Hey, Google, Weren’t Happy with Congress? Well, Meet ACORN!

New Orleans    Recent years have been abundantly kind for those in big tech, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft, and the like. Money flowing like water. Arrogance and pomposity unchallenged by empty slogans disguised behind corporate speak claiming interest in the common good. Recently they have had some harder days testifying before Congressional committees and bipartisan approbation over their clueless handling of Russian manipulation during the 2016 election and their tepid and dilatory response to the problems. Heaven forbid, rather than simply collecting contributions and dining with tech lobbyists, they may actually suggest some regulations, nothing too big mind you, but maybe identifying who paid for political ads, similar to the requirements for newspaper and television ads. No holding your breath now, we may need you later, but we’ll see.

If Google representatives thought their shoes were too tight in Washington, DC, they got an even ruder awakening in Toronto recently as they began their charm offensive with their subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, recently winning a big contract to develop a huge piece of prime real estate with promises of creating a so-called “city of the future” with endless geehaws and high-tech bells and whistles. Or as a summary description from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation reported,

Sidewalk’s vision for the site focuses on improving energy use, housing affordability and transportation. A 189-page document detailing some options includes the use of self-driving shuttles, buildings that are cheap to build (potentially even made of timber) and easy to modify, and a “people-centred” streetscape that’s dominated by bike paths and walkways.”

As discussed previously, the Google tone deaf notion of housing “affordability” is using tech tools to reduce the cost of construction. As they used to say on the oil fields when I worked there, “that’s engineers for you,” and the same seems true for the tech types.

But, ACORN gave Google a special Toronto welcome as reported by the CBC:

ACORN calls for plans to address housing ‘crisis’

Before the doors opened, anti-poverty activists with ACORN rallied outside, demanding the project focus on “deep affordability.”

“We are in a crisis in the city, a housing crisis,” said Alejandra Ruiz Vargas.

She says the group hasn’t been consulted on the project so far, and only received an invite to Waterfront Toronto’s sold-out event the day before. She also questions how a Silicon Valley spinoff defines affordable housing.

“What is affordable for rich people?” she said.

Inside the venue, Doctoroff highlighted affordable housing developments built in New York City when he was the deputy mayor (an appointed position under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.) He also praised Ruiz Vargas for taking a stand, telling her: “I just want you to know how much we respect that.”

However, others also questioned Sidewalk’s commitment to affordability, with one noting some of New York’s failings and also another pointing out that Toronto already has housing and poverty reduction plans.

“Welcome to Toronto, the city of many strategies and very little money,” she told Doctoroff.

Google is trying to put sugar in our coffee already, but it will take a lot more than some sugar and respect to satisfy ACORN and its members – and people throughout Toronto. These “consultations” won’t be a quick cup of coffee, but concerted negotiations with real demands. Or as ACORN leader, Alejandra Ruiz Vargas, said, “Welcome to Toronto.”

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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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