Tyee Solutions Society: Reporter Reflections
'Solutions' journalism takes on housing: sometimes news just needs a place to happen.By David P. Ball, Katie Hyslop and Chris Wood
For SFU Public Square’s report on the November 3rd Actions for Housing Now event, visit http://bit.ly/1VW6IlS.
After three days of rain and fog, it was a rare bright fall morning in Vancouver. The view of the North Shore mountains through the near-floor to ceiling windows of the SFU Harbour Centre meeting room was a vivid reminder of why so many people struggle to live in one of the country’s most expensive housing markets.
But as the first of what would soon be 80 people, all expert in some facet of housing affordability, began to trickle in and line up at the coffee urns, the mood could kindly have been called ambivalent.
Would the day-long workshop they were about to join, sponsored by Simon Fraser University and the Tyee Solutions Society, produce anything more meaningful than another re-hash of familiar complaints? The subject, everyone knew, is wickedly complex, involving issues ranging from individual health to macro-economic interest rate policy.
Also on every mind was the moment in time. Just fifteen days earlier, Canadians had decisively dismissed the Conservative government that had managed the country for nearly a decade.
Technically, that government was still in power: Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau and his incoming Liberal cabinet would not be sworn in for another 24 hours. How it would deliver on campaign promises of more support for housing was a matter of keen speculation.
For us at the Tyee Solutions Society, the event was both a penultimate climax to a year-long investigative undertaking focused on Canada’s housing crisis, and a novel experiment in journalism that promised to test our own professional comfort zones.
A moment to seize
The one-day Actions For Housing Now workshop, held in conjunction with SFU Public Square’s 2015 Community Summit ‘We The City,’ followed a moderated public panel discussion the night before, at which a sell-out crowd heard speakers from across a spectrum of perspectives suggest where break-out ideas to the housing challenge might be found.
This morning however, dozens of in-demand experts and stake-holders–elected officials, planning and development professionals, elected policymakers, researchers, and advocates—had accepted an invitation from Tyee Solutions Society and SFU’s Faculty of Urban Studies and School of Public Policy, to brainstorm practical proposals for how the new government could help create more secure, suitable, and affordable housing in Canadian cities within its current mandate.
In particular, we and our SFU partners had asked this stellar talent pool to focus specifically on what could be done to help working urban households at or below the median income in larger Canadian cities.
(Another event in Ottawa, scheduled at time of writing for early February, will address the multiple dimensions of housing challenge for Canadians marginalized by health or socio-economic circumstances.)
Neither group had been well served in recent decades—under either Conservative or Liberal governments.
While doing little to advance affordable housing projects during its nine-year reign, the outgoing Conservative government had nonetheless pledged more funds for housing than the Liberal government it had replaced.
That government, some of whose alumni had stumped for Trudeau during the recent campaign, had largely taken Canada’s federal government out of the housing field—and turned its back decisively on new responses—with a series of decisions and downloads to the provinces in the mid-1990s.
The new Liberals under Trudeau had pledged an unknown portion of a nearly $20 billion investment in social infrastructure to maintain existing and build new affordable housing. But concern from some that Trudeau’s party would campaign from the left but rule from the right, as it so often had before, was palpable.
And among these highly knowledgeable participants were also practical concerns. How much could any government achieve in a four-year mandate? How would it define ‘affordable’ housing? Would it dedicate funds only to the desperately needed upkeep of existing social housing, or to both that and building new units, which might take some pressure from market rental units? What roles would there be for the voices of big city mayors bearing the brunt of housing responsibilities, or leaders of the long-overlooked indigenous fourth level of Canada’s constitutional government?
Or would the returning Liberals focus, as its predecessors had, on housing for middle-income families, leaving little attention or funding for low-income renters, the homeless, or anything but a continuation of paternalistic directives on indigenous housing both on and off reserve?
Nonetheless, the sharp shift in political climate implied a moment of opportunity, at least, that appeared to most to be worth the effort of trying to seize.
The day’s workshop process had been designed by SFU Public Square Executive Director Shauna Sylvester and her team to encourage the many independent minds in the room to coalesce around a few ideas with the greatest potential to be advanced through the public conversation toward eventual uptake as new federal policy.
Participants were asked to think about what achievable, specific policy changes or innovations, could give the greatest boost to those working on housing at a local level. Which local successes could, with federal support, be scaled across the country? And also: who and which organizations, what processes or strategies, would move those ideas ahead now?
The experts and stakeholders in the room were given one other thing: explicit protection from us. With our scholarly-oriented partners at SFU, Tyee Solutions had an interest in fostering both the most open possible discussion during the day, and—without picking any winners ourselves—in the general hope that something useful to Canadians in housing crisis would emerge from the day.
We were also of course fully aware that some of the men and women who had generously cleared a day to donate to this work, might feel constrained by the possibility that their candid assessments or blue-sky observations during the day might be publicly reported the next.
As a result, the day’s discussions would be held under ‘Chatham House Rules’—reporters present, representing TSS or other outlets—agreed not to quote or identify any participants who spoke during the workshop, but would be free to seek interviews from them later.
By day’s end one idea stood out as specific, clear, easily communicated and adaptable to a variety of settings, and an opportunity for the new federal government to make a significant difference for the better.
That idea, dubbed ‘The 30/30/30 Plan’, takes advantage of an emerging insight among housing policy wonks: If the only housing in your budget is far from public transit hubs, or causes huge gas and car insurance bills to cover your daily commute, it isn’t really affordable.
In a nutshell: the federal government would offer to foot 30 per cent of the cost of major new urban transit developments; in return, municipalities would be required to create a ‘transit zone’ within a kilometre of any federally supported project to require that 30 per cent of its residential units sell or rent for no more than 30 per cent of the area’s median income.
The idea takes advantage of changing urban patterns. Transit lines like Metro Vancouver’s Skytrain were once feared as potential hubs and conduits for criminal activity. Now developers clamour to build high-rise condos near transit—and sell them at top dollar.
Postage-stamp, 439 sq. ft. apartments in the MC2 development, opened in 2015 near the Skytrain station at Vancouver’s Marine Drive, started at $255,900.
Across the street a 70-unit low-income townhouse complex, Marine Gardens, is scheduled for demolition to make way for more upper-end condo and rental towers.
The 30/30/30 idea has plenty of room to grow. Where municipalities have limited budgets, Ottawa and a province could each chip in 40 per cent of a transit project’s cost, while the city covered the remaining 20 per cent and donated land within the transit zone. A province could make its support for municipal or inter-city transit come with the same conditions as a federal 30/30/30 requirement.
But the day brought numerous other ideas, perhaps not all of them so game-ready, to the surface.
One challenged the implication that only social housing and low-cost rental apartments can provide affordable shelter. Why not look at alternative forms of ownership? Models are out there, participants heard.
A couple of hours north of Vancouver the Whistler Housing Authority, has for decades used a combination of municipal investment and deed covenants to ensure that homes remain affordable for local employees. Whistler has retained the people its service economy relies on, while building a more vibrant, less transient civic ambiance.
Options for Homes, a Toronto-based organization, uses creative mortgage financing, construction savings, and shared equity to move renters into first-time homeownership.
Such approaches become self-financing over time, as returns on the capital initially invested are reinvested in subsequent developments. However most programs need seed capital to start—leading other participants to suggest that as another potential federal role.
Elsewhere in the room, the idea was to take private equity out of the equation rather than invite it in, through ‘community land trusts.’ These convey the ownership of land under a development to a democratic non-profit entity; housing built over it however may be privately owned condos.
The point is to prevent residential development prices—and consequently housing costs—from spiralling upward in a captive speculative cycle based on the anticipated future value of the underlying land.
Most housing in Singapore is built on public land to avoid just that problem. In Europe, the model is seen as a way to reclaim the commons and build a sense of shared ownership in real estate. The model has been adapted in Vancouver to involve cooperative housing organizations building on city-owned land.
But such initiatives need to acquire or receive land from somewhere: government, private donation or purchase. That was another area where workshop participants thought federal financing—or Ottawa’s urban land-holdings—could play a role.
Beyond money, it was suggested, Ottawa could task the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) to promote novel ownership models through education, information sharing among communities, and assistance in solving lingering problems with those designs.
Other ideas were perhaps more predictable: an affordable housing taskforce with wide federal, territorial/provincial, municipal and indigenous participation to develop a national housing strategy; cash to be injected immediately into social housing to relieve some of the strain caused by insufficient and dilapidated units.
Still others wanted to see CMHC return to its activist 1970s mandate of providing low-interest infrastructure loans for building affordable housing, while working with the provinces to build social housing. The agency could use profits from its lucrative mortgage insurance business to help fund those investments.
What will become of that or any of the other ideas sparked during the Nov. 3 workshop is yet to be seen—and indeed not for us to say.
The precision of the 30/30/30 Plan seemed to catch the attention of several participants with real-world influence.
“I don’t think you can talk about affordable housing unless you’re also talking about transportation,” New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté, one of the people behind the idea, told us later in an interview. “For most households, transportation is the second biggest cost that we have,” after housing itself.
“Given that they’re both significant priorities of the new federal government,” Coté added, “I actually think that there might be some uptake, once we’ve done a bit of our legwork to advance the idea.” But it also became apparent—though not on the agenda—that the people assembled in the room, while committed from their various perspectives to ensuring that all Canadians can one day afford suitable, secure housing, were challenged with how to get the new Liberal government’s ear to listen to solutions.
Many heads nodded at the remark that perhaps what was needed was not more new ideas—but more skilful and successful lobbying by the sector for existing ones.
(A second event, on which TSS is partnering with Carleton University in Ottawa in February, will apply this insight in seeking to identify how initiatives in housing may address a variety of the new government’s ministerial mandate priorities—released the day after the Vancouver workshop.)
Chatham rules: ideas, but no names
As journalists, those of us who participated directly in the day’s events found the Chatham House rule created a challenging tension. The prohibition on identifying speakers meant that traditional ‘news’ reportage relying on identified, or at a minimum identifiably qualified, sources was impossible until well after the event.
However in the wider context of our year-long ‘Housing Fix’ project, and the investment that TSS and we personally have made in developing ‘beat’ expertise in this critical arena, the day bore a healthy return of new story ideas, issue perspectives and potential future contacts.
These included such themes as the political drive for a national housing task force, social impact bonds to attract private capital into public housing projects, and federal investments in rent-geared-to-income subsidies or other steps into the provincial domain of social assistance and disability payments.
But the event—a unique experiment at the meeting point between solutions-oriented journalism (what we do) and the advocacy that gets things done (that is, the stuff we usually report on)—also struck a tender point for us that marks an important distinction.
The idea of ‘solutions-oriented’ journalism can be confused with ‘advocacy’ journalism or even ‘activist reporters’—in implied negative contrast to the stories that countless investigative reporters have written since the dawn of modern media on social problems and what might address them.
Let us be clear: ‘solutions’ journalism is nothing more than old-fashioned investigative journalism that looks, perhaps, a little more closely at the responsible social response than at the scandal it answers.
As a funder-supported non-profit entity, we impose a strict non-directive constraint on organizations and individuals who generously support our work: they agree neither to vet nor censor our journalism.
The only promise we make in return is to conduct thorough, rigorous and unbiased journalism in examination of the social issue we’re addressing—in this case, housing.
In the months (and over previous projects, years) that preceded the November, 2015, workshop, Tyee Solutions had produced scores of individual stories of housing challenge and sometime surprising solutions.
We too however appreciated the political moment. It is not every year that a government faces the electorate in Canada.
Our journalistic intention in partnering with a university to present a public panel and the following day’s expert workshop in the immediate wake of a federal election was unapologetically to create a setting where significant players in the housing arena might identify—if they had the energy and acumen—a way to seize the opportunity that political renewal always brings, even when it is not so dramatic.
We hoped, that is, to create the opportunity for ‘news’ to occur, in the shape of engaged expert Canadians making a difference to a pressing and wickedly complex problem that we had already spent months minutely documenting.
If that news happened, we also wanted to be there to report it. Otherwise we kept our journalistic agnosticism intact as to what that ‘news’ might be, either coming out of the workshop day itself, or arising later from its work.
We are, in the end, quite traditional journalists. We don’t have predetermined ideas or agendas about how Canadian society solves its housing or any other problem. Like every Canadian however, we have a huge stake in ensuring that it does.
In Vancouver, 2015 was a year in which housing eclipsed every other civic issue. TSS reporting contributed very significantly to the content of that public conversation, as did a handful of other media. No others, however, brought the story together, literally, under a single roof and invited its characters to write their next chapter.