City hands loaf to corporation, leaves crumbs for citizens

True North Square deal shows that city council does not represent its constituents

With only a few weeks until the municipal election, politicians should be more eager than ever to make sure their constituents feel heard.

Unfortunately, this is not the case at city hall.

A $550 million dollar multi-building complex from True North Real Estate Development and Northland Properties — True North Square — concluded last week. The complex includes a public plaza, two separate office towers and luxury residential rental.

But even as the final touches of the brick and mortar were being perfected, key questions remained unanswered. Among the most important were how much True North would see in terms of tax breaks and financial incentives and what exact benefits citizens of Winnipeg could expect to see from the project.

Those questions were largely answered just a week before the square was finally unveiled to the public.

True North and Northland expect to receive a combined $8.6 million in tax breaks over the next 20 years. This is on top of the $11.8 million the city contributed to the cost of the public square for skywalks, sidewalks and other infrastructure, all on top of the $8.8 million the province pledged toward the public amenity spending.

Taxpayers have fronted $29.2 million to erect True North Square. Determining what taxpayers will reap from this is paramount.

And it was not clear until Sept. 20 how taxpayers would benefit, apart from getting to enjoy the pleasant view of the 56-jet water feature in the plaza, for their hard-earned money. Unfortunately, what they got was an empty bill of goods.

The existing city-provincial program for tax breaks for large apartment projects such as those at True North Square ensures that 10 per cent of the rental units are earmarked for affordable housing. In this case, around 19 of the 194 units built.

The City of Winnipeg’s executive policy committee ignored this, approving changes that removed this 10 per cent regulation unanimously. Its reasoning was that the program that legally enforced the regulation has expired.

So city council put down the plow and steamed ahead with the public financing of the project with the taxpayer strapped to the front.

It was only until councillors were caught red-handed, and housing advocates began to call out their disgusting display, that any changes were proposed to this clear corporate giveaway.

Councillors, as a result of the pressure, begrudgingly agreed on a deal where True North and Northland would contribute $200,000 toward affordable housing. This amounts to only 10 per cent of the property tax refunds the new complex will receive over the next five years.

After $29.2 million of public funds, Winnipeg has luxury apartments only affordable for the wealthy, a deluxe water fountain and a measly $200,000 for affordable housing. What a stunning deal for what amounts to a back-alley shakedown.

Sadly, this seems to be a recurring theme in Winnipeg. Corporations make out like bandits smelling like roses while city hall sticks taxpayers with a bill they never agreed to pay.

This should shatter the illusion that our city councillors have their constituents’ interests in mind. They just put the profit of a few more luxury apartments for True North over important affordable shelter for working-poor Winnipeggers.

Councillors can make well over $100,000 per year, so naturally it is simply not in their personal interest to ensure that people struggling to get by on $11.35 per hour have housing they can afford. Council simply does not understand the crushing experience of spending nearly all one’s income on rent.

Grinding your life away against the relentless stone of underpaid, soul-sucking work means nothing to the councillors who are complicit.

But the millionaires and billionaires behind True North Square deserve empathy and access to our wallets, according to city council. The city is sick and city council is the contagion.

We, as citizens, must change this. Municipal elections are quickly approaching and we must do everything in our power to elect councillors who will not pad the pockets of corporations and billionaires. Rather, we must elect those who will govern for the middle and working classes.

A politician who genuinely cares about their constituents would be proactive, not reactionary. Instead of using the fact that a 10 per cent affordable housing requirement expired as an excuse, they would introduce new legislation and go a step further by upping the percentage, given the rising cost of living in our city.

A negotiation between True North and politicians who truly represented the city’s constituents would have included at the very least the original 10 per cent affordable housing requirement plus another several million in cash towards affordable housing. And even if the final deal was less favourable than that in the end, politicians who play hardball and collectively push for more inevitably receive more in the end.

This is how politics is played. If you show up to the negotiating table asking for a full loaf, you end up with half. If you ask for half a loaf, you end up with crumbs.

As of now, a vote for someone who takes a harder approach and truly represents their community is the best course of action.