It’s a bad week for chief planners. Following last Tuesday’s news that Halifax chief planner Bob Bjerke lost his job, Toronto’s chief planner announced yesterday that she’ll be stepping down. Jennifer Keesmaat has been chief planner and executive director of the city’s planning division since 2012 and will be vacating her position at the end of September.

In an interview with CBC, Keesmaat admitted that she always planned to review her career options after five years in the public service. Before working for the City in its highest-ranking planning job, she was a planning consultant. She is also very involved in the Canadian Institute of Planners, in recent years spearheading an effort to maintain the national organization rather than have just provincial/territorial licensing bodies. She is known for speaking her mind, even when that puts her at odds with Mayor John Tory. In particular, she championed a seven-stop LRT line to replace the aging Scarborough RT and advocated for the removal of the Gardiner East expressway. Many cite her as responsible for maintaining the agenda of sustainable planning in Toronto through the Ford and Tory regimes. Critics have said she’s too outspoken, too interested in stating her own opinion rather than giving more neutral advice, and takes to Twitter to engage in debates (we’ve seen a lot of this recently, but Keesmaat has been doing it since 2012).

Keesmaat certainly possesses many of the characteristics necessary for such a high-ranking position in Canada’s largest city: she’s media-savvy, determined, smart, engages the public in more transparent decision-making, and tackles issues that appeal to younger generations, such as sustainable transportation. She is the city’s first female chief planner and was just 42 years old when she got the job (it was a young administration–Mayor Rob Ford was only 43 at the time). Christopher Hume portrayed her as a novice in the Toronto Star, writing that she “quickly found out that the chief planner’s role is to advise not decide”, but I’d argue that she already knew exactly how planning worked at a municipality the day she was hired. The fact that she obtained the position of chief planner despite her inexperience as a civil servant, and kept it despite disagreements with those in power, demonstrates her political savviness. As we know from Halifax and Vancouver, it’s not unusual for chief planners to be ousted when their vision for the city conflicts with those of other powerful figures.

Many have expressed their support for Keesmaat should she run for public office, but she seems to excel at planning. Let’s hope she brings more of her expertise to Toronto’s critical infrastructure projects.

On March 22, the federal budget was announced, including $2.2 billion over the next 11 years to cities for transit projects, part of $11.9 million that would be allocated to infrastructure. The Liberal government commited to 50% of the funding for municipal projects. This week, municipalities across the country announced how they would use the much-needed funding for public transit infrastructure.

In British Columbia, the federal announcement was matched by the Province’s commitment to contribute another $2.2 billion, allowing regional authority TransLink to move ahead with Phase 2 of a ten-year plan in Vancouver. Projects will include the Broadway subway, which TransLink has wanted to build for over 20 years, Surrey light rail transit, replacement of the Pattullo Bridge, expanding bus and HandyDART services, more railcars and upgrades to the roads, cycling and walking networks.

The big news in Hamilton and Niagara Falls was that they will get all-day GO Transit service, with a contribution of $1.7 billion. Both municipalities also received funding for their bus services. Niagara Falls Transit will use their $3.4 million in federal funding (which will be matched by the city) to develop a real-time “next bus” app, buy new buses, update a transit hub, update its fleet management software, buy and install new fare boxes and allow online booking and management for its specialized curb-to-curb transit system. Hamilton will use its $32 million in federal funding for 13 projects including a bus storage and maintenance facility, new buses, rehabilitation of transit shelters and bus stops, automatic passenger counters, transit priority measures, and improvements at the Mountain Transit Centre.

In Guelph, $9.6 million federal funding will allow the municipality to buy new buses, replace fare boxes, upgrade bus stops, and upgrade the traffic control system. London’s proposed bus rapid transit system will get a boost, in addition to the transformation of Dundas Street in the core into a pedestrian-first “flex street”, replacement of all of London Transit’s bus shelters, and construction of protected bicycle lanes downtown.

Winnipeg announced 33 projects that will be jointly funded by the three levels of government including replacement buses, new bus shelters and handi-vans. The federal government’s 50% of the projects amounts to about $3.1 million, while the province will pay $1.5 million and municipalities will cover about $2 million.

Of the total $11.9 billion allocated for infrastructure, the federal budget sets out $2.2 billion for water and waste management in First Nations communities, $2 billion for the Clean Water and Wastewater fund, $1.5 billion for affordable housing, and $1.2 billion in social infrastructure for First Nations, Inuit, and northern communities. All this spending will come at a cost: the federal budget will not be balanced during the fourth year of the Liberal mandate as promised.

In experiential learning, students work on a real-world project, building the skills they will need after graduation and contributing their knowledge to a community organization, municipal department or other client. Experiential learning is a natural fit for the urban planning discipline, but has been used in fields as diverse as social work, biology, and computer engineering. At some universities, like the University of Oregon, the university partners with a different municipality each year, the municipality provides a list of projects they need help with, and different departments commit to developing workable solutions. It’s a win-win situation: students get the experience they need and often small municipalities or organizations without sufficient human resources are able to get projects completed.

As some of you know, last fall I taught my first urban design studio here in the Dalhousie University School of Planning. We focused on Mulgrave Park, a public housing community built in the north end of Halifax using federal-provincial funds in 1960. The students each  developed a small-scale proposal to improve the open and social spaces in Mulgrave Park. They included information for the client, the Mulgrave Park Caring and Learning Centre, on how such a proposal could be implemented and funded. One student, Justin Gosse, conducted an analysis of the retaining walls and their conditions on the steep site, suggesting ways in which they could be modified in the future. His project, in addition to other student work surveying the retaining walls, is informing Housing Nova Scotia as they proceed with detailed design and repair of the walls and infrastructure badly in need of repairs. As part of an effort to preserve social housing in Canada, the federal and provincial governments announced today that they will fund repairs to Mulgrave Park. The funding will pay for badly needed exterior building repairs, the restoration of crumbling retaining walls, and burying services. Construction will run from July 2017 until spring 2019.

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MP Andy Fillmore announces the $5 million in improvements in front of the students’ posters

MP Andy Fillmore (second from left) and Elaine Williams (second from left), a lifelong Mulgrave Park resident, at the announcement

MP Andy Fillmore (second from left) and Elaine Williams (second from right), a lifelong Mulgrave Park resident and President of the Mulgrave Park Tenants’ Association, at the announcement

The work of other students, including Amy Greenberg (window boxes with flowering plants for residents), Mona Al-Sharari (second community garden and greenhouse), Leen Romaneh (perception of safety), and Yuedi (Martin) Zhan (lighting) is also being integrated into future improvements at Mulgrave Park.

Congratulations to these fourth-year Bachelor of Community Design students, and to the often-overlooked residents of Mulgrave Park, who will benefit from these improvements for years to come. Our client Crystal John, Director of the Caring and Learning Centre, is very excited to think about the improvements coming soon! Crystal grew up in the neighbourhood and like many others living there, is truly invested in improving the community; her sister Elaine Williams, pictured with Andy Fillmore at the announcement, has also done a lot of work to improve conditions in the neighbourhood. Metro News reported that Elaine was in tears at the announcement, having campaigned for improvements for many years.

 

Screen Shot 2017-02-17 at 12.41.40 PMI’m pleased to announce this year’s planning conference organized by the Dalhousie School of Planning students. Their theme this year is public transit, and the guest speakers include transit experts from the US and Europe. Below is the students’ summary of the conference.
Dalhousie School of Planning SHIFT: In Transit Conference

Dalhousie School of Planning students invite you to share your thoughts on how to better shape our community at a two-day conference on the topic of community public transit, March 2-4. The event, which will take place in the Halifax Central Library and the Dalhousie Medjuck Building, will feature keynote speakers, workshops, and breakout sessions.

Topics include the current state of transit in the HRM and Nova Scotia, possibilities for the federal Green Infrastructure Fund, the Integrated Mobility Plan, transit equity, and the future of transit. Attendees can take part in visioning and design exercises and a short film festival. There will also be panels with local politicians from all levels of government. The event is free. Light food and refreshments will be provided.

Keynote speakers are Monica Tibbits-Nutt, a Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority Board Member with over a decade of experience working in transit in the Greater Boston Area; Andreas Rohl, with seven years as the Director of the Bicycle Programme in the City of Copenhagen and an associate for Gehl People; Kurt Luhrsen, the Vice President of Planning at Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County in Houston, Texas with twenty years experience working in transit and known for leading the overhaul of Houston’s transit system; and David Bragdon, a politician and civic leader who served under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration as the Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability and is now the Executive Director of TransitCenter, Inc., which does research and advocacy work for urban transportation.

“Imagine a Nova Scotia where public transit is the best option for everyone. Let’s start connecting communities today.”

More information can be found at:

Website: www.dalhousieplanningconference.com

Facebook: Facebook.com/dalshiftconference

Many cities offer free or discounted transit passes for the low-income population, which can include seniors and students. Vancouver’s TransLink offers seniors lower-priced travel in the evenings and on weekends. The very successful U-Pass (universal pass) program for university students: thirty Canadian universities offer students subsidized passes through partnerships with local transit providers. The University of Washington adopted the U-Pass in 1991, and currently offers students unlimited transit for just $84 per quarter (just $28 per month). Such programs show recognition that moving around the city is a right, not a privilege–and one that is often denied to those most in need of reliable transportation to access education or work opportunities.

Halifax Transit piloted a program in 2016 to offer discounted transit passes to 500 low-income riders. For half the price of a regular pass ($39/month), people who need the service the most were able to access it. Halifax Regional Municipality’s standing transportation committee agreed in late January to make the service permanent, and now the program needs the approval of the regional council. It is estimated that the program will cost the HRM about $160,000 per year. The program will provide discounted passes to 1,000 riders this year, targeting HRM residents with a gross household income of $33,000. The number of passes provided could increase in the future.

This is a far cry from TTC’s proposed Fair Pass program, which will cost $4.6 million in its first year and require a subsidy from the City. In December 2016, the TTC obtained Council approval to offer discounted Metro Passes to low-income residents; the program is expected to offer discounted fares to Toronto residents making up to 15% more than the low-income measure, beginning in 2018. Although the program will cost the TTC a lot in lost revenue, the report to council outlined that the cost of a Metropass had risen 30% since 2009, while minimum wage has only increased by 20%. Reports of residents walking miles so that they could make doctor’s appointments, job interviews, or pick up children from school are commonplace in Toronto, as the cost of tickets and passes has outstripped wages. Calgary, Waterloo, and Burlington are among other Canadian cities to offer discounted passes for low-income residents.

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Some of the units in Mulgrave Park have private yards

At the Dalhousie School of Planning, students in our Bachelor of Community Design have two chances to work on a project with a client in their final year. In fall, they choose either urban design or environmental planning studio, and in winter they work as a group on another planning project. This fall, I’m teaching the studio in urban design. As my expertise is in housing and transportation planning, I sought a client that would be interested in a project in one of these areas.

Like many cities, Halifax is facing some serious housing affordability issues. Three years ago the Halifax Regional Municipality partnered with CMHC, United Way, and several public health authorities on a Housing and Homelessness Partnership which has already released a Housing Needs Assessment outlining some key areas the region needs to focus on: more rental housing, housing for smaller households, and a focus on those with incomes in the bottom five deciles.

Our client, the Mulgrave Park Caring and Learning Centre, illustrates some of these challenges. As a non-profit organization developed by community members, they are filling in the gaps of service provision in a neighbourhood developed in a complicated era. Mulgrave Park is one of Canada’s first public housing communities. Built through the now-controversial urban renewal process in the 1950s and 1960s which involved demolishing existing “slum” housing and rehousing tenants elsewhere, Mulgrave Park was designed by CMHC architects in 1959 to take in those displaced in other downtown neighbourhoods through the Central Area Redevelopment Plan.

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Crystal (in white) shows the students around the site

The community is tight-knit, with the average household living there between 5-10 years and several returning residents. Two of those who grew up in the community and returned to help improve it are Crystal John, Director of the Caring and Learning Centre, and Maurice James, Coordinator of the Phoenix Youth and Community Centre. Another initiative in the community is Progress in the Park. Jurisdictional issues aside, municipal councillor Jennifer Watts has also been a critical advocate for the community, helping them build a community garden and hold a community-building event involving street painting.

In the quintessential Modernist style, the community has huge concrete retaining walls to deal with the steep slopes down to the waterfront, very little private space for tenants, no community services, and minimal space for social activities or playground spaces. As in other public housing communities, the maintenance of the community (open spaces and the buildings themselves) has been left to an often cash-strapped Provincial government, who oversees the Metropolitan Regional Housing Authority. Like many areas of the city (e.g. parts of the waterfront owned by the federal government), jurisdictional issues have complicated the maintenance of the community, any proposed changes, and daily issues such as how tenants’ concerns are addressed.

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Most of the open spaces on the site are too steep to be used as gathering places or for children playing

Due to operating agreements between CMHC and the Province, Mulgrave Park residents are left without many of the basic services that other Halifax residents take for granted–for example, until recently there was no playground for children, or a spot for residents to garden. The Housing Authority allowed the Caring and Learning Centre and Phoenix  to take over former housing units for their operations , since there was no community centre to base activities like employment programs for youth, cooking classes for kids or tenant association meetings.

Our class spent a couple of weeks learning about the history of Mulgrave Park, including the working class Richmond community established in the late 1800s that was destroyed by the 1917 Halifax explosion. After lying vacant during the interwar era and hosting temporary Wartime Housing for military personnel during the Second World War, the decision to use the land for public housing was facilitated in the 1950s by amendments to the National Housing Act allowing the provincial and federal governments to collaborate on building public housing, and to build new commercial development in central neighbourhoods provided that new housing was built for the displaced residents. The City of Halifax had previously expressed interest in slum clearance of valuable central neighbourhood lands in the Depression and wartime years, but it was Gordon Stephenson’s 1957 report that sealed the deal.

We visited the site on September 21st, with a walking tour by Crystal and Maurice, who answered many of the students questions about issues such as: what spaces in the community are used by children, youth, and the entire community; private versus public space; landscape elements; and maintenance issues. We’ll be visiting again at night to see things like lighting, pedestrian safety and other issues in the neighbourhood. Students will be presenting a historical analysis next week, and then will decide on a design approach for the social and open spaces in the neighbourhood. By the end of October they will each have focused on a particular design or programming element that reinforces the overall design approach. Then they will develop a report that evaluates and prioritizes the different elements, which we will present to the community.

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Clotheslines used to allow the residents to socialize informally, but they have been discouraged and mostly removed by the housing authority

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Councillor Jennifer Watts was instrumental in creating a community garden with individual plots for residents

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Street painting linking Phoenix Youth Centre with the Caring and Learning Centre was enabled through the HRM Community Grants program

 

 

 

 

As most of you know, Canadians will soon have a National Housing Strategy. At this point, the federal government in conducting consultations on the strategy, and there are many ways that citizens, housing organizations, community groups, and others can get involved.

There is a survey on the site www.letstalkhousing.ca if you haven’t already taken it. There’s also a spot that you can use to upload comments or ideas in the form of a document. You can do both of these before October 19. Since students in my fourth-year Bachelors course are currently working on a project in a public housing community, I’m having them upload their ideas on affordable housing to the National Housing Strategy website next week.

Housing, public health, and community organizations have been involved through a national stakeholder roundtable and expert roundtable. A huge variety of issues discussed including:

  • options for allowing seniors to stay in their homes as long as possible through accessibility modifications
  • rehabilitation of on-reserve housing and involvement of Indigenous communities on CMHC boards on the development of new housing
  • better access to financing options for individuals, including assistance for new homebuyers who want to move out of rental housing
  • better communications strategies between agencies to ensure better maintenance of public housing
  • removing barriers such as lengthy development permit processes
  • tax incentives for rental housing such as deferring taxes if a rental building is sold and the proceeds reinvested in a new rental building
  • allowing the federal government to support municipalities in deferring development charges for rental housing
  • immediate rehabilitation of existing social units
  • a more sustainable operating model for social housing
  • portable housing benefits, paid up to the cost of actual rent, leaving the tenant with choice

A major emphasis on Indigenous housing (quality, financing, roles and responsibilities of institutions) was a common thread, and I doubt anyone would argue that this is severely needed. Another main theme was providing options across the housing continuum. As we know, all three levels of government and the private sector are necessary for more stable, long-term initiatives in affordable housing but the federal government and CMHC were repeatedly singled out for leadership in developing strategies and partnerships. You can view videos of the closing sessions here, and transcripts will soon be available: https://www.letstalkhousing.ca/media/video/index.cfm

I encourage everyone to participate through the website, and stay in touch for updates on this exciting new federal policy by subscribing to updates (there’s an option to include your email address at the end of the survey). The government is planning to release a summary of this first consultation phase on November 22.

As most of you know, I’m currently a Visiting Professor at the University of Oregon at the Department of Planning, Public Policy, and Management. One of the reasons I took the position was the university’s amazing Sustainable City Year Program, which has been running for six years now. This year’s partner is the City of Redmond, a rapidly growing city of about 20,000 on the east side of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon’s High Desert. The City identified a list of projects in the spring of 2015 that they needed help with, and the result is 22 courses at the university focused on Redmond.

I’ve been working hard at designing one of my winter term courses, Housing Policy, around one of Redmond’s identified interests. They adopted an Affordable Housing Strategy in 2007, which was unfortunate timing with the mortgage crisis striking the US the following year. Now that it’s time to review the strategy, Redmond is looking for ideas on the AHS.

I typically design my courses with a lecture on one day and an application and reflection activity on the next–Oregon courses are always on two separate days (Tues/Thurs or Mon/Wed). For this course, the students will be divided into groups, with one focusing on the policy side and the other on the implementation side.

  • On the policy project, students will review the AHS and Comprehensive Plan, as well as other relevant policy documents. They will be looking for areas of overlap and points of implementation for key AHS strategies.
  • On the implementation side, students will be designing an interview guide that they will use in interviewing key informants (planners, housing associations, community groups) to determine barriers to implementation of current and proposed AHS strategies.

Students will be able to work on the group project during the weekly application and reflection sessions. This is a mixed undergraduate/graduate course, with eight undergrads and three grads. It’s similar in makeup to a course I taught last term, Seminar in Sustainable Transportation. This does require some extra thought in terms of assignments, in this case getting the Masters students to be responsible for managing the projects and making sure everyone is following the schedule, for a separate grade.

Tomorrow we start off with a bang, and Friday we have our field trip to Redmond where we’ll meet with Grant Program Manager Chelsea Dickens and Assistant Program Administrator Ginny McPherson. I’ll be updating you from time to time on the course.

The municipalities of Niagara Falls, St. Catharines and Welland moved a step closer to a regional transit system this week when St. Catherines City Council voted to endorse a plan to combine services in the three cities.

Since 2011 Niagara Region, the upper-tier government which includes the three lower-tier municipal governments, has granted funds to Niagara Falls Transit, St. Catharines Transit and Welland Transit in a pilot project to allow the three bus systems to work together. In September 2014, Niagara Region voted to extend the pilot until spring 2017.

A memorandum of understanding and business model would be the next steps if the other two cities endorse the plan. A regional system could possibly serve other smaller centres like Grimsby, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Port Colborne, if a cost-sharing model could be developed–for example, towns could designate a percentage of their transportation budgets towards regional transit if they don’t already have their own services. Transit providers in the three systems say they already have a good working relationship, meeting on a regular basis and discussing future changes with a joint committee. The larger municipalities already have arrangements to provide services to the smaller centres of Port Colborne, Thorold and Fort Erie.

The pilot project has been successful, with many residents voicing their support of intermunicipal bus service to local councillors. Niagara Region’s motion to extend the pilot by 20 months passed by a vote of 26-1. The Region’s role in a future intermunicipal transit service is still unclear, because it must have the support of a triple majority–a majority of those on council, a majority of local councils (seven of 12) that represent a majority of eligible voters, which seems unlikely. Advocates of a regional system include the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network, who say that a single-fare system across municipalities is critical for low-income communities. The long-term goal of system and fare integration seems to be the extension of LRT service to Niagara Region.

Other regions in Canada are also moving towards regional transit services–Edmonton and St. Albert are considering joining their services in order to speed up a proposed LRT extension to St. Albert. There are currently eight transit systems operating independently in Alberta’s Capital Region. Toronto is slowly moving towards a regional system with the introduction of Presto cards across the region allowing fare integration between the eight existing systems, the provincial priority of 15-minute all-day service on the region’s GO train system, and service improvements leading to a 10-minute frequent transit network in Toronto.

Real estate speculation happens across the country, but is particularly popular in our largest cities. Some say foreign ownership and speculation is driving housing prices up for local residents: wealthy investors living in far-off countries buy housing with no intention of living in it. But should the government step in and regulate the practice of flipping houses?

Just a month ago, the Simon Fraser University Urban Studies program held a symposium on housing affordability. Their data-packed brochure indicated that Vancouver has been second to last in housing affordability for the past six years, and 40% of residents consider the high cost of housing to be the most important issue in the city. The city’s annual homeless count has identified an increasing number of homeless people in the city–some 2,700 people in 2014 compared to about 1,100 in 2002. While 35% of homes in Vancouver are rented, only 17% of new construction was purpose built rental housing. Urban Futures has done a number of studies on foreign ownership: in one, they found that the 2011 Census (National Household Survey) showed that Vancouver didn’t have an excessive level of foreign occupancy–that is, about 1.4% of the apartment units in the city were occupied by foreign or temporary residents, but there are no Census data that specify their citizenship, length of stay, or that support a thesis on foreign investment. In another, they found that only 0.4% of purchases in the region in 2010 were made by people living outside of Canada. But an article in the New Yorker last year quoted a report from Sotheby’s International Realty Canada: in the first half of 2013, foreign buyers accounted for nearly half of luxury home sales in Vancouver.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson announced on Friday that he has proposed that the BC government develop a speculation tax who “buy a home just to make a quick buck” by selling it 6 months later. He’s asking Vision voters to support the call for a new tax on investors, and other tools like an increased property tax on the most expensive residential properties with proceeds invested in new affordable housing.

“Together, we can send a message that housing shouldn’t just be an investment commodity – it should be for living in.” –Mayor Gregor Robertson

Less than two days after Robertson’s announcement, a petition started circulating in Toronto calling on Brad Duguid, Minister of Economic Development, Employment, and Infrastructure, to restrict foreign investment in residential real estate in the Toronto region. As of 5 pm today Shaan Brach’s petition had 10,491 supporters.

I’m sure that the Liberal governments of both Ontario and BC will shy away from regulating real estate speculation and taxing the rich, but nevertheless the petition and call for a new tax do raise several troubling questions: who should be allowed to buy housing in Canada? Should the government (either provincial or federal) intervene when housing prices climb too high for the average person or household to afford? And if so, how should this be done?

Canadian governments have a history of intervening when market conditions create affordability issues for local residents or when housing conditions are poor. Forty years ago, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation was busy supporting the development of co-operative and non-profit housing with the ample funding of the federal government. The federal government helped develop co-operative housing from 1973-1991, establishing long-term operating agreements coinciding with the length of the mortgage. They also had programs to help first time homebuyers, supplement rents, and rehabilitate housing in historic and central neighbourhoods. But over the years, their balanced approach to housing affordability changed. The two ends of the spectrum (households with very low incomes and homeowners with enough equity to buy) continued to benefit, but programs that helped renters and low- to middle-income households were gradually dropped.

Municipalities and developers have also introduced innovative solutions to housing affordability:

  • Equity loans–Toronto’s Option for Homes and the City of Saskatoon/Affinity Credit Union Equity Building Program help people move into affordable ownership by loaning purchasers a small percentage of the downpayment
  • Shared equity–at SFU, units in the Verdant building are reserved for university faculty and staff and resale prices are restricted to 20% below market value), and community land trusts.
  • Affordable Housing Trusts–municipalities such as Vancouver, Surrey, Richmond, Coquitlam, and Whistler have developed housing trusts through legislation and with the cooperation of the BC government

The issue of foreign investors driving up housing prices is critical in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, but there’s no quick fix for the affordability problems that took decades to create. In cities like Calgary, Fort McMurray, and Kelowna, affordability is still a major issue even without high levels of foreign investment. In Edmonton, 33.5% of all condominium units are rented. Researchers and policymakers across the country have been trying to find and implement the solutions for at least two decades. A speculation tax would only be part of the solution, but combined with better rent controls and a higher high-end property tax whose revenues would be used to build and maintain housing of different types for different income levels, it could be a good start. We definitely need an increased role for the provincial and federal governments in affordable housing, but that’s not news.