Reduced Visibility

The City is trying to remove poverty from the downtown—but can it really make a difference?

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Over the last six months, the City has put forward two key policies that aim to clean up the downtown’s image as a centre of poverty and in one case, literally pave the way for a better future. Approved in November 2016, the Bethune Street Revitalization is a $40-million infrastructure project that will replace old sewage pipes and prostitutes with new sewage pipes and bocce courts. A second policy approved more recently awards additional funds to Peterborough’s Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA) directed at increasing security in the downtown core. The issue with making an area amenable to the rich is that it becomes hostile to the poor; whether the City has any choice in this matter will be the subject of this article.

Peterborough does have an issue with poverty, a walk along George from Brock to Simcoe rarely fails to encounter panhandlers, poverty’s most visible symptom. Councillor Lesley Parnell has gone as far to say that these people are holding Peterborough back, that panhandling is “often cited as the No. 1 reason people don’t go downtown.” The additional funding to the DBIA is in part going to hiring security professionals who will instil a sense of security in shoppers downtown.

Peterborough tragically serves as a hub for the impoverished; one could point to the evacuation of manufacturing in the city as a key determinant of this. However it is in no small part due to our infrastructure to address poverty, and our geography. Peterborough is surrounded by many small rural communities with their own economic woes. These communities do not have homeless shelters and social safety nets, or jobs for those who fall on hard times. The result of this is a migration from communities such as Lindsay, Haliburton, and others into the Electric City. This results in Peterborough having to bear a disproportionate burden of poverty in the region.

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Poverty finds its roots in the same place one finds the Swing Revival: the late 90s. The late 90s saw sweeping changes to Ontario’s housing market under Mike Harris’ “Common Sense Revolution.” Harris wanted to reduce the size of government and its social programs, and to offset that by slashing taxes. After back-to-back majority victories in Ontario, Mike Harris resigned in 2001 at an approval rating of 33%.

Part of the “Common Sense Revolution” involved putting a freeze on new affordable home construction projects and halting 17,000 units that were ready for construction. He also abolished rent controls in 1998, which gave more power to landlords to set prices. It should also be noted that there used to be a national plan for affordable housing, until it was axed by the Liberal government headed by Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien in the late 90s, after which the federal government downloaded the responsibility to the Province.

The result is a housing affordability crisis in Canada, where the cost of rent is out of reach for those out of luck.

In the immediate aftermath of abolishing the housing reforms, average rent increased by 5% in Ontario in one year, between 1999 and 2000, according to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Waitlists for affordable housing units hit record highs in 2015 with 168,000 waiting for an affordable home. The panhandlers on George Street serve as a dead canary in the mine for Ontario’s inability to provide homes for those in need.

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The Harris government also made it a policy to offload governance responsibilities to local municipal governments. As a result of this, Ontario is the only province in the country where social programs fall under municipal jurisdiction. The logic for this is sound: municipalities are much more connected to the needs of their constituents and can enact policy according to regional needs. It becomes a problem when municipalities lack the funding to implement appropriate policy.

FEATURE_HANDS1Municipalities operate within a strange place in Canada: not beside rivers, or on top of hills, but in a nether region in the Canadian Constitution. Municipalities are often referred to as “creatures of the province” because they have no real legal jurisdiction given to them in a document that was written by a bunch of drunk racists when Canada became a country. On the piece of paper known as the Canadian Constitution, the federal government is delegated things like national defence, while the province deals with the boring stuff like energy and commerce.

This means that cities in Canada have nothing that isn’t given to them by the Province, and can have jurisdictions taken from them at the Province’s whim. Consider City Council’s decision to sell Peterborough Distribution Utilities (PDI) in November. The Province stated that it was going to centralize power generation in Ontario, gave an offer to the City of Peterborough through Hydro One, and PDI was sold less than a year later, despite overwhelming resistance to the sale on behalf of citizens of Peterborough. The cost of keeping PDI was not only measured in terms of dollars, but also in terms of maintaining a good relationship with the Province.

The loss of PDI means less revenue coming into the City, but it’s a drop in the bucket when compared to what comes in from the Province. After property taxes, which account for 48% of the City’s revenue, the next highest source of revenue are grants from the Province. These grants account for 24% percent of Peterborough’s revenue which highlights how dependent on the province city council is. $27 million of the $40 million being spent on the Bethune Street Revitalization is covered by grants from both the federal and provincial governments.

This system relegates municipal governments to the role of a beggar prince. Major policy becomes predicated on the benevolence of the Province. This was on full display when MPP Jeff Leal paid the council a visit on February 13. Councillors asked Leal for funding for the Memorial Centre, The Canoe Museum, Fairhaven, a twin pad hockey arena at Trent, a pool, and relief for electricity rates—in total, well over $50 million.

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Provincial funding doesn’t come from friendly requests by well-meaning councillors, but through grant writing. This has become a central function of any city, and with 444 municipalities in Ontario, the competition is fierce. Cities that can’t secure grants from the Province are left by the wayside, and must make do with their property tax base. Toronto receives over $2 billion annually in grants from the province, nearly a fifth of its budget. Haliburton, on the other hand, was able to secure just $3 million in provincial grants in 2015, and currently experiences a rate of unemployment of close to 9%, well above the provincial average.

The ability to secure grants is not the only determinant of a community’s health, but its importance cannot be overstated.

At best, a municipality capitulates to provincial demands in order to secure funding for the future. At worst, the grant structure creates a pack of 444 starving dogs all trying to ensure their communities’ survival. Communities are pitted against one another in a zero-sum game in which Peterborough’s victory is Lindsay’s loss. In the former, our municipal politicians will always be beholden to the whims of the Province.

Of course the biggest share of revenue in Peterborough is still derived from property taxes. There is a sensible case to be made for raising taxes in order to wean the Electric City off of the Province: to do so would make Peterborough more autonomous, and allow the City to pursue policy options in line with their constituents’ agenda, not the Province’s. But raising property taxes hits the poor the hardest, because they spend the largest proportion on housing, and would only aggravate what is already a chronic shortage of affordable housing by causing landlords to raise rents. And, of course, it would be political suicide.

This all to say that Peterborough’s City Council is highly restricted in what they can accomplish to better the city. Even though the rhetoric of jobs is so often used just to push forward policies that shit on poor, in this case it seems to be the only answer. If the City wants to better the lives of the citizens, it has to bring stable jobs that allow the city to flourish independently of the province… said every politician ever.

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This is the purpose of the DBIA: to be a group at arm’s length of the City that fosters locally oriented business prosperity and builds a sense of solidarity among downtown businesses. There are other bodies that focus more on economic development in the city, like Peterborough Economic Development (PED). PED has a budget over three times that of the Peterborough’s DBIA, and it focuses more on attracting large investment and regular tourism to the region. In short, one deals with macro interactions of downtown businesses and the other is more centered on big-picture policy.

Councilor Keith Riel in numerous council meetings has stated that he believes the DBIA’s role “is beautification and promotion.” This sells the DBIA’s purpose comedically short.

FEATURE_HANDS2The DBIA does indeed beautify the city of Peterborough: it spends $96,000 annually to employ a group of people that sweep up and down Peterborough’s beating heart. They go unseen by the majority of the residents, unless you’re out from the hours of 5 to 6am. They also pay police officers to close off streets during parades, and run events like the recent “Win This Space” contest and the much-celebrated Ribfest. Many downtown businesses praise the DBIA as a visible and productive force for downtown business.

Until recently, the DBIA was primarily funded through crowdsourcing amongst their members, and membership fees, as well as $126,000 per year from the city. But in mid-February, the City more than doubled its contribution, with an additional $150,000 for the DBIA per year for the next 20 years. These funds will go towards promotion, as well as a new role: security. According to Councillors Diane Therrien and Lesley Parnell, this will take the form of paid security guards, aimed at making business owners and shoppers feel safer. How exactly they will do this, or what exact role they play, is yet to be seen.

The City of Peterborough in their actions and words are hitching their wagon to the idea that visibly improving the downtown core—without addressing structural issues—is part of what will drive Peterborough forward. The DBIA has decided that to achieve this, the homeless must be out of sight and out of mind, so that shoppers can focus on shopping. Ribfests and “Win This Space”s improve the downtown core, but they don’t make it dynamic.

The other option for cities to generate revenue is to engage in something that is tried and true in every nation and easy to use: gentrification.

The Bethune Street Revitalization plan is looking to entice developers into that neighborhood to build new condos oriented towards young professionals. If the value of the property goes up because there are artisanal vendors on every corner, so do the property taxes of the young professionals. This way the City is able to increase their tax base without having it directly burden the poor.

The issue with this is that the poor people have to be removed from the neighbourhood before the value of property rises. Sex trafficking is notorious on Brock and Bethune Streets, and it’s hard to see the working women of the corner stick around if they are going to be competing with curling rinks for the patronage of the neighborhood.

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Revitalizing Bethune Street and increasing security downtown may remove the barriers to economic growth that visible poverty presents, but will do little to cure the city’s endemic poverty.

Visible or no, poverty will still exist in Peterborough.

Institutions like the Brock Mission and the Youth Emergency Shelter (YES), which serve Peterborough’s poorest, aren’t making sudden exits from the city. Madeline Porter, who has been researching and working on the issue of homelessness as frontline staff for five years, states that “75% of homeless youth nationally undergo multiple episodes….This can be attributed to a few different things. Peterborough lacks safe and affordable housing options.”

Making homeless people invisible does nothing to combat poverty, but does everything to make the safe feel even safer when conducting themselves downtown. Whether or not the City making poverty invisible in the downtown area constitutes a direct attack on those experiencing homelessness is up for debate. What’s clear is that the City is making decisions that it believes are in the best interest of the majority, that will also hurt the powerless minority.

By using infrastructure projects like the Bethune Street Revitalization and the additional funding to the DBIA, the City is able to get two birds stoned with one joint. They are engaging in economic development and removing the barriers that poverty presents all in one. Cities are wrapped in the provincial leviathan and have limited ability to create real revolutionary policy without being asphyxiated. That being said, they shouldn’t pay this forward to the homeless of Peterborough.

 

Illustrations by B Mroz.

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