Photo courtesy of Wladyslaw/Creative Commons.

Municipal reporting can fix systemic problems

It’s all about being in the room.

Matt Stickland  - September 28, 2020

This story was published to mark World News Day. At a time when credible journalism has the power to save lives, build trust, and inform the public’s understanding of an increasingly complex and uncertain world, World News Day is a powerful reminder that journalism can be a force for good — a message that 150 news organizations from around the world intend to celebrate on Monday, September 28. World News Day is presented by The Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF) and the World Editors Forum (WEF)  — with support from the Google News Initiative.

It’s a bizarre time to be alive. There’s a pandemic, police violence, a presidential election that’s devolving into chaos — and everyone has a front-row seat from the comfort of their home. 

As all of this is happening, the media landscape has changed drastically in the past four years. The legacy media outlets struggle to cover a president who’s willing to abuse the trust and authority of his office for political gain and cheap shots on Twitter. He’s changed political reporting so much that a journalist asking basic follow up questions is notable. The proliferation of news-ish websites has launched a new era of the partisan press that’s taking root in Canada. At the same time coverage of the most critical level of government, municipal politics, is on the decline.

There has never been a more important time for municipal journalism. It’s the reason why I’m launching a publication dedicated to covering municipal politics in Halifax. 

Systemic discimination is easiest to identify and stamp out at the municipal level. Take, for example, affordable housing in Halifax. Long story very short: Halifax’s vacancy rate is too low, and the cost of housing, especially rental housing, is too high. The city wants to do something about it, but can’t because the province of Nova Scotia has jurisdiction over affordable housing. Halifax’s city council has jury-rigged a workaround within their bylaw process to make affordable housing part of development agreements so they can at least do something while waiting for the province. 

Recently, as part of this bylaw process, one of Halifax’s city council committees decided to approve a development on the Bedford highway that included affordable housing. Great success?

Let’s take a look at the details.

In Halifax’s charter “affordable housing” is defined as “housing that meets the needs of a variety of households in the low to moderate income range.” Although some staff reports acknowledge that affordability usually means spending less than 30 per cent of pre-tax income on housing: rent, heat, hot water and electricity. Affordability for the Bedford highway development is defined as 30 per cent less than market value. This is important because while the market value for rental units should correspond with income, that’s not always true. 

This is going to get dense.

In the report submitted to the committee, city staff wrote that the Bedford development is “reasonably consistent” with the city’s affordability plan. 

This is because Halifax used the “housing income limit” set by the province for affordable housing. The housing income limit includes what people spend on heat, hot water and electricity.  It is the maximum income which people can earn and still qualify for provincial affordable housing programs. 

This limit is based on a Canadian Mortgage and Housing Association’s 2018 rental report, which says that in 2018 the average rent in Halifax for a one-bedroom unit built in 2005 or later was $1,206. Which is, notably, not based on income. 

Housing Nova Scotia’s 2019 housing income limit for a one bedroom, based on that report, sets the maximum rent at 30 per cent of $35,000 annual pre-tax income, which is $844 a month. 

The city used that number as the bar for affordable rent at the Bedford highway development. Rent for a one-bedroom is set at $840 a month, and so therefore affordable. It is a great success! 

Oh, except for the minor detail that it’s not affordable on an income of $31,010 ($775.25 a month for housing) which is the median income for women in Halifax. Which, as could be expected with median incomes, is roughly half the women in Halifax

And even though a city spokesperson said heat, hot water and electricity “formed part of the alternative policy that staff provided for Regional Council’s consideration,” the developer said in an email that electricity isn’t included in the Bedford highway development affordable rental rates. When electricity invariably costs more than $4 a month, it goes over the housing income limit.

Which means the Bedford development doesn’t really meet affordability criteria.  

Now, no one believes politicians or government staff in Halifax are sitting around being cartoonishly evil, purposely designing an affordable housing framework that discriminates against women or isn’t actually affordable. And no one’s saying Halifax doesn’t need more housing in the middle, and so a higher affordability bar isn’t in and of itself bad. 

What probably happened for this development is that staff plugged the rent number into the Housing Income Limit number and hit divide and like magic, it’s affordable. Halifax’s city councillors, pressed for time and political staff, probably assumed city staff did due diligence. Or if they were keen, did some surface-level math on non-gendered income averages, saw that it seemed to check out and voted to approve. It’s also possible the implicit bias of councillors inadvertently blinded them to gendered aspects of societal issues.  

City councillors in Halifax don’t run as members of political parties; they have more flexibility to explore problems facing the city. The downside is they don’t have the staff and resources to always know what the problems and solutions are. 

The reason municipal reporting is so important is because policy details like what the definition of affordability is and how it will be applied just don’t seem to be heavily scrutinized in municipal councils and committees; it’s not malicious or nefarious. It’s just what happens when newsrooms get cut and can’t afford to send anyone to committee meetings. Especially the boring ones. 

Often all it takes to solve a problem is to have someone in the room asking: “Wait, sorry, what makes this affordable? How did you get those numbers?” 

If the chaos and instability of the world is causing despair, the easiest thing to do for peace of mind is to pay for local journalism. That’s the simplest way to make sure your city council always has someone in the room asking questions on your behalf. And then call or email your councillor if you don’t like the answers. At the municipal level, things can actually change for the better. 

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