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.


Trump’s Butchering of Obamacare

New Orleans  For all the pluses and minuses of any debate on the Boy Scouts, they taught me one life lesson that I wish President Trump had also learned: don’t play with knives! Looking at the way he is trying to mindlessly hack away and butcher the Affordable Care Act, there is little doubt that this is a guy without a clue or a care about the damage that cutting can do.

In the last week unable to bend Congress to his whim or will, he’s signed one executive order after another in an attempt to gut coverage for millions. Recently one order will allow low-balling, bottom of the barrel policies without the Obamacare minimum standards to be sold. Now he’s also signing one that would cutback on support for lower income participants on subsidies and payments to insurance companies through cost sharing participation. Earlier, he drove a hole through the requirement that coverage for contraception be included if institutions offer the flimsiest objection. He has also effectively defunded outreach and navigation for people enrolling with the next open window only weeks away.

Admittedly, the President could care less about the consequences of these decisions. None of them will hurt anyone he knows or likely has ever known his entire privileged life. Seven million people, including many in red states like Mississippi and Alabama that are part of his hardcore support, will be hurt badly by these orders. Working with his political advisers, rather than any voices from public health sectors, he has probably made two calculations on the impact. First, that many of these people in the red states who are going to be hurt are lower income African-Americans and Latinos, who are less and less likely to ever cast a vote for him any day in the future. Hey, that’s the whole point of voter suppression programs by the Republicans anyway. Secondly, he probably sees – correctly – no prospect of a competitive alternative emerging to him in the Republican primary, given the knee jerk opposition there has been to Obamacare for years anyway. He’s sitting in the White House, essentially saying, “What me worry?

Reports indicate that there is some rumbling among Republican officeholders in Congress who might actually have to pay a price for Trump’s butchering of the Act. Trump, as always, takes no responsibility for his own actions, claiming he is hoping some of his hacking will force the Democrats to beg him to negotiate on the Affordable Care Act. As long as he insists on bargaining in bad faith where the only open door is repeal-and-replace, that’s not going to happen. The Democrats are clear all this pain and suffering is now on his shoes, so I’m not holding my breath.

One way or another he has once again forced the Act into the middle of every mess coming forward on the calendar. The lesson on playing with knives is that you can seriously hurt yourself. This may be a lesson Trump is going to have to be forced to finally learn, if we have folks willing to school him both at home and at the Capitol.