After being away at the Local Government Leadership Academy last week, it felt good to be back at the Council table, making big-picture long-term decisions for the city.

Royal Athletic Park

Thursday’s Governance and Priorities Committee (GPC) began with a presentation of the City’s Annual Housing Report for 2011. The news? Not good at all. In order to buy a home in the city you need an annual household income of $120,000 and a $30,000 downpayment. That’s out of reach for many Victorians, with the average annual income in the City sitting around $38,000 (the lowest in the region).

But unaffordable home ownership is just part of the problem. The second part is the very low rate of rental housing construction. According to the City’s report, in 1997 there were 1071 new units of rental housing built. In 2011, 173. The vacancy rate was 1.8% in 2011, below the national average of 2.2%. It’s not a ‘good investment’ to build rental housing, according to Roy Brooke (Director of Sustainability), because you don’t see the return on your investment until at least five years out – not nearly as lucrative as the condo market.

So, people living on limited incomes in Victoria (which is lots of us!) can’t afford to buy homes and can’t find apartments to rent. Thank goodness for citizen innovation! The Community Social Planning Council and others are working to create a Community Investment Fund which can be used to address community needs, including the building of rental housing. Community Investment Funds are community controlled pools of capital which will offer investors a mid- to long-term return. Patient capital it’s called, slow capital, community capital!

Next up and occupying a great deal of our time was the Sustainability Department’s proposed Civic Investment Strategy. In short, the strategy is an overhaul of the City’s grants program. The City currently administers 19 grants programs through five different City departments. The purpose of the grants is to fund delivery of services on behalf of the City, complement or extend the reach of City services, and met evolving corporate and community priorities. Some grants are awarded through a competitive process, others are handed out to organizations simply because, well, they always have been.

The courageous Civic Investment Strategy proposed by the Sustainability Department substantially disrupts the status quo. I strongly support this. The Strategy proposes that all grants – including those to Community and Seniors’ centres – go through a competitive process. That may be going a bit too far. But the point is that if the City is going to be granting taxpayers dollars, we need to be sure that we are getting the best value for those grants. We need to move towards ‘results-based granting’ where we measure the impact that grantee organizations have on the community. How are the grant dollars leveraged? What innovation and lasting legacies do they help to create in our community?

The Strategy proposes streamlining the 19 grant categories into four: Project Grants, Operating Grants, Fee for Service, Capital Grants. I suggested adding a fifth category (but not more money!) ‘Shape Your Future Victoria’ Citizen’s Grants. After an hour of discussion Council passed a motion supporting the Civic Investment Strategy in principle and directing staff to refine the document based on our discussion. It will take courage to move this document forward and move this policy into practice. Courage is necessary for creating much needed and lasting change.