The point I was trying to get to in my earlier This Week At City Hall post — the one that dealt with city hall’s failure last Monday to acknowledge the housing that they helped kill (by permitting it to be demolished) and then bury (literally, by allowing the lot on which that housing stood be paved over for a parking lot) — is that I’m not exactly hopeful that our city hall is willing to think creatively or act aggressively to alleviate this housing crisis.
But I got absorbed by a single example and didn’t tackle the more timely issue of the proposed Comprehensive Housing Strategy which executive committee is considering at 11:45 today.
And I’m going to put the Housing Strategy off again because there’s something else about the housing crisis and council’s response to it that’s bugging me.
On the blog, Prairie Dog started referring to Regina’s desperately low vacancy as a “housing crisis” in the middle of 2009. That’s nearly four years ago. We were regularly using the term in the paper by early 2010. That’s three years ago.
I can’t say with certainty when council started using the phrase “housing crisis” but I know that it hasn’t been common council parlance for terribly long. And based on my (admittedly spotty) memory, it might only have crept into their vocabulary last year.
So, we clearly can’t accuse city council of bandwagonism.
That said, once you consider the city’s vacancy rate has been 1.7% or lower since 2007, Prairie Dog was actually being pretty conservative in rolling out the “housing crisis” language when we did.
On the other hand, the word “sluglike” comes to mind when I note that council didn’t even hire a consultant to start working on a housing strategy until January. Of 2012.
That means council allowed years to pass by as the housing crisis emerged, lingered, worsened, settled in and it wasn’t until the housing crisis really started laying down roots in our community that city hall took concrete steps towards changing their policies to combat it.
Oh sure, they did do a few things with the housing file over those years. To their credit, council continued to administer the few housing support programs they already had in place. I don’t want to diminish that work. It was all good.
They also sent several sternly worded letters to the provincial government saying that the housing crisis isn’t the city’s problem. And I’m pretty sure they attended the provincial housing summits held in 2010 and 2011.
And they also passed every condominium conversion but one that crossed their desk. So their record isn’t exactly spotless.
Of course, I doubt many people remember all of those housing-positive things council did because concurrent with all that, council was busy buying a stadium.
Actually, they started out by making two failed attempts to buy a stadium and are finally pulling the trigger on the third deal.
To accomplish this, council set up a new division within the administration to handle the Regina Revitalization Initiative, a division which has been primarily occupied with stadium planning since its inception; they passed a policy on how the administration should handle Public Private Partnerships like the one they’re using for the stadium deal; they hired consultants to advise them on the kind of Public Private Partnership they should use to fund the stadium deal; they then engaged those consultants to help them follow through with that Public Private Partnership; they hired engineers and consultants to determine what is the most cost efficient and most desirable stadium design for the city; they hired a world-class architect to mock up a stadium design; they initiated a process to hire a developer who’ll glance at and discard that stadium design then come up with its own stadium design; they borrowed $67 million against their debt limit to fund the stadium purchase; they raised their debt limit by $150 million to accommodate the borrowing they’d do with the stadium deal; they arranged to borrow another $100 million with the province’s backing to help cover the stadium deal; they convinced the province to kick in an additional $80 million to fund the stadium project; they convinced the Roughriders to kick in their own $25 million to fund the stadium project; and they voted to raise the millrate every year for 10 years to help fund the stadium project.
Just arranging all this has cost the city over a million dollars.
Meanwhile, the city only spent $1.2 million on two years worth of those housing support initiatives I mentioned earlier.
I’ve written before about how raising the mill rate for something like the stadium doesn’t directly take money away from other city priorities like housing, but it does reduce the city’s potential to raise the mill rate in the future because the amount the populace can bear being taxed is finite. We raise the mill rate 0.45% for the stadium, that’s 0.45% we can’t raise it later on for anything else.
Similarly, the amount of mental and physical energy city hall can exert on all its priorities is finite.
There are only so many hours in the day, only so many newtons of brain power to go around. And for several years now, the city’s largest and highest profile preoccupation has been getting the stadium deal together. Maybe no one has been taken off the housing file to work on the stadium, but council and senior administration have had a complex, enormous project eating up the bulk of the bureaucratic oxygen at city hall.
It may not seem it at times but the Municipal Powers That Be have been acting swiftly, decisively and with innovation where the stadium is concerned. They even abandoned the tradition of holding a broad, Downtown-Plan style public consultation about the stadium because, we’re told, it would jeopardize the project’s tight timelines and lead to elevated costs.
The project is too urgent to bring before the public.
By comparison, housing is being approached with hesitation. Instead of acting immediately and resolutely to solve this problem when it first emerged, instead of taking action early on so as not to miss our window of opportunity and avoid escalating construction costs, we’re going to be holding a summit. In May. Of 2013.
Certainly wouldn’t want to be too hasty with something like housing.
Should it be a surprise then that some detect an enthusiasm shortfall, a creativity gap, and an attention deficit in council’s approach to the housing crisis?
Council has said repeatedly that housing is a priority for them, just as the stadium is a priority. They’ve assured us that the city can have multiple priorities.
Well, that is true.
But they can’t multiple top priorities. And it sure seems that over the last four years, as the vacancy rate has languished between 0.5 and 1 per cent, that housing has not been council’s number one, tippity-top priority.
And one has to wonder if they haven’t got their priorities mixed up.
Well, once again I’ve started ranting and didn’t wind up writing about the actual content of the Comprehensive Housing Strategy — of which I’ve much to say. I guess this’ll have to count as Part 2 of this week’s This Week At City Hall.