This Week at City Hall

Above is a pic of the lunch spread the Sask Hotel put on for attendees of the Mayor’s Housing Summit. It looked pretty awesome but I decided to bail on the lunch-hour keynote address and get street food instead.¹

I don’t think I missed much that’d interest me. Apart from the food.

The keynote was given by CBC’s Amanda Lang, one half of the Lang and O’Leary Exchange,² and was titled after her recently released book, The Power of Why. Sounds like one of those self-help books for business people. And it probably had less to do with housing in Saskatchewan than the standy-uppy thing in the Plaza at which I ate my hotdog.

So, yeah. Great looking lunch. Less-great looking keynote. A mixed bag, in other words. Kind of how I felt about the first day of the Housing Summit over all.

Of course my ambivalence might have been coloured by the fact that the day started out really, really well, and the second things started to drag a bit I snuck out. Maybe I’m putting too much weight on what inspired me to leave and not focusing enough on the stuff in the morning that I found inspiring.

Because like I say, things did start out really well. The opening talk from John Lewis of Intelligent Futures, an urban planning firm from Vancouver, contained everything I was hoping to hear at a housing summit. Lewis went over how housing forms have changed over the millennia, he talked about better ways to organize our cities, he touched on sustainability and the environment, and stressed how important it is to think about how the housing decisions we make today will form the basis of our city for centuries into the future.

It was a great talk. I wish I’d recorded it.

And there were definitely other high points over the day.

Still, I felt like there were a few things missing. Here’s a list of four…

1. More Case Studies
I found the summit at its most engaging and useful when speakers were talking about specific examples from their experience. For instance, the Eden Care Community presentation on all the challenges they faced with their Milton Heights project and how they overcame them was, I thought, fantastic.

Less fantastic though was the panel on housing from a First Nations perspective and the talk by SaskHousing’s Keith Hanson on Partnerships. Both were dominated by lists of past projects and programs, focusing largely on successes. I can see the allure of highlighting your organization’s achievements, but I can’t see how that will help other groups with their future decision-making. And it kind of creates the impression that everybody is already doing everything right so why bother with this summit anyway?

But, take that partnership talk… if it had taken a close look at one specific partnership and really broken down how it came together and the challenges the parties faced, I’d have had something to work with.

2. Failures
Isn’t that one of the standard clichés in those self-help books for business people? You learn best from your failures?

Well, the missteps that led Regina to have the worst vacancy rate in Canada³ were basically glossed over at the Summit. Oh, there was a brief mention of how condo conversions put pressure on the rental market. But no one on, say, council had the brass ones to say, “That was us. We did that. Condo conversions were our decision. Our administration told us not to do it. So did all the dozens of people who came to our meetings. ‘Turn down those condo conversion applications,’ they said. But we said yes to all but one of them.”

I’m really hoping to hear that someday.


I bring this up not because I want to wallow in schadenfreude.

(Okay. Maybe a little.)

I actually believe that thing about failures being instructive.

Also, I’m kind of a sucker for history. I have yet to learn what exactly led us to this housing crisis. I’ve heard how we’re facing historic pressures from growth. And I get how rental rates were low for a long time. What I have yet to see are some detailed numbers on all of that and an explanation of how everything worked together to get us where we are.

And more importantly, I have yet to hear a satisfying explanation of why other cities, such as Saskatoon, which are in a similar situation growth-wise, aren’t as hampered by their rental market. Where did things go wrong here?

I guess what I’m saying is, more than failures, I’d have liked to see a more thorough examination of our housing history. Because if we don’t grok that, we’re bound to repeat it. As the saying goes.

3. More People From Away
My favourite parts of the National Infrastructure Summits were when people from other cities would go over things that we’re not doing in Regina but that they’re doing wherever they are. Like the group out of Scandinavia who used a largely automated system to lay flagstones for paths and roads. Or all the stuff out of BC on how to capture energy from gray water.

Now, there are definitely talks like that at the Housing Summit. There was the guy from Vancouver who talked about how his city is helping non-profits build housing. And today there will be some stuff on the pocket suites in Winnipeg. So there are definitely some good ideas from away being brought up here.

I’d just like to see even more of that is all. But I can see how there isn’t much room for that considering my next point…

4. More Time
One thing I’ve noticed is that the agenda for the Summit is packed to bursting. That’s exciting because it means there’s lots of stuff to see. But there is almost no time for questions and next-to-no time for networking between sessions.

I’m beginning to think this Summit could take what it has on offer right now but stretch it all out to a third day. I know I wouldn’t object to spending more time in the Sask Hotel ball room.

But then something occurred to me on all that… If I had to guess, I’d bet one reason the admission fee was so high for the Housing Summit was to keep out people who’d selfishly dominate question periods by rattling off endless lists of gripes about the city.

Come on. We’ve all been to political forums before. We’ve all sat through those questions that have 20 minute preambles.

But if everyone is kicking in $200-plus to get in, there’s bound to be some urgency to use the time allotted efficiently. And it’ll discourage people who’d just be showing up on a lark (if such people exist, that is).

But with an agenda this stuffed, I think the problem’s licked even without the entrance fee. There’s simply no time for anyone to hijack the microphone.

• • • • •

Okay, that’s it for day one. I’m going to head off to day two in a bit here. I’ll be missing a few of the early talks but plan to stick it out to the bitter end so as to get in on the mayor’s closing press conference.

And I want to check out the community-led, shadow housing summit that will be going on down the hall this afternoon.

Check back for another Mayor’s Housing Summit update tomorrow.

And you can get live updates direct from the Summit by following the @PDcityhall twitter feed.

Update Tue May 14 10:51 – Showed up for day two in time for the talk about pocket suites in Winnipeg. It was great. Numbers on cost of building, breakdown of of what went right and what went wrong. It was a great case study with lots of practical information about how to apply the model here. And right now I’m listening to a talk called “Sustainability and the Non-Profit Sector”. It’s also great.


¹ I don’t think I’m being overly contrarian here when I say that a “taco” is not a “taco” if it comes in a pita. Once you put food into a pita — even if it’s taco meat — what you have is a wrap. Or, more properly, a pita. Or, more properly still, a sandwich that isn’t trying hard enough. But what you certainly do not have is a taco. Someone should mention that to the food truck selling putative “tacos” on the plaza. Because those taco-themed wraps they’re selling are an abomination. Also, “tacos-in-a-bag” are not tacos. You know how they were invented? Someone was poking around in a dumpster outside a 7-11 and found a half-eaten bag of Doritos into which a quantity of discarded beef and cheese had fallen, and thought, “I bet I could trick someone into eating this.”

² Which sounds like it should be a sketch comedy show on BBC radio. And based on what little I’ve seen of Kevin O’Leary, the British would find him quite funny. In a “laugh at” not “with” sort of way.

³ For many years and counting.