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Process isn't a bad word, even when the need is urgent

This week on Market Squared, we look at why sometimes good intentions aren't enough, even in a crisis.
The anticipated occupancy date for the for new Shelldale Affordable Housing Building Project is fall of this year.

Suppose for a moment it’s the year 2002. After years of austerity to balance their books, the federal and provincial governments of the time announce they’re getting back into the housing game. Ontario’s premier declares they’re setting the goal of building 100,000 houses every year for 20 years, and to get there, they’re going to train and educate 100,000 new trades people.

That didn’t happen. Obviously. Hindsight is 20/20, but the problem with government is that its near-sighted. It can’t see more than three feet past its nose, or, more specifically, more than three days past the end of the fiscal year.

Short-sightedness has now become a problem when it comes to government taking action on housing as well. The immediate need to do *something* seems to be forcing our civic leaders to throw out the rule book, and the potential public relations optics of being seen not doing something are furthering the negligence.

To recap, an item was put on the amended agenda for this past Tuesday’s council meeting. To put it simply, Mayor Cam Guthrie wanted to take $500,000 “just sitting there” in the Affordable Housing Reserve and give it to the Home For Good campaign for further matching donations and thus turn that $500,000 into a $1 million to complete supportive housing projects in Guelph.

Simple, right? Who could be against that?

The answer is that no one is against it, and that’s what the mayor was counting on. Maybe there would be some handwringing about process, but after some cheerful endorsements it would be a quick affirming vote and then it’s back slaps and high fives! And why not, it’s worked before.

As Coun. Cathy Downer correctly pointed out during the meeting, this is not the first time that such an ask has come to council at the last minute, an urgent request for funds and a tight deadline to act. In fact, this is the second time this exact request has come to council. You might even consider it a trend, and I’m going to phrase this in a way that a lot of people, including the mayor, are going to hate.

Community groups know how to push Cam Guthrie’s buttons.

I’m not sure he’s enunciated this way, but I think Guthrie has personally set himself the goal of ending the housing crisis in Guelph. He wants to carry the proverbial One Ring and destroy it in the fires of Mount Doom, and while there’s a certain nobility to that, no one can do it alone. Frodo had Sam, and a mayor has his council, not to mention the rest of the government apparatus.

And while it’s sometimes a pain in the proverbial posterior, governments have rules, and they have rules for a reason. There is supposed to be a process for allocating funds, especially in the case of the Affordable Housing Reserve for which a formal process, including input from the City’s housing provider, was established just a few years ago.

Also, and I can’t believe I have to point this out, the money in the Affordable Housing Reserve didn’t grow on the money tree behind city hall. Like a little more than half the budget, it comes from the property tax revenue paid by the residents of Guelph, so documenting its spending isn’t red tape, it’s the minimum standard of fiscal responsibility that city council has to employ.

To me, the situation presented on Tuesday underlines the fundamental problem with the City’s approach to housing and poverty, and it has nothing to do with the efficacy and integrity of the partner organizations and non-profits that have been involved with housing projects or are fighting on the front lines of poverty: The City of Guelph is not set up to enact, manage or supervise the delivery of social services.

The events of Tuesday made me a convert to at least one of the suggestions made by the Guelph Chamber of Commerce in a recent council correspondence, “put a point person in place with the authority, responsibility, and accountability for making progress on the plan of action.” Right now, that seems to be Mayor Guthrie, and that’s really not his job.

And while Guthrie has been getting loose with the mayor’s job description, he’s also been loose with his role as the chair of the municipal council. Again, the mayor initiated a motion. He did not technically put it on the floor, but it was *his* motion, and the request came through conversations and correspondence addressed to him by name.

The chair’s job is to mediate and arbitrate the debate and the decision-making between the other members of board, and if Guthrie wants to be the one initiating the debate, then he needs to step away as chair. Perhaps the formal appointment of a deputy mayor or mayor pro temp is recommended if Guthrie wants to continue to be this proactive.

But this all comes back to short-term thinking. The Bellevue project at Wyndham House, Grace Gardens, the Kindle Community at Shelldale, and the County’s transitional housing project at 65 Delhi Street; they’re all projects expected to be completed this year or next, and all represent barely 100 units of new housing. That’s a 100 bed increase in the local social housing stock in nearly three decades.

But not everyone needs the wrap around support offered in those recently approved projects, they just need someone in place that doesn’t almost literally cost them an arm and a leg, and the wait list to get into social housing, for some people, is seven years long. Chopping this list down requires planning, someone who’s exclusive job it is to achieve that plan, and the resources to get people in need into needed homes.

But the “move fast and break things” model of Silicon Valley governance isn’t going to cut it on an issue as complicated and deeply personal as housing. We’ve managed to make it work so far, but I’m worried that someone’s about to step on some glass.


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Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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