have simply not kept up.

While Curtis clearly doesn’t understand planning legislation, let alone theory, both the Greenbelt Act and Places to Grow need some growing up to do.  I have proposed three areas that need to be reviewed in addition to planning legislation.

  1. Regionalization. I will continue to say this until I am blue in the face.  in order to address planning, health, transportation and infrastructure issues, the Province must establish a regional governance structure for the Greater Toronto Area to tackle these issues. It is not solely a Toronto issue.  Professionals and policy makers must come together as a starting point to discuss how to make this region resilient.  Official establishment of a regional government should also be a discussion point.  There are pros and cons to regional government, but it is worth raising if we are going to move forward as a region.
  2. Social Justice. Many in the Greater Toronto Area are very familiar with Hulchanski’s Three Cities with Toronto report.  Policies like the Greenbelt Act and Places to Grow, ignore what happens when cities become more dense.  As I mentioned earlier, we need a greater understanding of mobility patterns of new immigrants and specifically of Caribbean, African, and Latin American communities.  Is there a difference in how different ethnicities live and why aren’t planners addressing these when developing newer or revitalizing communities?    Are we measuring these relative to the intended goals of the Greenbelt Act?
  3. National attention to urban issues. In order for those two policies to work, there needs to be attention paid to cities, namely in the form of national housing and transportation policies. Housing affordability is a major factor in the decisions of home owners and condo dwellers.  Part of the onus is on the homebuyer as mentioned, but something must give.  Land use transportation connections are the premise behind Places to Grow, Greenbelt, PPS and Official Plans.  Proper transportation infrastructure is sorely needed for this region. The federal government needs to play its part. Brent Toderian and RIchard Florida called for a department for cities at the federal level.  The NDP released their Urban Agenda earlier this month calling for better governance, social and built infrastructure.  Mind you, I believe it lacked teeth compared to what the Federal Liberals released in 2002.

Tom, I think you need to brush up on your planning and politics before criticizing legislation.  Or is he just angry at his former employers?

Toronto, We Have an Über-Problem

An illustration picture shows the logo of car-sharing service app Uber on a smartphone next to the picture of an official German taxi sign

An illustration picture shows the logo of car-sharing service app Uber on a smartphone next to the picture of an official German taxi sign

Über is the only game in town when it comes to ridesharing applications.  Hailo left town several weeks ago. Now that the City of Toronto wants to take Über to court over its operation, I wonder if closing its operations based on financial difficulties was the real reason.  It seems very timely.

This is not the first time Über run into trouble with other cities.  Administrative courts in Hamburg and Berlin decided to uphold the ban on the company because its drivers “lacked commercial licences to charge passengers for rides.”  The Toronto court challenge is based on safety concerns, which the German courts also mention.  Other cities like Paris, Seattle and Chicago are also taking the taxi app company to court.  Also taxi companies are protesting against Uber

We are at a crossroads between innovation and regulations.

I was at an Institute of Public Administration (IPAC) event on Social Innovation with Paul MacMillan presenting points from his book “The Solution Revolution.”  In his presentation, a graph was shown where consumer demand was increasing more than government action creating an ever increasing gap.  Social enterprise companies like Kiva, Hailo, Über and more recently, Line Six or Bridj in Boston are filling the void.  Social enterprise applies commercial strategies to improve the well being of consumers instead of profit maximization.

Ian Black from Über Toronto was at #innov8TO, an event discussion the latest in tech innovation.   Black was on CBC’s Metro Morning on November 10 explaining what UberX is and the regulation of ridesharing. Black responded to Toronto’s court injunction last night on CP24:

http://www.cp24.com/video?clipId=494185&binId=1.1127680&playlistPageNum=1

In this Forbes article from last month, Über might have precedent on its side.  Christian Sammito, who teaches legal history at Boston University, referred to a Supreme Court case from 1837 where a private company wanted to build a toll bridge which went against a Charter for another bridge located several hundred metres away.  Economic development was the reason the operators of the original toll bridge lost its case.  While the Divisional Court may not use this as an example for Uber’s existence, it is relevant.  Innovations causes disruptions.  Quoting Sammito:

The lawsuits and demonstrations against Uber remind us of the strains innovation can create for some people. The technology that creates a new job opportunity – driving a car through Uber – also challenges the monopoly of taxicab medallions and stands to transform that industry.

We are in a challenging time.  Consumers are frustrated at the pace governments are delivering services.  All levels of government must look to innovate to drive improvements to our infrastructure, transportation network and other services.  Cities are becoming the hubs of innovation and entrepreneurship says Bob Graves from Governing Magazine.  These are the creative cities that Richard Florida has spoke of for almost two decades.

Mayor-elect John Tory supports the continued operation of Über.  It is a complete waste of time and money to have to go through the court system to regulate the taxi app company. Über has already self regulated itself with personal vehicle owners who use ÜberX.  Reading several tweets from some Toronto councillors who don’t support Über are fearful of change and I would go so far as to equate them with climate change deniers.  Let’s all think about that for a moment.

Canada used to be at the forefront of innovation and now we have fallen severely behind.  These innovators are loudly knocking at the door.  Consumers are desperate for change.  Let’s settle this debate at Council and set some policy standards as well as be leaders in tech and innovation instead of being the dinosaurs.

My Own Conundrum: Does the planning profession in Canada reflect my interests?

For the last few months, I have been deliberating on renewing my planning membership.  Although I already visited the OPPI website several weeks ago to check how much it would cost, I received the e-mail reminder to renew.  Being a full member costs $727.40 and a non-practicing member is $270.87 with insurance and $233.85 without insurance. Considering that I am currently not working in the profession, the latter would apply.  Compare that with maintaining a professional engineering licence,  it costs $248.60.

Over the years, I staunchly defended the planning profession within my blog posts.  My confidence has waned considerably.  planningjournos

I looked to a recent post by Charles Marohn titled The AICP Renewal Conundrum.  I reposted it in various social media platforms with minimal.  His post mentioned several “rewards” of being a member of the American Planning Association.  Some of those points mentioned are relevant being a Canadian planner.

  1. Publications.  The CIP and OPPI Planning Journals are only sent to me as part of my membership.  I always wondered why members need both an online and printed version.  Kinda redundant huh?
  2. Certification.  I’ve already mentioned about the cost.  But as a fellow professional member pointed out, the only benefit would be if a professional planner had to appear before a board, like the Ontario Municipal Board.  Having worked in the United States, several coworkers were not certified planners.  Having reviewed many of the job postings, certification is not mandatory.  Just an undergraduate or graduate degree sufficed.  I agree with Charles that there isn’t much prestige in being a professional planner.  It kind of reminds me of this survey done by the Ted Rogers School of Management where politicians are the least trustworthy.
  3. Membership Directory There is no value in an excel spreadsheet of listed planners when all I need is to visit LinkedIn or Twitter.  You have to be a member to see this list as well as the job postings.  At APPI and other provincial chapters, you do not.  I don’t see the benefit of a paywall for either.
  4. Education Opportunities.  Other than the occasional event where planners can obtain professional credits, the same courses are offered in rotation.

But there is one area of interest that Charles mentioned – Divisions.  The American Planning Association offers its members an opportunity to join a division. OPPI has chapters based on jurisdictional boundaries. The Canadian Institute of Planning does not offer divisions and I believe they should.  Hear me out.

CIP is going through a major revamp starting with its name changing it from Canadian Institute of Planners to Canadian Institute of Planning.  I also looked at their Strategic Plan 2012-15.  Nowhere does it mention the social challenges the planning profession must address.  flemingdonpark___Content

During this last municipal election, voters continued the trend of voting for familiar incumbents rather than those contenders who best represented their communities.  Ryerson Professor Myer Siemiatycki called this the Diversity Gap in a 2011 report. Race and gender are issues within the planning community, especially in our major cities.  There is a very small sample size of planners that work on project that represent their communities.  Sure planners rely on community engagement and input, but there are trust is involved.

Other than an article I wrote in the OPPI Journal on Reverse Commuting and Spatial Mismatch in 2005, there have been a handful of articles on race and gender in planning.  The most recent article was one year ago by Sandeep Agrawal, a former professor of mine from Ryerson.

I have attached a video of Rodney Harrell from the 2012 APA conference discussing race, class and age and the tools planners need to address diverse needs:

Are we having these types of discussions in the profession?

The American Planning Association has divisions that represent Black, Latino and LGBQT communities.  CIP only has an Indigenous Division.  If the planning profession is going to be inclusive and truly representative, then diverse communities should be represented.

My experience has also included policy and legislative updates from not only APA but as well as from the state chapters.  OPPI and APPI have not provided updates on their advocacy efforts with our civic, provincial and federal leaders.  If planning and politics are strange bedfellows, then we need to be sleeping in the same bed.

How is the profession representing our interests?  Has the profession been challenged enough and is it really reflecting current trends? Are planners of visible minorities or gender classifications effectively represented in the profession? Members need to ask themselves those questions.  I have over a month to decide whether I retain my membership or not based on these questions I posed.