Category Archives: canada

Google Rolls the Sidewalk Up in Toronto

New Orleans      The old saying was always that “pride cometh before the fall.”  In the case of Alphabet-Google’s Sidewalk visions of grandeur, it turns out pride — and arrogance –came from the very beginning, throughout, before the fall, during the fall, and now after the fall as well.

Sidewalk was one piece of the billion-dollar bets that the mega-tech company makes on the future when times are good for them.  They were going to design the “city of the future.”  Yes, like I said the pride existed from the beginning, even before the plan.  They recruited New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s economic development chieftain to run the venture.  Their basic claim to fame was going to be the tech tools that have made Google a trillion-dollar business on a good day and apply them to the urban space.

Toronto, Canada was to be their showpiece.  They won the right to be the primary developer on a 12-acre plot along the river front, called Quayside, that was controlled by the City of Toronto through Waterfront Toronto and supported by the province of Ontario as well.

The Sidewalk proposal had been breathtaking in its scope, but much of it let to the gasps that come from choking, rather than wonder.  Streets were going to have underground sensors.  Electric transportation would be everywhere.  Housing units would be all equipped to the beams with the latest tech toys.

ACORN raised objections from the beginning.  There seemed to be no plan in the city-of-the-future for sufficient affordable housing for low-and-moderate-income families or really for such families under any conditions .  Sidewalk promised some concessions, but they were never enough to win our support on many levels.  From the beginning the response from Sidewalk executives from top to bottom was, “we know ACORN” based on their experience with ACORN in New York City during the Bloomberg years, but it never yielded serious discussions or modifications.

Alphabet-Google’s Sidewalk also bled from other self-inflicted wounds.  Though asked for a plan for 12 acres, they tried to expand its footprint to 800 acres and had to be pushed back by the city to the original proposition.  In the same way its parent has been plagued by privacy concerns, Sidewalk was never able to give sufficient assurance to anyone about how they would protect privacy with all of this tech-surveillance and monitoring.  Offering to put it in a jointly accessed, but publicly controlled, data bank just didn’t make it.

Then of course there was the other fatal tech affliction:  Silicon Valley libertarianism.  Sidewalk just wasn’t clear about this whole democracy thing.  They wanted a slice of the taxes, and they did not want control by city elected officials of many aspects of the project.

They announced that the new financial realities were causing them to delete part of their dreamscape, so they were pulling out.  Indeed, the financial realities are changing, but this project was DOA long before they rolled up the sidewalk.  The truth is that Sidewalk didn’t understand enough about the city of the present in Toronto or what we and many others were willing to accept in the future.  Now, in the time of pandemic is seems clear that no one is really clear about what the city of the future looks like, but it is clear that the future has to put people first, not tech, and that doesn’t fit well with the Google-world.


Why Can’t We Fix Payday Lending?

Pearl River     We’ve been fighting payday lending for over fifteen years in Canada with some success as well a truckload of frustration.  The issue has been in our sights for several decades in the United States as well.  In Canada, ACORN has been stymied as the federal government pushed the issue into a province by province regulatory regime. The same was true for the United States until the breakthrough creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau.  The CFPB undertook an extensive rule-making procedure during the Obama administration.  The rule that emerged was not perfect, but the fact that it limited the access to these predatory products to consumer affordability and ability to pay was a breakthrough.

The industry, like so many, has roared back under the Trump administration.  A bullseye has been on the back of the CFPB officially since the inauguration, but rhetorically since its inception by the conservative, pro-business right.  Their mission has not been reform but total destruction.  The director was pushed out and toadies promoted to do their bidding, after a brief run where it was a part-time job for an agency axe murderer.

Recently a veil has been lifted on the dirty work by way of a departing memo written from one of the CFPB economists who was on his way out the door to the Federal Reserve which has now become public.  He eviscerated the process and made clear that politics was cherry picking the many years of research that had led to the creation of the previous rule.  The most shocking revelation was the fact that to justify their new numbers on the economic impacts of a new rule, partisan appointees had decided to pretend the new rule had not gone into effect so they could discount the benefits it would have produced and ignore the previous process altogether.

Needless to say, lawyers are undoubtedly lining up to wipe the lipstick off of whatever pig they produce in this corrupt process.  I can’t believe we’re still having this fight!  Especially now when, in the midst of a terrible depression, low-and-moderate income people, already locked out of the mainstream financial system, are going to herded into the predatory system in droves.

Along with ACORN Canada leaders and staff, I was mostly a silent participant in a recent call with a VP of RBC, the Royal Bank of Canada, on a number of subjects, but mostly the lack of products offered by this major bank to low-and-moderate income customers.  The rationale for a $45CN charge on bounced checks was particularly specious with a pretense that in this computer age it reflected the cost of handling.  Worse for our members who have been fighting for years in the Internet for All campaign, RBC argued that they had an email alert system for possible overdrafts even though texting would have been more effective.  The leaders virtually begged this very cordial and accommodating retail banking executive to push RBC into competing with predatory payday lenders with products that would serve the LMI community.  She promised a follow-up call with others, but the lack of a real response for these issues, engaged for so many years at every level, was very disappointing.

The answer to the vexing question, “Why can’t we fix payday lending?” seems simple and tragic.  Banks and governments simply don’t care about the financial ruin they bring to low-and-moderate income families and communities.  There is money in it for them, despite the penury and hardship it brings to everyone else, and that’s answer enough for them and their political servants.