The false idol of infrastructure

By Leslie Campbell, November 2011

Homelessness hasn’t gone away; affordable housing is still scarce. But infrastructure now has our full attention. Why?

At the last civic election in the City of Victoria, just three short years ago, the number one issue was homelessness. That issue has now moved off centre stage. As with other important issues, it seems to have been sacrificed on the altar of infrastructure. The Johnson Street Bridge, and to a lesser degree the sewage system, sewers, and LRT proposal have occupied Victoria politicians, media, and residents. And now we’re being told we need to replace the Crystal Pool and Fire Hall #1.

But the shortage of housing has not gone away, and neither have the homeless—though the new shelter on Ellice Street means they are less visible downtown. 

The recent Vital Signs report from the Victoria Foundation noted that shelter use has continued to grow: “In 2010/11, five of Greater Victoria’s six shelters provided beds to 1958 unique individuals, up from 1943 in 2009/10 and 1823 in 2008/09.” These shelters are definitely not homes, and they only accommodate some of the homeless—others couch-surf and sleep rough. Reverend Al Tysick still brings morning coffee to 60 or so people sleeping in downtown doorways. 

There have been some good programs implemented to help people find homes, but very little affordable or supportive housing has been created. The Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness’ last annual report (June 2011) noted that its partners added 116 new supportive housing units over the past year. But many of them (44), along with the new Ellice Street shelter, were in the works prior to the last election. And 36 of them were for seniors.

The current City council did take the initiative to purchase two Traveller’s Inns resulting so far in 36 sorely needed units. But as we saw in front page news recently, council refused to bend and rezone when a local entrepreneur proposed converting another Traveller’s Inn into affordable rental units for 45 men. Labelling the units as “substandard” because they were small (226 to 387 square feet), and lacked green space and parking, the City blew a rare opportunity to provide decent housing for single, working men—at no cost to taxpayers. Its rejection seems hypocritical and absurd. No wonder mayoralty candidate Paul Brown jumped on the issue, sending out a condemnatory press release and noting another rental project the City nixed last June for no good reason: a proposal for a five-storey building offering 50 small-but-nice rental suites on Fort Street.

The Vital Signs report noted that last year 854 apartments disappeared in Greater Victoria. For two-bedroom apartments, the vacancy rate as of April 2011 decreased to 2 percent, compared to 3.1 percent in April 2010. Bachelor suite vacancies declined as well to 2.4 percent. The social housing waitlist continues to have over 500 families, 450 seniors, and 410 people with disabilities on it.

So homelessness and its “sister” challenge, a lack of affordable housing, are still very much present. But local politicians, caught up in a feeding frenzy for federal and provincial dollars, have made infrastructure projects the number one issue in recent years. I am beginning to feel that these grants pervert public process and due diligence and sometimes end up costing us more than they are worth. Instead of objective, in-depth analysis of competing priorities, the grants bias us in favour of megaprojects, shifting our attention away from other needed and worthy projects. The haste required to meet application deadlines can also result in costly mistakes.

And even if mistakes aren’t made, we need to remember that infrastructure “grants” still cost—a lot! Municipal residents have to pay at least one-third of a project’s costs (and on the very expensive Johnson Street bridge it’s two-thirds, resulting in borrowing $49 million). So those monies or loans—ultimately paid for by taxpayers regardless of which governments provide funding—are not available for anything else, including other infrastructure needs. Johnsonstreetbridge.org has discovered, for instance, that the report and $16.5-million price tag on Fire Hall #1 was known in March 2010 but kept from the public until recently. Perhaps if citizens had known about this and the Crystal’s $58-million replacement cost, they might have voted differently in the bridge referendum.

Infrastructure projects are usually credited with creating valuable economic spin-offs, including jobs, thereby reducing poverty and, ultimately, homelessness. And sometimes that might be the case—but each project needs to be carefully scrutinized in this regard. Often the work is not done locally; or highly specialized workers and engineers must be imported. As David Broadland shows in this edition, while the City of Victoria states the Johnson Street Bridge will result in 900 jobs, it’s actually more like 40 local jobs.

Even much smaller projects raise questions about priorities. The current City council endorsed and funded—100 percent from City coffers—a $500,000 “beautification” of Pandora Green. The main reason for this was to discourage street people from congregating there. Besides the fact that it doesn’t look all that different, and that one candidate, Steve Filipovic, reports he could have got the job done for $182,000, couldn’t the City think of something better to to do with $500,000? Paul Brown, for example, has suggested a better investment would have been funding Our Place so that it could stay open longer hours. 

In each of Greater Victoria’s 13 municipalities, civic politicians, through their priorities, actions and decisions, have a big impact on the well-being of our community. At election time, citizens get a chance to consider their own priorities and the candidates who can best address them.

Leslie Campbell urges people to learn about the issues, the candidates, and then vote. See articles by Gene Miller, Aaren Madden, and David Broadland for more food for thought towards November 19.