Random Travel Tips – Part #3: Talk to Strangers When it Counts

Montreal          We were sitting cheek to jowl in the back section of a Lufthansa flight from Nairobi to Frankfurt.  I was transferring from a Kenya Airlines flight from Kampala to Nairobi and then going forward in hops to Frankfurt, Chicago, and finally New Orleans. The attendants and a percentage of the passengers were German of course as was the airline and the destination, but it was a local crowd going to their newer homes after a visit or going to see family, rather than veteran travelers.  Oddly shaped bags, taped up boxes, and carry-ons exceeding any control of the Lufthansa staff were troubling themselves down the narrow aisles with their owners.  Impatience was tightly drawn over the taut smiles pasted on the faces of the workers and others as the process continued to slow to a halt in a mixture of normal travel insensitivity baked into the modern airline business model and strained-to-bursting racism.

I sent a WhatsApp message home saying that I could see on the faces that I was watching a vivid real time display of the political issues that were forcing German Premier Angela Merkel out of her leadership post in the backlash over her opening the country to mass immigration in recent years in reaction to the Middle East crisis.  As I finished, I overheard one of my neighbors say under his breath, “You would have to listen hard to hear anything nice here.”   There was a nod of agreement from the seatmates in this middle row of four.  I leaned over, across my neighbor to the speaker and said, “I just sent a message to my partner saying almost the same thing!”  We all laughed our heads off, pressed unseen behind the seats, as we whispered out of sight, like elementary school children hiding from the teacher’s stern eyes.

Traveling on airplanes, buses, and trains are not the places to look for friends, but, as a travel tip, I’ve learned that it makes sense to talk to strangers when it counts, and that is usually in the crush of chaos when humanity means the most.  In a couple of sentences as we sat on the Nairobi runway, it turned out that the “nice” speaker was originally from Somalia, had been to Nairobi on mission for something connected to the Canadian government, knew about ACORN, and lived in Ottawa.  My immediate neighbor clarified quickly that he was originally Ethiopian, not Eritrean, appearances from the Somalian to the contrary.  He was on a vacation and now lived in the Scarborough area of Toronto that I knew well as part of the heartland of ACORN in that city.  He worked in a warehouse in Scarborough less than thirty minutes away.  We had an eight-hour flight and this was enough to make it all work, and we said nothing more until we wished each other well upon leaving.

Every place is a little more a friendly to the traveler if the smallest effort is made to reach out.  Help with the errant bag.  Fetch the cane from the overhead.  Comment on the wait, the weather or question whether the trip is a visit or a return home.  Waiting to sit or standing to leave, and underlining the nature of shared experience is a bedrock exchange of human experience that lowers barriers even as it protects boundaries.  Talking to strangers at the right time creates wonderful memories, makes the time pass, and reminds us that we are all actually people, rather than simply a mass of blood and bones being herded robotically along the gateways of life between home and away.


A.M.R. or A.M.I. Not?

Christmas comes to montreal

Montreal          As housing becomes a larger and larger issue in city after city around the world in the throes of development and attendant gentrification, not only has inclusionary zoning in new construction of units become an issue, but so have the policy questions of how to define affordability.  In campaign discussions at the ACORN Canada Year End/Year Beginning meeting inevitably these questions arose prominently in the face of new proposals and committee deliberations about policy in various forums in Toronto.

Inclusionary zoning of course is not a new policy program. Where enacted it requires a certain percentage of new units built by developers to include a fixed percentage of the units to be set aside as affordable housing.  New York, London, San Francisco, and many other urban centers as well as cities from New Orleans to Vancouver have such requirements or are in the process of implementing them.  Where there was easy agreement in the ACORN Canada discussion was over the demand for 30% of the units to be set aside.  Consensus over the demand does not mean achievement is assured or certainly easy.  Most municipal requirements are much smaller where they even exist. More vexing is that even winning 30% would not solve the affordable housing crisis in Toronto, or other cities for that matter, since the need is so great for constructing more public or social housing, rather than a simple allowance of units from private development.

Nonetheless, central to any program’s success is defining affordability, and it is here that too often the devil emerges in the details, especially in debates over the role of AMR or average market rents and AMI or area median income.

Developers and some cities have used average market rents to define the set aside of affordable units.   Affordable units in a project might be 70 or 80% of average market rents then or some other percentage.  This doesn’t stop gentrification because as rents are escalating anything from 50% of AMR to 80% of AMR can still price out low-and-moderate income families.  London and New York are good examples.  Further, if eligibility for units is defined by area median income, as gentrification and wealth inequity continues to explode, so-called affordable units at 80% of area median income mean that lower income and working families are also excluded because affordability can be over $100,000 in annual income, cementing gentrification even as the community and our organizations fight to prevent displacement.

ACORN’s position everywhere is that affordability for the units, no matter the percentage of the set aside or average market rents or area median income, should mean rent accounts for only a certain fixed percentage of a family’s income, normally meaning no more than 30%.  In some policy discussions endless complexity is introduced with debates over what allotment of the set asides should go to different segments of the lower income community, but the fear is that this confuses the campaign by blurring the lines for politicians and the public, especially if the organization is lured into using average median income as the delineating line between segments of the low-and-moderate income community.

Starting from the point of trying to guarantee that there will permanently be affordable housing in a city allowing lower income families to continue to be part of urban environments they have helped build and where they have always lived, the arguments are difficult because the slope is so slippery.  Letting area median income be a defining point seems to almost be a guarantee of inevitable displacement and gentrification.  Better to define eligibility based on a percentage of the poverty index similar to what is used under the Affordable Care Act or other measures, and work from the bottom up, rather than use area median income that means working from the top of the income averages down, and inevitably eliminating the poor.