“Aspirational Agreements”

Lake Buckhorn, Ontario  Sometimes language is not your friend, but a head fake to turn you from hard reality to some soft slush in the swamp of misunderstanding and mirage.

Over and over again during the ACORN Canada staff retreat the term, “aspirational agreement,” came up in different contexts from the organization’s engagement with various government authorities and corporate executives they had been pushing in one campaign after another, despite the fact that the very term is a contradiction in concept. An aspiration is a hope and sometimes a prayer, a wish and a wannabe, a goal rather than a plan, and something in the clouds that may never find the ground. An agreement is a commitment, a contract, and a binding glue between parties, hopefully operating in good faith, that represents a purpose, a plan, and real consequences for success or failure. An “aspirational agreement” is really nothing at all. It’s a promise on the schoolyard with fingers crossed behind the back. How does anyone in authority ever say something like this without a blush, much less find anyone listening with anything other than rage?

Listening to the reports found this falsehood cropping up over and over when the discussion involved governmental or corporate commitments to developing affordable housing or living wages for example, but nowhere did it seem to populate the conversations more densely than when “community benefits” agreements were on the agenda. Community agreements are not easy to win, but they are critical in trying to hold the feet to the fire of both governments and private, corporate developers, who, frankly, are in the business of over promising and under delivering. Developers are always self-interested and specialize in building castles-in-the-sky to get permission in the clouds and then excuse their failure to deliver based on the facts on the ground. Governments over promise on the short term to maintain support through the next election and hope to outrun the future on the long term. All of which makes the ability of community and labor organizations to win clear community benefit agreements on new projects and proposals in as clear and committed terms as possible, especially when it comes to jobs, housing, wages, social services, parks, and other amenities that are critical to people every day regardless of the profit-and-loss statements to investors later or the election returns in the by and by.

Lake Buckhorn

In Canada, and the United States and other countries are little different, everyone in power seems to be adopting the language of community benefits while running away from true commitments and signed, binding documents as fast as possible. “Aspirational agreements” are the perfect term for deception and disingenuous double-speak signifying nothing.

We’re certainly not fooled, but the effort to deceive certainly makes our work harder and the campaigns more conflicted, since now we have to spend time, energy and resources pulling the crust off before we can get anywhere close to the heart of the matter.

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Where Will People Fit in a Google Designed City?

Sidewalk Labs

Toronto   In Toronto, the Prime Minister, Ontario and Toronto officials, and of course representatives from Alphabet, the parent company of Google, all were back slapping and hand clapping each other about Google’s subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, winning bid to develop an 800-acre tract of land along the waterfront as a rare opportunity to put their ideas in place in building the so-called “city of the future.” How exciting, but is this really good news? Will this really even fit their old standard of accountability, “don’t be evil?”

Not surprisingly, most of their winning proposal was based on deep-pockets and high-tech visionary speak. As described by New York Times’ columnist, Emily Badger,

The Sidewalk Labs proposal in the competitive bid for the project floated all kinds of technological dreams: a thermal energy grid that would be carbon neutral, sensors that separate waste from recycling, modular buildings that convert from retail to housing, monitors that track noise and pollution, self-driving transit shuttles, shared-ride taxibots, adaptive traffic lights, delivery robots, heated bike paths and sidewalks that melt snow on their own.

To some people all of that sounds interesting and bells-and-whistles innovative, but I have to wonder where people are in this plan, and that’s a little scary.

They claim they are going to make 20% of the housing units in the development affordable, but when they spoke of affordability, they did not talk about income or the percentage of rent paid to family income, but instead, typical of technologists, claimed that they had some tricks up their sleeves to make the construction cheaper. Wow! Do they have a lot of learn about what constitutes affordable housing in a city of tenants, like Toronto, and a city undergoing huge gentrification pressure and escalating rent-to-income levels in neighborhood after neighborhood.

An old 2006 Statistics Canada study found that 40% of Canadians pay more than 30% for rent. Polls in recent years indicate that Canadians “spend 43 per cent of each dollar of household income on housing-related costs, which include mortgage and rent, as well as paying for utilities.” Globally, that’s the 3rd highest percentage in the world, and in Toronto it’s even worse than the average. There’s a waiting list of over 180,000 for social housing. There are 94,000 in social housing, and another 70,000 roughly in housing subsidized to the 30% standard on rent-to-income. A 2015 study by TD Economics found that clearly half of Toronto’s population is paying an average 50% of their income to landlords and that it is creating a “class divide” in the city, undermining Canada’s reputation for a commitment to equality.

Furthermore, what are the definitions of “affordable housing” going to be for this high-tech urban experimental lab? If it were to be defined based on 20% of the housing being a percentage of market-rate rent, then London has already proven that that formula is gentrification and push-out on steroids. Unless the percentage of affordable units is pushed up and affordability is based on income, this won’t be the city-of-the-future, but more of the same with a higher electric bill to run all of their gadgets and geehaws.

Sidewalk Labs claims it is going to do a lot of consultation. We’ve heard that before, but if it is real at all, they need to have a better answer than we can find in their proposal for how real people can fit into their tech dreams.

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