Category Archives: Environment

Affordable Housing for Everyone

There’s growing local interest in land trusts as a way to tackle housing costs and reshape our communities.

 

“It’s not a housing strategy, it’s about land reform,” said Michael Lewis. The declaration felt rousing, as if we were in an impoverished part of Latin America rather than a comfortable University of Victoria meeting room. Lewis was leading a discussion with representatives from Vancity, Victoria and Esquimalt municipal governments, the Capital Regional District, the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC, and local non-profits and other groups searching for solutions to this region’s housing affordability crisis. And though no decisions were reached, there was general agreement that Lewis’ research report (funded by Vancity) and innovative proposal to build a regional Community Land Trust (CLT) to support multi-owner homes merited further discussions.

There are good reasons to pay attention to the perspectives of Vancouver’s Michael Lewis. Since the 80s, Lewis has been one of the most prominent researchers, consultants, and activists in Canada in Community Economic Development (CED)—economic development which also aims for environmental sustainability and social justice benefits. He’s consulted for credit unions and governments, and helped the Nisga’a form a tribal development corporation and the Nuu-Chah-Nulth forge a forestry strategy. A prolific author, he’s launching his latest book, The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady-State Economy, at a talk on March 11 hosted by UVic’s Centre for Co-operative and Community Based Economy. It’s a theoretical and practical guide for re-localizing and re-democratizing our economies and reshaping every aspect of our communities to survive climate change, resource depletion, and global financial volatility. (Not coincidentally Lewis’ organization, the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal, has been instrumental in nurturing Canada’s Transition Town movement.)

That partly explains why Lewis’ perspectives were garnering interest. Additionally, of course, many local leaders are just generally keen to consider any new ideas for taking action on housing. With both our federal and provincial governments steadily cutting support for non-market housing even as aging buildings, economic woes, and other government cutbacks are increasing the needs, we know the problems are only worsening. The squeeze is being felt hardest at the local levels, so that’s where the desire for solutions is strongest—but where will the money come from?

For example, the municipality of Esquimalt owns two acres near downtown Esquimalt, and municipal Director of Development Services Bill Brown would like a healthy dose of non-market housing there. “We’d like to see the site developed with mixed-use, commercial and residential buildings, using state-of-the-art green technology,” says Brown. However, the municipality can’t afford to do it, so that’s why Brown was at the meeting about CLTs. “We’re looking for a partnership where we provide the land and location and the partner provides financing and development wherewithal. Part of my job is to go out and find options.”

Victoria Councillor Ben Isitt, also at the meeting, is all-too-familiar with such challenges—Isitt recently joined the Capital Region Housing Corporation board and has long been involved with the late-Paul Phillips’ legacy, the three-house Spring Ridge-Fernwood Community Housing Land Trust.

“It was very exciting,” says Isitt of the UVic meeting. Isitt feels we need a variety of different housing solutions in play, but he’s intrigued by Lewis’ proposed regional CLT, especially by possibilities of potentially using such a CLT to leverage the collective housing equity of smaller local non-profits, trusts and co-ops, and to inject capital into renovations of publicly-owned buildings. Isitt suggests the municipality might play a “facilitating role” in bringing stakeholders together to help continue discussions. “It’s an idea that’s still incubating, so I think this support that Michael [Lewis] and the others are providing is really useful,” says Isitt.

A CLT is a community-based non-profit, usually with a multi-stakeholder board representing local financial, public, development, and tenant-owner sectors, that acquires and holds land for non-market housing. While this region already has various types of subsidized housing and trusts operating, most provide only rental units. The relatively new model that Lewis was promoting aims to help get low and middle-income earners into home ownership. The land is owned by the CLT, while the building or buildings are sold to a homeowner or tenant co-operative. Tenants pay in no more than 35 percent of their income and, when they move out, they must sell the house, or the share of the building(s) they’ve paid for, back to the CLT at an agreed price. So tenants can build some equity to finance renovations or expansions, or to eventually enter the private home market, but the CLT’s land stays out of the market and its buildings remain at below-market prices.

According to Lewis’ research, CLTs have been succeeding in the US for 25 years, and survived the real estate collapse in stellar fashion: 15-30 percent of subprime or prime housing loans in the US are in delinquency or foreclosure right now, but less than one percent of loans to CLTs are. And over time, the CLT homes are becoming more affordable to more people, not vice versa.

Victoria sustainability consultant James Pratt welcomes the “groundswell of interest” in such land trusts locally. He was also at the UVic meeting, and feels an urgency to forge ahead quickly with broader goals than just lowering costs. “I think we’re all driving towards a brick wall at 120 kilometres an hour, and we have to find a way of living on the planet sustainably,” says Pratt. “So [our group is] exploring the possibility of a land trust for the capital region that would have a green, sustainable-living focus.”

Pratt, a widely respected, long-time local activist-facilitator, has in recent months been connecting people, relevant experts, and organizations interested in helping create a green land trust, as well as those interested in living in housing supported by such a trust. Another motivation for these efforts, says Pratt, is to create opportunities to break down class, age, nuclear family and other silos to create more diverse, supportive, communal mini-villages. “I want to see the possibility for my children and grandchildren to live in my community, the community they grew up in, and be able to afford to live here, and ideally to have a community setting where they’ll have an easier go of it than I did.”

Pratt’s group is organizing a series of educational talks on these topics (james@prattconsulting.ca for more info) and can provide charitable receipts through its partner organizations. “If people have land, a home, or significant financial donations towards this vision, they could contact me,” Pratt says. Another group with a similar land trust vision is trying to raise money to purchase 153 acres near Sooke by April 1 (see www.villagefarmblog.wordpress.com).

In an interview after the UVic meeting, it’s clear that Lewis’ interest in CLTs is also based in an urgent desire for society-wide transition towards resilience—and he sees transforming land ownership as key.

Lewis points out that lower housing costs here would reduce worker commuting, create more diverse neighbourhoods, and help small, local employers keep workers. And while developers typically say that making houses more affordable requires building more houses in the private market, Lewis argues that’s misguided. The real reason house prices are climbing beyond the reach of ordinary people, he explains, is because houses are treated by governments, investors, banks, and even homeowners as speculative investments from which they all demand profits at each resale, rather than as simply places to live.

“We’ve got to deal with how the inequity in the housing market is created over time,” comments Lewis. “It’s almost guaranteed that if you do not have a means by which you can protect the land tenure from being speculated upon or taken over for private gain…you’re going to lose affordability over time. Which is precisely the dynamic that we’ve seen in high-amenity communities like Saltspring, Victoria and Vancouver.” Alongside this process, notes Lewis, the costs of making this expensive housing affordable keep increasing for our governments.

Lewis provides compelling illustrations of how speculating on homes also constantly siphons off public, collective wealth and centralizes it in fewer, private hands, further increasing social inequities and reducing housing affordability. If he buys a house and ten years later it’s worth 30 percent more, then who or what created that extra wealth and properly “owns” it? “Is it me who’s created this other value?” asks Lewis. “What’s the role of the public sector? What’s the role of other businesses? What’s the role of just the population itself, who lives there? That’s all part of creating this ambience; the public sector has created the framework, the infrastructure, roads and so on.” He describes London, England’s municipal government investing 3.5 billion pounds into a subway extension in the 1990s. Land values within a kilometre of the subway nearly quadrupled, increasing by over 10 billion pounds (about $15 billion). Yet most of those profitable increases in value went to private landowners, many of them offshore investment firms, who’d done little more than wait for this gigantic public subsidy to roll in. “So think about that,” comments Lewis. “Why should an individual or a corporation be able to scoop the uplift in market value, when it’s the community and the taxpayer that creates the benefit?”

The same thing has happened near Vancouver’s Skytrain, Lewis points out, and could happen if an LRT is built here. “We’re having a hard time funding public transit expansion, and yet we’re privatizing all the benefits.” If those land value increases were instead effectively “owned” or heavily taxed by the community, some of those profits could finance land purchases for CLTs; alternatively, if all the land had been in a CLT to begin with, we’d all get the public transit benefits without the corresponding negative impacts on land costs and housing affordability.

Unfortunately, Lewis adds, the political, legal and psychological processes that brought us to where we’re at now are deeply entrenched. “Going back 500 years, the process of enclosure, that is, the claiming of the commons by private interests and the aristocracy, is a historical fact. There’s been many aspects to it, and land is a key one.”

Today, most urban areas like ours have very little public land left for housing. And when we “connect the dots” at broader scales, says Lewis, we see that whether we’re discussing housing, food security, renewable energy or many other aspects of our society which have to be transitioned to lower-impact, lower-carbon processes, the underlying challenge is the same: “They all take land.”

Yet the ideology that “private everything” somehow will lead to collective good is still embedded in our psyches and culture, says Lewis, even as we witness economic disparities and environmental exploitation worsening daily. “In a nutshell we’re at a real, real significant conjuncture in human history,” says Lewis. “The biosphere itself and everything that depends on it is being compromised so severely in the name of an ideology that’s out of touch with reality.”

If we hope to make our communities more resilient, Lewis concludes, we need to forge innovative ways to reclaim the commons for the public good. Community Land Trusts are one place to start. “How [else] are we going to navigate transition, if we’re only seeing the world through this very, very narrow prism, this framework that’s dominated by the ideology of private property and the Holy Trinity of free trade, free markets, and free capital?” asks Lewis.

 

Michael Lewis’ book launch and talk will be in UVic’s Cadboro Commons building on March 11 at 4 pm. For more info go to www.uvic.ca/research/centres/cccbe or call 250-472-4539.

Is the Gorge Actually Safe for Swimming?

Safety pronouncements for the waterway relate strictly to fecal coliform—but what about industrial chemicals?

My sense of place spins like I’m in a celebratory party version of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Wow, I’m splashing in a Bermuda bay amidst California beach boys and Hawaiian dancing girls! No, my mind reminds me as I flutter about in warm ocean waters below a fervent August sun: This is downtown Victoria, British Columbia, and I just dove into the Gorge inlet.

It shouldn’t be so unexpected and disorienting. The Gorge’s shallow waters can take two months to turn over during dry summers, and so hover above a balmy 20 degrees celsius. But decades of unregulated pollution from industrial, sewage, boating, and urban sources transformed the once-popular swimming area into a liquid dump peppered with designated contaminated sites concentrated with lead, mercury, hydrocarbons, PCBs and more. Read the rest at Focus online.

Put Your Money Where Your Municipality Is

On January 31, a panel of local experts will talk about new ways to ensure your savings, RRSPs, and investment dollars help strengthen our community sustainability and resilience. We offer a preview of some of the ideas they’ll address.

During her presentation at the Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria’s recent annual general meeting, economic development expert Nicole Chaland brought out a perspective-shifting number: $360 million.

That’s how much Greater Victoria residents invested last year in Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs)—enough to effectively double last year’s growth in Greater Victoria’s entire gross domestic product. Yet instead of boosting our economy or helping improve our community, most of that enormous wealth of ours was simply drained away into globalized mutual funds.

If we could create some sort of local pool for RRSPs, Chaland said, “What we’d be doing is capturing money that’s already being invested, and we’d be making sure it’s invested locally.”

And that, says Community Social Planning Council director Rupert Downing, is what he’s setting out to do in the wake of Chaland’s feasibility report on community investment funds (CIF).

“This is a very exciting opportunity,” says Downing, who envisions such funds helping develop local affordable housing.

“There is a capital gap,” explains Downing. “The availability of subsidies [from governments] and mortgages from banks or credit unions doesn’t cover the full cost of developing market rental housing.” What we need, he says, is “patient capital,” where loans are relatively cheap and investors don’t need or expect to pull their money out in a hurry—like with RRSPs.

The Community Social Planning Council (often called the Community Council) recently coordinated meetings between BC provincial government representatives and their counterparts in Nova Scotia, where such community investment funds are already in operation, discussing tweaks to RRSP and venture capital tax credits that could facilitate the process here.

“The funds that work need a tax incentive,” says Downing. “That’s the optimum.”

A Cape Breton community investment fund has already captured two percent of their local RRSPs—if we could merely equal that here, that’d be $7.2 million annually.

Community investment funds around North America generally focus on supporting locally-owned businesses but, because of their broader mandate to foster overall community development, they usually come with an additional focus on improving local environmental sustainability, social justice, economic resilience and self-reliance. So aside from affordable housing developers, Downing points to City Harvest (an urban farming cooperative), City Green Solutions (a home-energy retrofitting non-profit), and Community Micro Lending (a provider of small loans to new entrepreneurs) as examples of the kinds of companies which often fall between the cracks when trying to raise conventional loan capital, but which could be readily helped through a CIF.

The Community Council is gathering a steering group to begin developing the business plan and legal framework for a regional community investment fund. So to anyone with business, financial, tax, legal or marketing expertise willing to do a little pro-bono work, says Downing, “We’d be very pleased to hear from them.” Downing will be speaking about the initiative at an upcoming community investment forum sponsored by Transition Victoria, Vancity and Focus. Along with Chaland, Downing, and new Victoria councillor Lisa Helps, who is a director of Community Micro Lending (see Focus, April, 2010), several other speakers will outline additional options for redirecting your dollars back into our local community.

One of those speakers will be Vancity community business banking account manager Rebecca Pearson.

“Just by banking with Vancity, you are investing in community,” notes Pearson, explaining that credit union regulations require virtually all of Vancity’s $14.5 billion in assets to be invested in British Columbia. And most of that, she says, stays in the Lower Mainland and Southern Vancouver Island.

“On top of that, we are focusing on community impact,” she adds. “So we’re not just investing locally, but we’re also making an effort to invest in the building blocks of a sustainable economy.”

Pearson points to the Root Cellar Village Green Grocer, Dockside Green, and the Victoria Car Share Co-op as examples of progressive local enterprises with which Vancity has been involved.

But exactly where your savings are invested is often not under an individual’s direct control, and so some Vancity members remain frustrated by the credit union’s investments in more conventional or less ethical businesses. Pearson says Vancity is developing options for those people, too.

“The most interesting thing that we’re working on right now for more direct connections between your dollars and where they get locally invested is the Resilient Capital Program,” says Pearson. Just starting up now in Victoria, but with a pilot project underway in Vancouver, the program gathers investors who can contribute $50,000 or more into a multimillion dollar pool. “Their money will be made available to social enterprises to help build resilient communities.”

In Vancouver, Vancity’s Resilient Capital Program recently helped support a major expansion to a non-profit that runs women’s shelters, and a revisioning of Save on Meats as a multifaceted social enterprise benefiting its impoverished Downtown Eastside neighbourhood through a restaurant serving all income levels, accessible work opportunities, and a rooftop vegetable garden.

“We’re still looking for depositors,” says Pearson. And to entrepreneurs with great ideas for improving local resilience, she adds, “We’re looking simultaneously for investment opportunities on the Island.”

That’s good news to Stephen Whipp, an ethical investment advisor with Manulife Securities Incorporated and vice-president of the Westshore Chamber of Commerce, who’ll also be speaking at the forum. Whipp says he constantly hears from prospective clients with a hunger for ethical investment opportunities that are specifically local.

“One issue that comes up over and over and over is people want to help,” says Whipp. “[Investors ask] ‘How do I help? Other than growing my own food, other than cutting back on how much I drive or increasing how much I use transit, how do I make my community a better place?’”

Due to regulations to protect us from scams, however, licensed brokers and investment advisers like Whipp are restricted to recommending opportunities that are listed on mainstream capital markets. So instead, Whipp provides financial and business advice to “put tools in the toolbox” that help people do their own “due diligence” when they examine local investment opportunities. Another approach Whipp suggests people explore is community “investment clubs,” an ad hoc version of a community investment fund where small groups of people get together to share the costs and efforts of doing such due diligence.

But these are makeshift solutions which shouldn’t have to continue this way, argues Whipp. He hopes growing public demand will push governments, regulators, and investment firms with sufficiently large expert infrastructures to more proactively facilitate targeted, ethical, community investment opportunities.

“I think the credit unions have an ability to make a huge play in this area,” comments Whipp. “That in itself may make others pay attention to it.”

 

At the other end of the spectrum, of course, some would argue that trying to make money from money, while participating within a global financial system that’s arguably dubious at its core, is inherently antithetical to sustainability, social justice and community development. From this perspective, ethical investing is a tiny bandage over the gaping wound that’s brought our society to the brink of environmental, social and financial collapse.

Yet it’s difficult to deny that Vancity’s $14.5 billion, or Greater Victoria’s own $360 million annually in RRSPs, are amounts that could have far-reaching and profound societal impacts if directed creatively and progressively back into their source communities. Those aren’t mere bandage levels of money. And even if, after some hypothetical apocalypse, we were to pull out of the global economy altogether through an alternative local currency, we’d probably still need some infrastructure guided democratically by members, not unlike a credit union or community investment fund, to help manage that currency and provide expert guidance on where to funnel our collective financial resources. So why not explore what’s possible if we put our financial shoulders to the wheel right now?

John Ehrlich, another speaker at the forum, has already shown what’s possible, even with just a little upfront investment and no complicated legal or regulatory frameworks.

While family farms are disappearing across Canada, his Alderlea biodynamic farm near Duncan has been expanding at 30 percent annually since 2003. This year, 200 families will invest on average $450 each as “shareholders” in exchange for weekly veggie bins. Aside from being emotionally uplifting to have so many people “committed” to helping your farm survive, says Ehrlich, this “Community Supported Agriculture” system improves cash flow, efficiency and marketing.

“The biggest thing is having the money up front, before the season begins, purchasing seeds and tools and other things,” he explains. “And we know exactly what to grow and how much to put out for the families each week.”

Starting a community-supported farm, says Ehrlich, is as simple as bringing some community members together to help stabilize a farmer’s livelihood by providing upfront payments for produce at near-retail rates. But our next regional hurdle is figuring out how to rally enough local resources to actually purchase land for farming. Ehrlich has been closely involved with The Land Conservancy’s experiment with Keating Farm, and will outline those efforts at the forum.

“I think we’re at an incredible crossroads,” summarizes Whipp. “We have a huge opportunity which may never be there again, to show people that you can do business in a different way.”

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(Rob Wipond discloses that he has $200 invested in a maintenance and landscaping company through Community Micro Lending.)

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The Community Investment Forum is 7 pm Tuesday, January 31 at Ambrosia Conference Centre, 638 Fisgard Street. Admission is free. For more information see “Events” at www.TransitionVictoria.ca.

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Originally published in Focus, January 2012.

Breaking News on the Yellow Brick Road to Calamity

There are some compelling ideas for how to make our community more economically resilient in the face of climate change, rising fuel costs, and global financial meltdowns, but our civic leadership is so far conducting business as usual. That can put a passionately concerned local journalist in some uncomfortable positions, and raise some provocative questions about the role of news media in a time of crisis.

It’s raining radical change! Hallelujah! That’s how I felt reading some of the introductory sections of the City of Victoria’s new Economic Development Strategy. I read about revamping our local economy to grapple with “the impact of economic growth on the world’s ecology,” “climate change,” “increased energy costs,” and the ”rollercoaster ride” of the global financial system.

Amen, it’s about time!

After all, the converging crises of rising fossil fuel prices and dirtier oil, climate change, environmental degradation and resource depletion, growing debts, exploitative banking, and international financial instability are real and deepening threats to our society and to this region. Faster or slower than predicted, the mathematics of this equation is mercilessly inexorable, and our economic system is the primary factor at work at the centre. I was thrilled to see the City taking the lead on tackling these issues.

Then I reached the section with the actual plans: Above all, the Strategy declared, we must therefore become more “prosperous” and “grow our community’s tax base” through boosting tourism, bolstering the marine and technology sectors, expanding the airport, and speeding development.

It was business as usual. The sudden, severe inspiration drought hit me hard. That was partly because I’d personally submitted six pages of practical suggestions to the City—more on that momentarily. First, though, I couldn’t help but simply wonder, “What happened?”

Alan Dolan explained that part to me.

Past chair of the Victoria Values-Based Business Network, Dolan sat on the City’s economic strategy advisory panel for a year—an odd bird amidst representatives from the likes of the Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Victoria, VIATeC and Bank of Montreal.

But when the Strategy was released, with $1.5 million over three years earmarked mostly for an economic development office and waterfront planning, Dolan’s name was gone.

“I resigned because I think the report just falls way short of what an exciting, 21st-century, out-of-the-box economic development plan might say for Victoria,” says Dolan. “I just felt like, I just cannot have my name attached to this.”

Dolan’s most serious concern was the plan’s lack of support for “localization,” a range of approaches for strengthening small, locally-owned businesses. Dolan believes localization strategies should have permeated plans for all sectors of our economy.

“The critical thing is economic leakage,” he explains, citing big box stores as prime examples of community financial sinkholes. “It’s basically money flowing back to that executive and those shareholders elsewhere…More local, independent business means more money kept in the community and less economic leakage.” And “spin-off benefits” of stopping leakage, Dolan notes, include more unique community character, reduced environmental impacts, and greater self-reliance.

(Ex-)councillor Philippe Lucas agrees. “I was very distressed that it made only the slightest mention of localized economy,” he says, pointing out that 80 percent of Victoria (and BC-wide) businesses employ less than five people, while this Strategy is “tying the future of this city and the tax base of this city to endless broad development, and attracting mega-corporations.” But wasn’t council involved? Lucas says the project was driven top-down by City Manager Gail Stephens and Mayor Dean Fortin. “It was rushed forward so it could be available prior to the election,” he asserts.

Community economic development dropped

Also left behind, points out Dolan, Lucas and others, was an entire, growing field of progressive economic thought called community economic development (CED), which measures economic health not just through business revenues and tax bases, but through social and environmental indicators such as fulfilling employment, equitable access to opportunities, cleaner air, and closer-knit neighbourhoods.

Localizing lies at CED’s core, and includes tax and zoning incentives to nurture green technologies, co-working hubs, entrepreneurship incubators, and home-based businesses. There are innovative methods for funnelling RRSPs and investor capital into small social enterprises, arts organizations, business co-operatives, and affordable housing. More radical ideas are also on the table: How can a municipality make its own independent monetary system work? How can neighbourhoods and companies develop tool and equipment sharing, freecycling, and other resource-saving initiatives? Can we lower living and operating costs, instead of raising revenues and incomes?

Dolan feels little of this made it into discussion partly because the City chose Jay Wollenberg of Vancouver-based Coriolis Consulting to draft the Strategy and lead meetings—and his biases were obvious.

For example, Dolan says last November Wollenberg was outlining avenues of economic opportunity for Victoria, including technology, tourism, and marine businesses.

“And then [Wollenberg] brought a PowerPoint slide up, and he said, and I quote, ‘Let’s throw a bone to the Birkenstockers and put localization in here.’”

Dolan finds the statement even more offensive in hindsight. “Sometimes the full impact and understanding of how outrageous [a statement] is doesn’t really come clear to you until after a meeting,” he observes. “If it had been totally clear to me, I probably would’ve embarrassed myself… like getting my shoe off and slamming it on the desk.”

Panel member and Tourism Victoria chair Deirdre Campbell doesn’t recall that specific remark, but suggests Wollenberg “may have used those words” in what Campbell herself regarded as an attempt to acknowledge other points of view. “I do remember that [Wollenberg] spoke a little about… if you’re trying to do any significant changes, you’re going to get ‘pushback’ from people, that some people feel like growth is not good.”

Dolan recalls that particular remark from Wollenberg being, “Many people believe that growth is the spawn of Satan.”

And after he missed a meeting, Dolan says even that “bone” was snatched away. “Localization fell off the table and it wasn’t there at all.”

Dolan complained to the City’s Project Lead Jocelyn Jenkyns, and localization reappeared on the agenda in January. It disappeared again before the public consultations.

He could have been more assertive, concedes Dolan, noting personal issues reduced his own participation. However, he says, Coriolis’ public consultations were also inadequate.

“We certainly got the feeling at the couple of open houses we had, ‘Where is everybody?’” comments Campbell.

I attended one of those public consultations with about 20 others—a handful of whom were not already involved with the advisory panel.

Unapologetically blundering

In the end, vague encouragement is expressed in two “Strategic Focus Areas” of the Strategy for sustainability, green initiatives, locally-owned businesses and regional agriculture. However, these are dwarfed by nine focus areas determinedly heading in the opposite direction, and are undermined by criticisms pointedly aimed at environmentalism, localization, and zero growth.

Dolan points to one section: “Victoria [population numbers] will continue to grow,” states the Strategy, and therefore, “achieving a steady state is not possible[.]” Consequently, “The pursuit of sustainability… means growing at a moderate pace[.]”

“Steady state is pretty fundamental to most people’s thinking around sustainability,” comments Dolan. “There are limits to the resources, limits to the space where people can live in Victoria, limits to water and food. And so, at some point in time, the economy’s going to have to level out.”

Wollenberg couldn’t be reached before deadline but, in fairness, it’s not as if his positions weren’t well known to the City. I previously reported (Focus, May 2010) on how two successive economy discussions chaired by Wollenberg during Victoria’s otherwise fuzzy-wuzzy, feel-good Official Community Plan open house developed into testy arguments about zero growth and localization between Wollenberg and public participants. Stephens and Fortin chose Coriolis over more sustainability-friendly planning consultants the City has hired for other projects, and hand-picked the compliant advisory panel. At the pre-election launch, Wollenberg announced the Strategy was “unapologetically” pro-growth.

All of which made me wonder how and why the Strategy had ended up with an introduction that was so much more progressive than its actual plans.

I traced the history of the drafts. As late as May of this year, after seven months in development, the draft Strategy mentioned possible impacts from rising fossil fuel costs only in passing, and only in relation to tourism. Global financial instability was apparently irrelevant to the local economy—it was never mentioned. Climate change was also never mentioned.

After the summer, though, lengthy commentaries on all these topics appeared in the Strategy’s introductory sections. Yet the business-as-usual strategies themselves had barely changed. It was as if those more progressive discussions had been tacked on at the last minute as greenwash over the rest—to make it sound as if these strategic plans had emerged from thoughtfully grappling with the issues.

But what had happened during the summer to precipitate that? Then I wondered with a certain discomfort if, possibly, I was reading some of my own writing in that introduction.

That’s when pursuing an otherwise straightforward news story took on whole new dimensions of significance.

Journalist or activist?

I’ll back up. After reading Victoria’s business-as-usual draft Economic Strategy, in the midst of the woeful public consultations in June, I realized I had two choices. I could play my role as journalist and write an article criticizing the process. Or, I could put on an activist hat, and try to ensure some better ideas got submitted to the City. I could be a backseat public critic after the fact, or try to help steer our civic ship now.

Which, I asked myself, was more important? And for me, this was a question of burning significance.

As regular Focus readers know, I’ve been writing ever more on economic issues, and have also been voluntarily helping coordinate events and projects with Transition Victoria’s Economy Working Group. This is because I feel ours is a small, fragile and imperilled community amidst converging global economic and environmental crises, and the options before us are few. Many hope we can keep squeezing through and our children will deal with the fallout. If not, then what? We may collapse into expanding poverty and chaos due to forces beyond our control. We may indenture ourselves to increasing Greece-like “austerity fascism” in a financial game stacked against us. Or…we may examine our community’s precarious situation with regard to food, clothing, finances, construction materials, renewable energy, and other essential goods, and employ reasoned measures towards strengthening our self-reliance.

Maybe there are other possibilities, but whatever they are, they’ll have to be fairly broad and radical to stop this train, and I’m personally not banking on our corporations, unions, or national governments providing visionary leadership.

So with this in mind, then, I kept wondering, would it be more effective for me to play journalist, or activist? On the one hand, it’s not like there is a plethora of well-organized, well-funded, local activist groups constantly battling for fundamental economic change to which I could leave that job. Meanwhile, how many prominent news media outlets provide investigative news coverage of local issues that’s intensely critical of our dominant economic system?

Consequently, I started to feel a public responsibility to do both: I felt compelled to help try to turn this ship, and to report critically on it. So that’s what I set out to do.

The City’s Jenkyns kindly extended the Strategy’s public input deadline at my request, and I brain-downloaded from Donna Morton of the Centre for Integral Economics, Nicole Chaland, director of Simon Fraser University’s CED program, Michelle Colussi of the Canadian Centre for Community Renewal, and others, and at the end of June submitted six pages of discussions and detailed suggestions.

When the final Strategy came out in October and I saw how some of those ideas had apparently been misappropriated and most others ignored, while none of the actual strategies had changed, I felt especially frustrated. And the municipal election was scheduled to occur long before any discussions could appear in Focus. So I and some of those same experts drafted a “Consensus Statement” criticizing the Strategy and proposing alternatives, which we distributed online. During that process, I contacted Dolan to ask why he’d quit the advisory panel, and he simultaneously agreed to join the Consensus and be interviewed for my Focus article. Soon afterward, the election occurred and one of our signatories and experts I’d been consulting, Lisa Helps of Community Micro Lending, landed on Victoria council. When I contacted Helps for an interview, she reiterated her commitment: “I’m going to put my energy into creating a sustainable, resilient, local economy, including community economic development.”

When the editor and publisher of Focus read the first draft of my article, they asked me, “Has this gone too far? Are your personal perspectives, journalism, and activism too intertwined? Will our readers trust our fairness and accuracy on this issue?”

They seemed like reasonable questions. Notwithstanding the full disclosures, even I was feeling squeamish about my shape-shifting roles. Then, the more we discussed it, the more it seemed our questions struck to the core of how we understand the role of community journalism. And so we decided to invite our readers into that dialogue, and ask you how you see it.

Community journalism in a time of crisis

Many of us, including me, carry around a romanticized notion of the “objective, independent, investigative news rag,” inhabited by rabble-rousing journalists with high moral values questing only after truth and not beholden to political parties, corporations, institutions, unions, activist organizations, or advertisers.

Today, though, fewer and fewer people are willing to actually pay anything to support that type of journalism. So journalism has been changing.

After years of unfettered corporate media conglomeration, there is only a smattering of news outlets left in Canada that regularly offer serious or socially critical investigative journalism, and scarcely a handful that pay independent journalists more than a glorified honorarium for what is extremely time-consuming work.

Along the way, news stories steered by vested interests, public relations firms, and corporate values have multiplied. Local investigative journalism has diminished dramatically as profit-hungry owners have turned to syndication and newswire services to generate generic content for all their news outlets at once.

And based on the staggering list of still under-researched, underexposed scandals I alone have under piles on my desk, I’d say unpaid citizen journalism and social media have not bridged the growing gaps.

Meanwhile, alternative models are struggling. Victoria’s own Sean Holman shut down Public Eye recently due to lack of sufficient financial support and, with him, we lost arguably this province’s best muckraking BC politics journalist. (Notably, Holman also did a number of exposes on different local news outlets engaged in suppressing content and firing journalists at the behest of advertisers.) In recent years, Holman survived mainly on private donors to his website, and it worked—for a while. Holman told me that as long as he was exposing Liberal party scandals, he was getting donations from NDP supporters; but when he began exposing dubious NDP activities, he lost those donors in droves. And when a paid advertisement for a campaigning MLA ran on Public Eye’s website, Holman got angry letters from indignant readers questioning his non-partisanship—even though those same protesters weren’t offering a penny to help Public Eye remain independent.

Today, most independent investigative journalists in Canada have supportive spouses, or second incomes. In my case, apart from Focus’ financial and moral support, my local journalism is currently subsidized by occasional teaching, other creative writing, and living cheaply, and fuelled by my passion for learning, giving voice to lesser-known perspectives, and nurturing social change. The end result? You get an article like this, where community activism and journalism are intertwined—instead of something like the Times Colonist’s coverage, which was essentially a slicker pre-election promotional press release for Fortin and the Economic Strategy than the City itself put out. (And undisclosed therein: The TC got $192,000 in advertising from the City of Victoria last year; Focus got $0. Coincidence?)

Yet all of this in turn raises bigger questions: What, really, is the role of news media in this community? And what should or could that role be?

Here’s one way I’m looking at that lately: Major local media and the Provincial Emergency Program have some basic agreements for emergency public communications in the event of an earthquake. That makes sense. Do you want to be sitting in rubble and finally get your radio working, only to hear repackaged news from Vancouver between commercials for the hardware store selling batteries at 100 times their normal value? You’d likely need to know where to go for free food, water and assistance, whether government was functioning adequately, and how to join a search crew. You’d expect your local journalists to be guiding lights, fusing their journalistic passion for finding and evaluating important information with their fervent activist desires to connect, help, heal, hold to account, inspire, and rally people towards rebuilding our community from the ground up. Beholden to no one, but committed to everyone.

To me, that’s a good analogy for the kind of local media we urgently need more of right now, and that I want to support and be a part of. Because when it comes to these converging crises of environmental depletion and destruction, rising oil costs, financial instability, and climate change, we’re arguably in an emergency already. And I don’t believe corporate-owned media are ever going to give us truly good, penetrating coverage on any of those issues; at least, not consistently. Regardless of how any individual staffer may feel, they’re confined by an institution that is too embedded in the existing dominant power structure. So what are we going to do?

But this isn’t something any journalist or news outlet can resolve in isolation. At a time when so many are hurting financially, I wouldn’t suggest news media are more worthy of help. Nevertheless, our sources of information and outlets for public discussion are foundationally important, aren’t they? As a community, we need to start asking, “Are we satisfied with the news media we have?” If we’re not, then we have to start grappling with what we’re going to do together to help get the kind of news we truly value, and need.

What do you think?

*

Originally published in Focus, December 2011.

 

Dispatches from the Urban Meter Wars

Resistance to BC Hydro’s smart meters still seems strong, but it’s hard to tell who’s winning.

A BC Hydro rep gave a presentation at a recent meeting about energy conservation initiatives. Unbidden, he began by letting us know, “One thing we’re not going to discuss today is smart meters.”

Since I was filling in for a friend and not there “as journalist,” I won’t disclose details. Suffice to say the meeting was filled with people very supportive of energy conservation.

When the BC Hydro rep inadvertently mentioned smart meters some minutes later, he interrupted himself: “Let’s not go there.”

When his PowerPoint slide about smart meters popped up, he jumped to the next slide. He wasn’t even going to try to make the case for them to this knowledgeable group.

As we received this in polite silence, it began to sink in for all of us, I think, just how deeply damaging the Liberal “slam smart meters down their throats” campaign has been for BC Hydro’s reputation.

***

A retired Saanich woman, not keen to have a smart meter in her home, recently called to tell me her story. After some exchanges of emails and phone calls with various BC Hydro representatives, she said, one rep “ended our phone discussion with the interesting advice that I should be looking into alternative energy sources.”

Go to the article at Focus Online