Effective Civic Action, Inside and Outside the System

I read Teardown by Dave Meslin for a book club here in Ottawa, and it is the weirdest thing that I’ve read in some time. I’ve described it to some friends as the most milquetoast call to radicalism that I’ve ever read. But a more charitable interpretation, perhaps, is that it is a book that excludes all theory to focus single-mindedly on praxis, and how to do it well in the Canadian political context. Meslin has a wealth of experience as an activist, and his book reflects that.

Would I recommend the book? Yes, especially if you’re Canadian. The tactics that he describes does have their limitations, and don’t try to look for any sort of coherent ideology (but again…. pracccssisssss is where the book shines), but there are enough nuggets of wisdom to mine that I think it’s likely worth your time overall.

I took lots of notes during my read-through, but of course focused on the chapters that are most useful and insightful for me personally. Key takeaways:

Useful ideas for local planning/advocacy:

  • 4 rules to create engaging public notices: be pretty, highlight important info, highlight engagement opportunities, finish with a call for action: “Your voice matters.” “This is your chance to be heard.” “We want your opinion.”

  • Use less planning jargon. Specifically called out examples: “podium”, “mechanical penthouse”, “below grade”, “amenity space” (be more specific – what’s going in that amenity space?)

  • City hall should have open doors (literally), council chambers should have open doors (literally).

  • Dress codes should be loosened, requiring ties in 2019 is ludicrous

  • Spontaneous consultation meetings on transit buses, giving free bus tickets as incentive

  • Providing pizza to citizens who want to host informal focus groups in their own homes

  • Interesting awareness campaign idea: put price tags on everything. Fire hydrants, bus stops, playgrounds. Show cost to build and to maintain/operate. Could be in lead-up to public budgeting session.

  • Paper newsletters in people’s physical mailboxes are still an incredibly powerful way to involve community

A very well thought out section on ways to clean up campaign money and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each solution:

(going in, it should be recognized that governments are already in the habit of giving out rebates, so none of these solutions are like, unrealistically radical)

  • tax incentives by way of rebates
    • Toronto already does this, you get a 75% rebate on all small donations
    • One drawback is that since the refund is delayed, you discriminate against lower-income donors.

  • matching grants
    • 1:1 ratio used in presidential primary elections: if you give $50, govt will kick in $50
    • 6:1 ratio for first $175 of each contribution in NY program, i.e. govt will give $6 per every $1 you donate – completely changed culture of campaign finance in the city. Before, 30% of popn donated, after introduction in 2009, 90% donated. Jump concentrated in neighbourhoods w higher poverty rates, higher concentrations of minority residents. System credited w electing a much more diverse council. In 2018, ratio raised to 8:1.

  • per-vote subsidy
    • annual allowance given to party based on how many votes they got in the last election.
    • introduced in Canada in 2004, each party got flat 1.75/vote in prior election
    • all voters (not just the 1% who donate) help direct funds
    • strategic voting becomes more meaningful
    • honestly a pretty decent option, but they get cancelled and don’t stick around because politicians hate them

  • democracy dollars
    • “bold experiment” in Seattle, each voter is mailed 4 coupons worth $25 each. tripled number of campaign donors; 84% of donors were new to political process, donors were more reflective of general popn (e.g. more donations coming from youth, women, PoC, low-income residents). % funding from small contributions went from under 50% to 87%
    • provides candidates large incentive to knock on doors, talk to voters
    • amplifies new and emerging voices
    • allows all voters, regardless of disposable income, to participate

Misc takes:

  • In runoff elections, things get friendlier because if you’re nice to another candidate then their supporters might vote for you second

  • Billboards erode our sense of collective ownership and social identity. Neighbourhoods gain their character from small businesses, public art, local architecture, and historic landmarks. Billboards create a monolithic aesthetic. It’s kind of ridiculous when neighbourhoods allow billboards but don’t allow local postings from actual people.

  • Disclosure of donations to politicians need to have more information than just a name and address, because that makes it harder to connect the dots between where lobbyists work and what the donate as “private citizens”. But possibly more importantly, we absolutely have to stop releasing them as useless PDFs, and instead release them as actually usable data sets

  • Lobbying is a good thing, as long as there’s a level playing field. Maybe the government should provide lobbyists to community groups, the same way that courts appoint lawyers to low-income defendants. They can do this by providing direct funding to community orgs that cross a support threshold, or corps can be forced to pay for opposition’s lobbying costs, or govts can create an office of public lobbyists staffed w full-time advocates. (That last one sounds a lot like Davidoff’s advocacy planning which I’m a large fan of)

“War stories”:

Olifas Marketing Group (OMG) offered city council thousands of free garbage cans. In exchange, all OMG wanted was permission to put advertising on the cans. The sign bylaw, of course, doesn’t allow advertising to be installed directly on our sidewalks, so the company was asking for an exemption. But OMG couldn’t simply offer the city millions of dollars in exchange for that exemption. Imagine how that would have looked! The optics would have been terrible because everyone knows that policy shouldn’t be for sale. But because OMG offered “free” street furniture, no one saw it for what it is: a company getting special treatment in exchange for financial incentives. Institutionalized bribery. Under this new financial model, the advertising was more important than the garbage can. So the free bins were themselves pieces of garbage, built with the structural integrity of an empty pop can. They began breaking down as soon as they were installed, metal doors flinging open and blocking the sidewalk or a bike lane. And the bins were often installed perpendicular to the curb, which blocked pedestrians but made the advertising more visible to drivers. These weren’t really garbage cans with ads on them at all; they were billboards with lousy garbage cans attached. (216)

[Toronto] has a donations policy that is explicitly designed to ensure that “donations occur at arm’s length from any City decision-making process.” But “when I filed a complaint with the city’s integrity commissioner, she ruled that no rules were broken because the ten-year-old policy regulating donations and community benefits astonishingly doesn’t include a definition of “donations” or “community benefits.” Without clear terminology, no one can actually break any rules. It’s the wild west. (218)

Tribar created the ultimate bundle: if the city gave permission to install a two-storey television screen above one of North America’s largest urban green spaces, the company would (are you ready for this?) contribute $3.5 million towards the construction of a suicide barrier on the same bridge. When the proposal was presented at city hall, the two items were bundled together, so if you were against the video screens (which I was, of course), then you were portrayed as also being against the suicide barrier. Politically, it was a nightmare situation. And that was intentional. (219)

Groups with charitable status are required to follow strict rules that limit their ability to do advocacy, while non-profit groups (without charitable status) can be much more innovative, politically vocal and effective when it comes to advocacy and community organizing. So why would any group choose to be a charity? Because charitable donations are tax-deductible. Under the existing rules, certain kinds of non-partisan advocacy are permitted, as long they account for less than 10 percent of a charity’s resources. But because board members often don’t understand these rules, they tend to take a risk-averse approach. “We have weak and confused sector organizations,” explains charity law expert Mark Blumberg, who’s calculated that more than 99 percent of charities conduct far fewer political activities than are allowed under the current rules. In fact, Blumberg estimates that the sector as a whole is spending only one-thousandth of its permitted threshold. (248)

When Ford went to rehab for two months, we literally had no mayor. As a community activist, I noticed a big difference during those strange years. Before and after Ford, it was absolutely necessary to secure the support of the mayor’s office in order to get any proposal approved by council. But during the Ford years, I was able to win significant political victories both with and without the mayor’s support. The councillors were in charge—as they should be but rarely are. (276)

Rants I won’t attempt to summarize because they are things of beauty you just kinda had to be there for:

  • “Tricks of the trade”, how politicians hide things from public eye

  • The one on billboards

  • The one on the increasing legibility of campaign running, and especially Get Out the Vote (GOTV)

    …Okay, fine, a small quote, because this very specific type of Ra-driven (archive) driven institutional rot is exactly my jam:

    “If they don’t trust their own caucus members to serve as ambassadors to the public, can you imagine how terrified they must be of having random volunteers knocking on doors and saying something that might be off message? This leaves campaigns with a dilemma: how do you distract dozens, if not hundreds, of volunteers and make sure they aren’t trying to talk to voters about issues?” (156-157)

Books for Autistic People

So like I said in the last Articles of Interest post, in the spirit of putting my money where my mouth is I’ve spent the last few months reading books on autism, social skills, and coping mechanisms for living with neurotypicals.

So I read around a dozen books in total. I intended to write a short and sweet review paragraph for each, but some of them said some really useful things so I took notes, and then that became a whole thing. In order to not clog up my blog, I’m going to turn this post into more of a directory – click through to read an excerpt, my review, and a summary of useful concepts for my more extensive reviews.

In order of reading:

A Field Guide to Earthlings – Ian Ford

Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder – Sarah Hendrickx

Nonviolent Communication, 2nd ed. – Marshall B. Rosenberg

Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate – Cynthia Kim

Other books I’ve read but weren’t interesting enough to merit a full review

Miscellaneous thoughts

Because I’m insufferable, here is a quote from my boi michel foucault that aptly summarizes the underlying sentiment of the books that I liked the best:

The definition of disease and of the insane, and the classification of the insane has been made in such a way as to exclude from our society a certain number of people… Nobody is more conservative than those people who tell you that the modern world is afflicted by nervous anxiety or schizophrenia. It is in fact a cunning way of excluding certain people or certain patterns of behaviour.

In other words, having trouble coping with the rhythms and patterns specific to our society doesn’t mean that you’re defective as a human being. It means that society has not cared to make in itself a place in itself for you, because sometimes society flat sucks.

This is disability activism in a nutshell, and a good lens for self compassion. If you take nothing else away from this post, take that.

Major kudos to the r/aspergirls wiki, where I sourced many of these books. And once again a huge thanks to @mykola for writing the twitter thread that started it all.

It has also occurred to me during this binge that there are probably decent guidebooks for people who are neurodiverse in other ways as well, and I should probably hunt them down and give them a read. With decent curation, that doesn’t seem like the worst way to discover universal human experiences that I don’t have (perma). Further reviews possibly to come.

Challenges facing Violence Against Women Shelters in Ottawa

[Epistemic effort: I’ve had a month for digesting what I heard, but haven’t actually set time aside to think hard about the implications. I have done my best to cross-reference all the claims that I noted down, but there may still be some mistakes remaining, and there’s a chance that I completely misinterpreted something that was said.]

I went to a roundtable discussion on the challenges faced by women’s shelters in the Ottawa region mid-November, and I realized that I was incredibly privileged in that government regime changes generally don’t affect me.

What do I mean by that? Well, I think there’s this general consensus around my social class, that politics are mostly a form of entertainment, and all of the head political figures all kind of channel Zaphod Beeblebrox while some 50 year old white dude with 30 years in the public service and a job title like Assistant Deputy Chief Underminster of Finance actually controls everything. It turns out that I was very, very wrong, and it’s just that the “middle” class is kind of untouchable politically. The Ford administration has actually meant that some urgently needed social services are now underfunded or defunded entirely, with severe implications for the subaltern classes. There are changes, and people’s lives have objectively gotten shittier. I just didn’t see it.

This realization has made me change from ambivalence to disapproval of my fellow leftists who are/identify as accelerationists, who think that we should just burn the entire current structure down and start anew, because according to them the system in place has a net negative impact on the world. Now that I know that this is not the case, my reaction is “hey buddy if you’re going to burn down this system that millions of people depend upon for some reason or another, you better have a dang good reason, because the people whose lives will be upended the most, and for the worse, will be your poor, your disabled, and your oppressed, not the well-off relatives that you resent for being xenophobic.“

In the specific case of the roundtable, I learned that  women’s shelters in Ontario lost funding, meaning they either didn’t get enough to keep up with wages and inflation, or actually had to cut the number of beds that they had, which was already pathetically few to begin with. Whatever number you had in mind, it’s lower than that. There are 121 in Ottawa as of 2016. Women who flee often flee because they want to protect their children, so each woman that you take in will generally require 2-3 beds. Women stay for 3-6 months while they get their lives in order to move on. So. Ottawa, a city with a population of almost a million, can support approximately 50-60 abused women at a time, and zero men. I am willing to bet money that that is not close to enough. Ottawa is not a uniquely bad city when it comes to supporting battered women; in fact it may be better than average. Society just flat sucks, in general. (If this information made you update your mental model on the services your city provides for women, I regretfully inform you that you should make approximately the same update w/r/t homeless shelters, resources for refugees, subsidized/community housing, support for queer youth, CPS, and so on and so forth.)

The other incredibly shitty thing is that when it comes to supporting the subaltern classes, funding models are exceedingly zero sum at times. Three years ago, women’s’ shelters here were able to ring up 311 (the municipal help line) when they had a woman on the line who needed to get out, but no room in their shelter or in any other shelter in the city. The city would hook them up with a room for, not 3-6 months, but a decent chunk of time. Now, because of rising housing costs and an influx of refugees, the motels, city shelters, and overflow rooms are all full, all the time,  and that is no longer an option for the shelters. This, by the way, is the case even though the mayor, who honestly seems like a pretty cool guy, spent $6.4m over budget last year on shelters.

And, the week after I went to this roundtable, Ford started cutting watchdogs for the province left and right, because according to the party they were ineffectual and therefore a waste of taxpayer dollars. Watchdogs were brought up as a topic during the roundtable discussion as well. According to the panelists, in general they weren’t the most efficient form of advocacy, because it’s hard to bite the hand that feeds you. But it was still useful, and it was provided at no cost to the shelters. Now, the shelters are preparing  to scrape at the splintered bottoms of their barrels to pay for advocacy themselves. I don’t like that, but I am generally not a fan of anything that our current government is doing, so that’s not a big surprise.

Misc notes:

  • Cities don’t have enough money to do anything in the “best” way that we are taught at City Planning School. The way “housing first” is supposed to work: “step one when a person becomes homeless is to give them a stable source of housing, so that they can keep their stuff, have an address which is very important for applying to jobs, and not fall apart mentally.” The way “housing first” works because there are approximately like, negative four affordable units in the city: the city will give you a subsidy of $250 a month for housing. But. Only after you’ve spent more than a cumulative total of 2 years in a homeless shelter, and are not addicted to any substances (“clean”). It is very hard to be clean, if you’ve spent 2 years homeless. Also, homeless shelters are not safe for women generally, so only men stay for long periods of time. This means that men got 80% of the “housing first” subsidies. By the time you get a house because of the “housing first” policy, you already lost most things that a house was supposed to give you.
  • Another fun thing is that, landlords that are familiar with the housing first policy will deliberately push their rents above the affordable housing threshold, because they don’t want “troubled” tenants. I won’t say that landlords are scum because of this, because I can see where they’re coming from. But this goes back to how severely problematic rent-seeking, and the idea of housing as a form of investment/passive income, is.
  • This should go without saying, but battered women will make bad decisions sometimes, like going back to their abuser after their shelter stay. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t help them, because a) you don’t know their circumstances and b) you would likely do the same in their shoes. These women [a/n: I feel really uncomfortable with how the shelters speak of their clientele exclusively using female pronouns, but I mean, they’re women’s shelters.] are doing incredibly draining crisis management on a day-to-day basis. They’re trying to keep food on the table and their kids quiet so they don’t get beat up. Recovery is non-linear. Don’t hold this against them.
  • Lots of women will “hold out” until the shelters have a bed available for them.
  • A common misconception is that a women’s shelter is like, a large hall with 60 beds in one room. In general they’re like motels, with individual suites – some with connecting rooms too or a dividing wall that can be brought in if there are older kids who need their own space, etc. Lots of times, the kids don’t even know that they’re staying at a shelter of some kind, their mothers tell them that they’re just going on a mini staycation or something.
  • We know the solution for solving all these problems – for raising women out of poverty, for effectively transitioning them away from abusive relationships. Things like having beds immediately available, providing childcare, and ensuring that they can keep their pets with them (because they are beloved members of the family, and also something that the abuser can threaten/injure/kill if it is left behind) all help women stay away. The only problem is that we don’t have money, and in fact we are losing funding. Ain’t that a bitch.
  • This year has been especially bad for women. In general, one woman is killed every six days. In 2018, the figure has shot up to 2.5-3.
  • On the bright side, #metoo has had a visible impact, and more women are seeking out shelters – older women, wealthier women, immigrant women.

De-Commodifying Housing for Fun (and Zero Profit)

I recently discovered this youtube channel that uses cities:skylines to explore the politics of planning. It’s pretty great. This one video in particular I think says a lot of important things about housing and gentrification, so I took notes. The notes are on the second half of the video, not because the first half isn’t good but because it goes over concepts I’m already familiar with. Everything below should be taken as basically a transcription of the ideas outlined in the video, i.e. I don’t own anything and if you find this useful you should consider kicking a few bucks his way.

so here we go:

Conventional methods of fighting gentrification:

More housing (YIMBY)
-YIMBYists are ragtag groups, varies wildly in quality (internet urbanists, development shills, actual anti-poverty activists), east coast groups generally more friendly to tenant rights

-Some nuances on luxury vs affordable housing:

-“luxury” is an advertising term, it basically means granite countertops, hardwood flooring, in house laundry, maybe a doorman. But the only real difference between luxury and affordable units is the rent.
 
 -The floor area is generally the same, because of minimum requirements, and the fact that shoebox apartments are generally illegal.
 
 -Luxury housing costing more (DESPITE BEING BASICALLY THE SAME) means higher ROI and less risk.

-“filtering” – some argue that luxury housing of today becomes affordable stock of tomorrow. This is basically trickle down economics, and even if by some miracle it works that way, at best it will take 20 years and buildings generally don’t last much longer than that (citation needed).

-older, worse buildings for poor people also means higher risk of displacement due to construction.

-land value tends to be higher where higher density is. We can argue cause and effect, but NYC and Hong Kong are both extremely built up and dense, but you don’t see units decreasing in price.
 
Downzoning

-Usually done through downzoning broad swathes of a neighbourhood (medium/high density to low density, meaning that new apartments won’t get approved) – but illegal conversions will still remain a thing as well as conversions made before downzoning

-Downzoning only serves to stave off problem of rising rents, it doesn’t change the fact that richer people want to move into the neighbourhood and are willing to pay a premium to do so. In addition, it means new units are limited in number. The community may have more control over the rate at which rent rises, but the problem still persists.

-zoning also obviously doesn’t cover renovations, so landlords can still renovate cheap units into expensive ones, which means that displacement of current residents will still happen.

Opposition of Neighbourhood Improvements

-opposing bike lanes, transit improvements, sidewalk improvements, etc.

-the idea is that even if the neighbourhood lands a good employer, it’s not likely that current residents would get the jobs there. Therefore improvements that might improve mobility/attract employers are generally opposed.

-following this line of logic, there will never be housing that is both good and cheap.

In general…

Yimbys and anti-gentrification activists are answering two different questions. Yimbys are asking “how do we fit everyone in?” Anti-gentrification activists are asking “how can we keep everyone already there in their houses?”

The truth isn’t in the middle (this isn’t south park). There is a pressing and urgent need for more housing in lots of cities, but those same cities are also going through eviction crises and mass displacement owing to the development of those desperately needed housing units.


The Actual Real Solution: The De-commodification of Housing

Housing needs to become just housing, and not also the default investment vehicle for large swathes of the population. Socialists talk a lot about this and tend to get patronizing responses like “haha, wow, everything’s possible after the revolution, right comrade?” but there are genuine actionable strategies to make this happen piecemeal in the current capitalistic political environment.

We can’t just pass a law that says “housing is de-commodified now, guys,” but anything that reduces the ability for landlords to extract rents from their tenants, or otherwise reduces their power over them, is de-commodification. Anything that provides housing at below market-prices, competing with the current profit-seeking model, is de-commodification. Policies that help homeowners afford foreclosure insurance, or otherwise support them when they are underwater on their mortgage, is de-commodification. Policy examples:

Co-operative ownership of apartment buildings.
 -A board elected by the tenants oversees the building(s) and makes decisions about maintenance and finances.
 -Plenty of these exist already, but mostly for the well off (baugruppe with private mini units and collective unschooling for the kids!!!!!)
 -Encouraging co-op housing would go a long way towards reducing the power of landlords.

Rent control.
 -limits rent increases per year to reasonable levels, or stops them entirely sometimes.

Guaranteed legal counsel in tenant-landlord court.

Improved and expanded tenant rights.

Community land trusts.
 -civic organizations that own and manage land and the buildings on them in a community.
 -they are organized by members of that community
 -they keep rents just high enough for maintenance purposes but lower than a for-profit entity would.

Increased availability of quality public housing.
 -you want make public housing cheaper than the market rate, and you want to open it to everyone and not just poor people. You have to build a lot of it and you have to make it accessible to jobs and services. Be as appealing, if not more appealing, than private sector alternatives.

Right of first refusal laws.
 -Already a thing in Washington DC (TOPA)
 -If an owner sells an apartment building, the tenants of that apartment building have the right to form a tenant association and purchase the building from the landlord, rather than the person the landlord is trying to sell it to.
 -In DC this generally requires the association to partner w another development firm to finance the purchase, but it still means that the tenants have more leverage to stay in the apartments, or to receive hefty buy-outs to leave.
 -Can also be applied to factories and manufacturers – workers get the option to buy the equipment and the factory and continue as a worker co-op
 
Vacancy taxes.
 -if an apartment or condo is vacant you have to pay an extra tax. Same goes for if you’re airbnbing it out.

Tenancy unions.

“Good-cause” eviction laws.
 -laws that impose major restrictions on what can result in a tenant’s eviction.

Stricter licensing requirements for landlords and stiffer penalties for failure to keep apartments in good condition.
 -Landlords sometimes let the building they own rot so tenants are forced to move out, and then turn around and sell it to a developer – who was going to demolish it and build new housing on top anyways.
 -Better monitoring and implementing actual consequences for illegal conversions, slumlords


So all of this would work towards making it much harder to make money off of housing. It curbs speculation and decreases profit possible from rent-seeking. Effectively, the idea is to make housing useless as an investment, and therefore only to put people in. Now obviously this makes it less financially viable for the private sector to build housing, since the profits from speculation and rent-seeking would disappear, or be significantly reduced. But it wouldn’t be impossible. The value of housing would simply be based on its usefulness as a house, rather than as an investment vehicle.

All the policies mentioned above have been implemented in at least one or two cities, but having these policies work together and full de-commodification would have to go further. We also don’t really know what that might look like. People’s retirement savings are tied to their houses and huge parts of our economy are based on appreciation of real estate holdings. Policies that de-commodify housing will hurt the economy as we know it, pretty significantly. But if we want to live in a world without rent or landlords or homelessness or gentrification, it’s a risk we’ll have to be willing to take.