Consultation is not consent – reflecting on community participation in a city planning process

(*See a point-by-point quick summary of the differences between the Low-Income Caucus’s plan and the City’s DTES Local Area Plan here)

The DTES Local Area Planning Process is rapidly winding down to an unsatisfactory conclusion. When low-income caucus members

petition on the street for our demands, we feel overwhelming support. Community members favour building much more social housing, so that they won’t be displaced and can afford to live here. They want to control the spread of high-end stores and create better services which meet our needs in a dignified way.

Cartoon by Diane Wood
Cartoon by Diane Wood

But the spirit of the sprawling 183 page draft report is very alien to what we are hearing on the street. Not everything in the report is bad but overall it falls extremely short of what low-income residents want and deserve.

How did this happen?

As an original DNC board member, I helped negotiate the LAPP terms of reference. We reached enough agreement to proceed. The City signed off on a mandate which aimed to improve the lives of local residents, particularly the low-income and vulnerable. It agreed to work in partnership with the LAPP committee that consisted of a low-income majority and fully reflected its diverse nature (women, aboriginal, people of colour, etc.).

However, as soon as the committee was formed, the City begun to back pedal and revert to all its bad habits and ways of doing things. This was hardly a surprise. Although many objections were raised by the LAPP committee, it lacked the ability to block the City from doing what it wanted.

During the process we felt the City staff were avoiding the terms of reference. In the latest public City document, the “interests of all” has replaced any reference to low-income community. City staff have claimed it is just a change of wording to make the report more widely acceptable. But to low-income reps it was a violation of the signed commitment and a surrender to pro-gentrification pressures. It is a clear statement that the Local Area Plan would not rock the boat or change existing power relationships in favour of low-income and oppressed people.

Gallery Gachet LAPP representative Karen Ward at the City's open house on housing
Gallery Gachet LAPP representative Karen Ward at the City’s open house on housing

Low-income reps did get to speak their mind. But they felt their words were ignored, filtered and diluted. We tried to convey a sense of urgency and express the deep anger and extreme frustration community members felt about rapid gentrification. However the draft report is as bland and non-committal as possible and it lacks any sense of outrage or passion for social justice.

City staff often monopolized LAPP meetings with lengthy presentations. And committee members were buried in never ending mountains of paper filled with inaccessible mumbo jumbo. The vague language often skirted key issues and was lacking in clear commitments.

Questions were not always answered promptly. We had asked the City for a definition of social housing from the beginning and it was not given till late in the process.

Despite the efforts of some LAPP committee members, City-organized meetings and surveys did not reflect the social composition of the community. The sample was heavily weighted to those with higher income and home-owners who found it easier to deal with complicated reports and had full online access.

Meanwhile city staff on their own produced a lengthy 183 page report. This confirmed the feeling of low-income members that we had been taken for a long ride in which the major decisions were made elsewhere.

At the same time, pro-gentrification groups opposed to more low-income social housing and controls on condos and businesses began to organize. Much of this was done in closed-door meetings with the City. They also began to woo organizations seeking benefits and funding from development.

There are differences in every community. Handled well they can be healthy. But when groups that have a proven history of working for social justice and low-income community interests (like CCAP and the original DNC) are regularly trashed, it becomes a soap opera and huge distraction.

The current DNC board eventually succeeded in removing Herb Varley, a young aboriginal man and LAPP co-chair, from the committee. Appalled low-income caucus members strongly protested this disrespectful decision. We felt it would greatly disrupt the continuity and work of the committee.

The City washed its hands of the matter.

Despite these obstacles and antagonisms, the low-income caucus remains committed to holding regular town halls and seeking a mandate from the low-income majority of the DTES.

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