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Patrick Luciani: A better homeless solution for Canada: Follow Houston, not Seattle

Commentary

This past summer, the City of Toronto made the right decision to move the homeless out of city parks. It was good for the homeless, those who use the parks, and the city. Otherwise, Toronto was going down the same disastrous route as big West Coast American cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

When the police and city workers moved in to clear the parks, hundreds of protesters showed up trying to stop the police from clearing the encampments. There was also a smattering of support throughout the city with signs of “We welcome our homeless neighbours in parks.”

Why would these poverty advocates and progressives want to keep the homeless—many with mental health and drug addictions problems—living in substandard conditions? These makeshift camps were dirty, unsafe, and littered with trash and discarded needles. It’s not as if the homeless were abandoned; most were taken to shelters or hotels throughout the city. Yet protesters insisted that squatters be allowed to live rough in public parks.

There are two possible answers; the first has to do with the political use of the poor for PR reasons. This is sometimes called the Principal-Agent problem, where the agent works against the principal’s interests, in this case, the poor. Agents, or advocates, need the homeless living in tents as a constant reminder to society of the failure of an elite political and economic system that keeps part of the population in abject poverty.

Cynical? Yes, but let’s not underestimate the power these tent cities have on the emotional appeal to the public.

Second, progressives see the world as a complex relationship where the powerful oppress those without. This comes directly from the playbook of post-modern thinking about mental illness and crime as “social constructs.”

Eliminate mental illness as a medical condition, and the homeless are just victims of society. Such thinking has had a powerful effect on modern psychiatric thinking over the past few decades. Deinstitutionalization is now considered a marginal success at best; 75 percent of homeless women suffer from some form of mental illness.

As far as crime is concerned, extremists on the left advocate radical reform to the point of abolishing all forms of punishment. The underlying foundation for the defund-the-police movement is based on the premise that crime is just another way of “getting by” for a segment of society.

Travelling down that road will surely lead to more homelessness and crime.

In Seattle, 51 percent of the homeless migrated from other cities.

A recent article by Christopher Rufo for the Manhattan Institute suggests a reason why. Rufo outlines how the left and right think differently about the homeless by turning to the insights of American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt argues that progressives and liberals, in the modern sense of that word, have an optimistic view of human nature and are more concerned with care, fairness, and the belief that the homeless are victims of circumstances. On the other hand, conservatives value compassion, respect, cleanliness, obeying the law, self-control, and the obligations of individuals to their community or group. The right also has a more sober view of human nature.

Rufo puts both of these attitudes to the test as to which makes better public policy.

Contrary to perceived wisdom and media coverage, homelessness in the United States has declined in 40 states from 2009 to 2019. However, homelessness has increased in California, Oregon and Washington, which account for a third of the U.S. homeless population. In the case of Los Angeles and Houston, two cities with comparable climate—as a factor in attracting the homeless—Houston has seen a steady decline in homelessness by 54 percent over the past decade, while increasing 24 percent in San Francisco, 15 percent in Los Angeles and 25 percent in Seattle.

Houston’s successful approach, called compassionate enforcement, was achieved not only with supportive social policies but with an emphasis on enforcing the law by forbidding minor crimes such as panhandling and windshield washers.

West Coast cities have moved in the opposite direction by allowing illegal camps to expand, encouraging drug injection sites, and decriminalizing theft under $950. Progressives also see law enforcement as the problem and not the solution. In Seattle, local politicians even opposed hosing down feces-covered sidewalks “because hoses supposedly have racist connotations.” Rufo’s article also states that homeless addicts are almost a hundred times more likely to commit crimes than the average citizen.

The homeless have been generally seen as a group immune to conventional economic incentives. We now know they act rationally by moving to cities and communities that provide readily available social services, have low levels of law enforcement, and tolerate petty crime. In Seattle, 51 percent of the homeless migrated from other cities.

Moving squatters to safer shelters is a start, but without a vigilant attitude, we know they’ll be back. The objective is to balance the provision of public service while maintaining public order. Canada’s major cities have a choice to make: follow the West Coast model or that of Houston. Given the results so far, the decision seems straightforward.

Chris Spoke: Doug Ford’s path to victory this election? Housing

Commentary

The Ontario provincial election campaign is starting to ramp up. With just seven months to E-Day, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives (PCPO) have established a regular cadence of press conferences, policy announcements and campaign ads.

And with these press conferences, announcements, and ads a theme is beginning to emerge.

What do you think about when you think about Doug Ford and the PCPO? (Let’s set COVID-19 aside for this exercise.)

It might be the use of ministerial zoning orders to fast track housing development, which has drawn equal amounts of praise and criticism. It might be the proposal for a new highway in the Greater Toronto Area, Highway 413, which has also drawn equal amounts of praise and criticism.

Maybe it’s recent pronouncements by the premier that Ontario is looking to attract new immigrants who are ready to work and not those who aren’t. Again, equal parts praise and criticism.

More recently, you might think about new legislation that has been introduced by the ministry of labour to remove work certification barriers for immigrants and to ban or limit the use of non-compete agreements by employers.

As far as I can tell, this all points to a clear and compelling campaign theme:

“It’s time to build.”

In fact, this theme is made explicit in the party’s latest ad: “We are the only party looking to the future, and we’re ready to build.”

Liberal Party leader Steven Del Duca, for his part, has been reinforcing this theme, and falling on the other side of it, with his proposals for a four day workweek and a basic income pilot.

“It’s time to chill.”

If the recent federal election is any indication, this next provincial election will be mostly about one thing: housing.

Justin Trudeau and Erin O’Toole both made housing a priority in their campaigns, no doubt informed by survey data pointing to housing affordability as a top five priority across the country and the top priority in the GTA.

When going into a housing election, it’s probably a good idea to be positioned as the party that’s ready to build.

I’ve written before about how housing is expensive because there’s not enough of it, how there’s not enough of it because municipal land use rules stand in the way, and how municipal land use rules are enforced and defended by municipal councillors catering to their nimby-constituents.

Doug Ford should read that three-part sentence and think, “This is how I win.

Here’s the thing: housing is most expensive in our large urban centres, and the decreasing affordability of surrounding regions is a direct consequence of not building much more housing in those large urban centres.

People work downtown but they live where they can afford to. They “drive till they qualify” and these days, that means farther and farther away.

Ontario’s three largest population centres are Toronto, Ottawa, and Hamilton.

In 2018, the PCPO didn’t win any ridings in Toronto outside of Etobicoke and south of Eglinton, any ridings in Hamilton at all, and just two of six ridings in Ottawa.

It may sound counterintuitive, but this could be a big opportunity for Doug Ford. While those cities’ municipal councillors might need to cater to their NIMBY constituents, along with the LPO and provincial NDP, the PCPO emphatically does not.

The PCPO has not yet revealed what the next phase of its Housing Supply Action Plan will look like, but it should, and soon. It should also be aggressive about it.

Housing is a great issue for conservatives for a few reasons.

First, as mentioned above, conservatives are uniquely able to position themselves in opposition to the architects of our housing crisis — namely, those urban progressive voters and municipal councillors who have prioritized neighbourhood character protection over new housing supply.

Second, housing affordability gets improved through deregulation (or land use liberalization), and conservatives love deregulation. It’s been their thing for the last 40 years, at least. 

Third, conservative parties need to expand their base, and that means becoming more appealing to young urban professionals.

Housing affordability is an Uber-like issue. It benefits young urban professionals most of all, and requires a common-sense solution (bust the cartel!) that is broadly agreed upon on non-partisan terms.

Finally, improving housing affordability — that is, allowing for much more housing in large urban centres — would be a boon to productivity, innovation, and economic growth. Three more things that Conservatives love.

It might just be the perfect issue at the perfect time. Making the most of it, however, will require bold and direct policy action paired with clear and concise communication, and that’s not always been forthcoming from Doug Ford and the PCPO.

For the sake of everyone who would benefit from improved housing affordability (which is basically everyone), we should hope that they get this right.

It’s time to build.