It’s hard not to cheer for an economic downturn

Photo by Dave Cournoyer

Photo by Dave Cournoyer

The prospect of a housing market collapse makes me giddy. Low oil prices? It warms my heart. Higher interest rates? Ooh, baby.

I would be willing to bet there are a lot of you reading that and nodding your head in agreement. Yes, you think, that could be great. It might even mean that one day I’ll be able to buy a house, or afford my rent.

If you don’t have crushing debt levels that would be affected by higher interest rates, you might have a point. I feel that way. I’m excited by the prospect of an economy in distress, and that’s problematic.

We have ended up in a situation, in this city more than any other jurisdiction in Canada, where too many are being suffocated by a system geared towards rewarding the already successful. It’s been said many times, and it bears repeating, that it is difficult to thrive in this town if you don’t have the “right” kind of job. That not only breeds resentment, it also sets things up so that people like me, and probably people like you, cheer for a downfall that will bring many down with it.

Not only are we suffering from a bigger wealth gap in this city and in this province than other areas of Canada (and of the U.S. as a whole), we are mercilessly tied to the type of oil and gas commodity swings that recently wiped out $7 billion from provincial coffers virtually overnight, or that bring incredible wealth to a few, while driving up costs for the many.

And so some of us cheer when we see bitumen drop from $100 per barrel to $40. We envision foreclosed houses in inner-city communities that we could actually get our hands on. But of course it’s nothing to be happy about.

We (and I use that term to mean those of us without bursting bank accounts) are just as desperately tied to the swings of the market and the price of oil as the next guy. Sure, the effects of a major disruption will hit those in the downtown towers harder and faster, and may even open up some opportunities, but if that market trauma lasts for too long, it brings almost everybody down with it.

Here we’ve gotten to the meat of the matter. We are hopelessly unable to untether ourselves from the almighty market and its total indifference to our lives and our circumstances. We have a provincial government that is unwilling to even consider how to alleviate the nauseating swings by bringing in corrections like a provincial sales tax, or a progressive income tax, or a living wage policy, or increased corporate taxes, or increased royalties, or real environmental regulations, or a carbon tax, or reliable money transfers to municipalities for things like affordable housing and increased transit.

We have a city council that can’t even pass basic measures to allow for more secondary suites in a city that is years into a housing crisis, not to mention some form of rent control to alleviate gouging by some landlords.

What we get instead of all of these things is a circling of the conservative wagons in Alberta in order to impose austerity measures that will undoubtedly wreak havoc on the lives of the poor while barely touching those in the higher wage brackets. Already the unions are fighting back the first wave of attacks and there are certain to be more. On a city level, we have at least one councillor who would rather fine distracted pedestrians than consider affordable housing measures (no, seriously, you can’t make this up).

It all points to a sick system, and profoundly blinded provincial and federal governments and civic politicians. It’s a system where my automatic reaction to a downturn is to cheer the negative consequences for others in the hopes that I can get a share of the pie, even if I might be hurt as well. It’s a system where those who win, continue to win, without looking after others who fall through the cracks. It’s a system where we destroy in order to accumulate without regard to the future or any semblance of dependability and consistency.

The only hope is that during the coming financial storm, our governments remember the mistakes of the past and the continuing social deficit left over from Ralph Klein’s destructive reign, and realize that in order to build a province, you can’t keep hacking at the legs of the majority of its citizens.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Calgary doesn’t care about you

Calgary-Dawn-Szmurlo

Photo by Dawn Smzurlo

Back in 2008, a friend of mine lived in a nice apartment with not-so-great neighbours on a bit of a sketchy corner. Still, the two-bedroom, 1950s-era space was big, relatively nice and relatively cheap at $800 per month. Six years later, that same apartment is up for rent, listed on rentfaster.ca for $3,000.

That represents a rise of $26,400 per year compared to six years ago, and I’d be willing to bet that number skyrocketed in one year. It’s a clear indication of just how insane, frustrating and financially debilitating our rental market is. Sure the city fathers/mothers can talk about attracting and retaining the “best and the brightest” from around the world, but what about us? What about those who can’t afford to drop half a million dollars into a mortgage, or pay $1,500 per month to share an apartment on a sketchy corner with the scent of KFC wafting through the windows?

At first glance, this city is maturing and it’s wonderful. There’s better architecture in our skyline and over our rivers, there’s a robust public art program that has mostly survived backlash from a loud and largely ignorant segment of the population, there’s an eclectic and talented arts scene, there are bike lanes coming and there’s a lot of talk about creating the kind of city so many of us want to see.

But those of us who don’t work in oil and gas or trades, those who are responsible for that art scene, for example, are falling behind and getting frustrated. We’re not even talking about those who don’t have a home or deal with subpar living conditions in subsidized housing. Who hasn’t seriously thought of leaving Calgary to find a more hospitable home?

We are bombarded with gushing reports of low unemployment, bursting bank accounts and high GDP. We are bombarded with the notion that the market will sort it out. We are bombarded with the message that interference in the workings of the economy will only hurt us.

At best these arguments centre on the notion that things like rent controls will contract the rental supply because no landlord would want to be in the market if that were the case. Accepting that argument, of course, means ignoring the huge number of cities across North America that get along just fine with rent controls in place. Rent control doesn’t mean you can’t make a profit on a home, it just means you aren’t allowed to be an asshole.

At worst, these arguments come in the form of rants against the unwashed masses — the ne’er-do-well hordes waiting to invade any community as soon as secondary suite zoning is enacted. We hear of how renters will destroy communities. We hear of parking armageddon should renters move into a basement.

We all know this is outsized hyperbole, the kind of empty rhetoric that ignores evidence to the contrary and only serves to demean those who can’t afford a house of their own, or don’t want to be saddled with a massive mortage. More fundamentally, it ignores the very real crisis in housing in the most unequal city in the country.

Some councillors — Ward Sutherland, Joe Magliocca, Jim Stevenson, Sean Chu, Ray Jones, Richard Pootmans, Andre Chabot, Shane Keating and Peter Demong — have consistently knocked down proposals to legalize secondary suites across the city, ignoring their role as leaders and hiding behind the “wishes of constituents.” It’s about as logical as turning off police sirens while racing through intersections because it bothers the neighbours — some things are important and have to be done, no matter what some malcontents have to say.

Even if we could get secondary suites approved throughout the city, there’s no guarantee it will solve our housing crisis. Will there be a flood of people building suites, saturating the market and bringing prices down? Unlikely, at least in the short term. It certainly can’t hurt, but the fact we can’t even get this Band-Aid solution through council demonstrates just how far this city still has to go in order to live up to its hype as a great place to live. Because the truth is, for vast swaths of the population, this isn’t a great place to live; it’s a place to scrape by while praying your landlord doesn’t up the rent. It’s bullshit and we all know it.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Jim Prentice’s flood of words

Jim Prentice

Although the calendar reads September 2014, some Calgarians would be forgiven for thinking it was June 2013.

Since Jim Prentice was anointed as this province’s new leader, the latest in the 43-year Conservative dynasty, there has been a flood of promises and policies, including sudden decisions on flood mitigation itself.

The government is going to work on a water management agreement with TransAlta and is planning to dam a section of Springbank for a dry reservoir, which has residents a little miffed and garnered one hell of a passive-aggressive response from Mayor Naheed Nenshi. “With respect to the two flood mitigation measures for Calgary that were announced by Premier Prentice today — namely the dry reservoir in Springbank and the direction to negotiate a permanent water management agreement with TransAlta — it is difficult for us to comment in detail since the City of Calgary has not yet been consulted with respect to either proposal and our experts have not yet seen any engineering studies,” wrote the mayor.

In addition to pointing out the possible failings of the plan, due in large part to other elements and agreements not being in place, Nenshi’s posting highlighted the continued maltreatment of cities by a paternalistic provincial government that still governs as though we’re an agrarian society. This does not bode well for the much-discussed city charters that I’ve heard are effectively dead.

But the flood of words isn’t just about shoring up the banks of Alison Redford’s old riding of Calgary-Elbow, where residents are still fighting with the government for flood relief, and where Gordon Dirks, the so-far unelected minister of education, is running for a seat.

The torrent from the premier’s office is reaching biblical proportions — something preacher Dirks can understand — with Prentice desperately trying to prove to a skeptical public that the PC party has changed and that all those promises of accountability and openness will totally happen this time. Swear. Starting with not giving away sole-source contracts to friends to deal with communications during events like the flood.

The premier has outlined five priorities that someone should fact check to make sure they weren’t plagiarized from any of the hundreds of conservative campaigns fought across North America in a given year. Conservative fiscal policies? Check. End entitlements and restore public trust? Roger that. Maximize value for our natural resources and respect property rights? Yup. Quality of life, including leading in health care, education and skills training (but not something silly like social sciences)? That’s there too. And then down at the bottom, hey what’s that? Oh, “establish our province as an environmental leader.”

It’s worth digging into that last outlier. Fortunately, it’s just a click on the Prentice website before we read: “we will not damage the competitiveness of our oil and gas industry by unilaterally imposing costs and regulations.” That’s under the “environmental leader” banner. His whole rationale for environmental protection is to get more oil to market. Other harmful activities appear not to exist in Prentice’s world.

Like a tailings pond breach spewing its toxins into a waterway, we can expect a strong push from Prentice to get our oil out the door. He mimics his old boss Stephen Harper, calling for Alberta to be a global superpower in energy, which should prove challenging given rising global stockpiles, U.S. supply increasing exponentially, forecasted increases in Mexico, and no efficient way for our glut of production to reach the markets.

Prentice’s first weeks in office have produced the same flood of words we hear whenever a new Progressive Conservative takes the provincial reins, and all these years later people are starting to tire of the debris built up from the empty words. Our access to information is a joke, and so too is the treatment of our cities. Dissent is considered dirtier than a barrel of bitumen and there’s never really been a plan to wean us off the oily teat. We’re wholly dependent, locked in to a volatile market at a time of profound societal shift. Just look to the treatment of our colleges and universities if you want any indication of how the government views education outside of science and technology.

But here’s the thing: floods aren’t all bad; they flush a system. Last year’s flood cleansed the Elbow and the Bow of the rock snot clinging to our waterways’ pebbles and stones, providing a hopeful metaphor for the upcoming byelections and eventual provincial contest. There’s no telling just how a flood will play out, but we all know there’s plenty of muck to get rid of in this province, and after 43 years it’s pretty easy to see who’s to blame.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Cycling outside of Calgary’s inner city

NEWS Suburban cycling

While cries of social engineering and a war on cars echo off the sides of skyscrapers and condos, the city is busy turning Calgary into a bike-friendly city in newer communities and suburbs without much fuss.

Although there has been at least one councillor bemoaning the separated bike lane being built on Northland Drive in the city’s northwest, there are multiple projects that have been completed or are in the works with little to no opposition. That may change, however, with new “complete street” regulations that will first crop up in committee after the summer.

Complete streets essentially mandate certain features on roadways in order to make them amenable to walking, cycling and driving, rather than focusing on cars alone.

“The stuff that’s going to be greenfield development [new communities], the goal is to have a complete streets policy that says when the developers are building these roads, they provide the right accommodation for cyclists and for pedestrians,” says Tom Thivener, the city’s cycling co-ordinator. “Once that’s in place, if a road is a certain classification, it automatically gets the treatments. So then I don’t have to worry about petitioning, lobbying the developers each time to try and get a facility in. That’s very much a piecemeal approach that we’re trying to avoid, so as soon as we have council’s approval on the complete streets policy, that’ll kind of take care of the greenfield.”

New communities already accommodate cycling, but usually in the form of regional pathways that are more geared towards leisure than commuting. In the southeast community of Mahogany, for example, the developer Hopewell is building 22 kilometres of pathways that will link up to the greenway project — a sort of cycling ring road that will encircle the city with 138 kilometres of pathway.

Darren Bender, a Tuscany resident, cyclist and a former director of Bike Calgary, has nothing but good things to say about the pathways in his suburban northwest community, but takes issue with the connections between communities and the links to the inner-city — and is thankful not to live in the southeast or northeast.

“Yeah, the connections between the communities in the suburbs are not great, especially when you’ve got suburbs that butt up against a major road,” he says, before listing off the veritable car walls that box in Tuscany. “A lot of these communities are quite isolated unless you live by car.”

For Bender, the connections have to be made between communities, and activity centres like the University of Calgary, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the downtown network. “You’ve got to get the destinations linked in and then build your way outward,” he says. “The city’s doing that really well, I think.”

Doug Leighton, the vice president of planning and sustainability for Brookfield Residential says they recognize the importance of walking an cycling to ehnhance quality of life.

“We’re currently designing several new neighbourhoods to plug into the Seton town centre, health campus, regional park, schools and recreation facilities,” he says over email. “These will feature an inter-connected grid of pathways that will make it very easy to get around on foot or by bike.”

For the older communities stuck between the inner city and the outlying communities, cycling infrastructure mostly comes as roads are repaired and rebuilt, or tied into major projects. For example, the West LRT brought bike lanes and a new pathway to its surrounding area, and this summer, Northland’s painted lanes for buses and bikes are being replaced with the aforementioned separated lane during asphalt repair.

In Bowness, the main thoroughfare is going on a diet during construction, reducing four lanes to three and adding bike lanes. The road was large considering the 13,000 cars travelling its route on a daily basis. The project has the support of the community and the area’s councillor, Ward Sutherland, who opposed the cycle track network.

Thivener says his department is busy planning what they’re going to do once the downtown pilot wraps up, and co-ordinating with the roads department on construction projects and how they might line up with cycling routes.

So why don’t these projects elicit the same level of contempt as the downtown lanes?

“I mean, we do a good job of engaging the public — much improved, I would say, from some of the early projects that Calgary went through,” says Thivener. “We make sure that the community’s aware that these projects are coming and aware of the benefits and trade-offs before we proceed. But by and large, yeah, they don’t get as much interest because they’re isolated on corridors that probably not everyone sees — it’s more neighbourhood type concerns that we deal with. There’s some good projects that are going to be installed this summer that are going to be exciting.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

City of Calgary to tackle affordable housing crisis

NEWS-Affordable-2014-03-05T21-03-51-002093

There is at least one thing that almost everybody agrees on: there is a housing crisis in Calgary and we need more affordable housing. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

The mayor has made the issue a priority and now the city is taking its first tentative steps towards creating an affordable housing strategy. A report was presented to the priorities and finance committee on March 4 outlining some of the issues in Calgary and some possible strategies to address them.

“Today’s report was really about starting us off on a process…. I hate to say community-wide discussion because it will be more than that, but to really examine the whole affordable housing system, the relationship between the federal, provincial and city governments, as well as the role of the private sector and the role of non-profits,” said Mayor Naheed Nenshi during the committee meeting.

While all members of the committee appeared to agree that steps need to be taken to address the current lack of housing, and voted unanimously to move forward with a strategy, the concern centred on finances — no one wants to be left with responsibility without the dollars to back it up. This is of particular concern with both the provincial and federal governments scaling back funding for affordable housing.

“It’s disappointing that we see no interest at the federal level, because cities can’t go it alone, and the issue is larger and requires a more complicated solution than what we can provide with property tax,” says Coun. Druh Farrell in an interview the day prior to the meeting.

The issue will be brought up with the province during negotiations on creating city charters.

The city and the agencies that provide housing are not able to keep up with demand. The combination of high rents, the flood, continued migration to the city and an aging population are all taking their toll, with over 3,000 applicants on the Calgary Housing Corporation’s waiting list.

The city’s exact role would have to determined, but the main thrust of the report places the city as a facilitator between the various housing organizations and developers to ensure that Calgary’s affordable housing stock grows in a way that best serves the community.

The city would likely resort to a combination of tools to grow the stock, including tax incentives, inclusionary zoning and mandated minimum affordable housing units in new developments.

Farrell, who appeared frustrated at Tuesday’s meeting with the lack of momentum on this topic over the years, says it’s time for more radical solutions to address the crisis. She would like to see rules around condominiumization (where lost rental stock would have to be replaced elsewhere), discussions about rent control and mandated affordable housing in new developments, but says the city would need provincial approval for such moves.

“We’re committed to affordable housing,” she says. “What we’re not seeing, we’re not seeing the market provide affordable market housing and that is one of the big struggles in Calgary.”

Of course, when dealing with issues of housing and homelessness, it’s not as simple as throwing up affordable units and walking away. There are various levels of need under the umbrella of affordable housing, from those working and unable to afford Calgary’s sky-high prices, to those who require services and support in transition from homelessness.

Judy Lapointe lives in a Calgary Homeless Foundation building operated by the YWCA in Lower Mount Royal. The former computer programmer, who now lives on AISH, is stressed at the moment because her building is transitioning to a more secure facility housing people with greater needs, and essentially forcing those tenants already in the building to move. This has left her suffering from anxiety.

“About three weeks ago, they gave everyone in the building notices that they have to move,” says Lapointe. “Our worker was on vacation at the time, so you just traumatized trauma victims and provided zero support whatsoever.”

She is critical of the foundation, accusing it of not listening to tenants, not providing enough warning for evictions or building changeovers, and for programs she says set you up for failure. “I’m so sick to death of being told that I’m mentally ill, when my behaviour is a reaction to mentally ill programs,” says Lapointe, who lists delusion, schizophrenia, paranoia, bipolar and personality disorder as her diagnoses. “Nobody would be acting normally and healthy if you’re in a box that says you’re set up to fail.”

Louise Gallagher, communications manager for the Calgary Homeless Foundation, which supports the city’s move to a housing strategy, says all those currently in Lapointe’s building will be provided housing and that the organization tries to work with all residents to address their concerns.

That level of complexity in dealing with individuals is just one aspect of the housing issue, highlighting just how long it might take to muscle through details at city council. But with more people moving to Calgary, a rental market with approximately one per cent vacancy and the average price for a single family home sitting at $482,529 in February, this is a problem that is going to continue to grow.

“Like it or not, this is a democracy, and when the problem affects the majority, the majority will create the change, but not until it reaches the majority — and we’re nowhere near that yet,” says Lapointe. “But the rate and speed at which it’s happening, it won’t take long.”

Public art I can’t wait to see

Council recently voted to have city administration review the public art policy. One suggestion was that the public should have more say in public art installations. I couldn’t agree more. We should do away with the jury and those people who “claim” to know about “art.”

Here are some sculptures that I’m really excited to see pop up in Calgary after being selected by ordinary folk who just want to see good art.

1. Just like that funny head in front of The Bow that you can go inside of, but more Calgarian, because this one has a cowboy hat and it’s chewing straw!

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2. It’s best to keep it simple. Plus, the lack of work or thought put into this one will ensure that it doesn’t cost us honest to goodness taxpayers as much fancy money for fancy things that we really don’t fancy need anyway.

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3. I like this one because it represents cows and mountains. Those are two things that we have here, so they should be represented in public art by cows and mountains.

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4. I like this one because it has the cow, but also the horse. It also has a cowboy hat and a native headdress, both of which honour our western heritage. It represents our western heritage, but showing a horse and a cow with those hats on. No need to overthink this stuff, amiright?

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5. Well, duh. Pilsener dude.

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6. I’m not necessarily endorsing this one, I’m just saying that it’s a statistical fact that this will happen if we let people vote for public art. Open any textbook, look at enough graffitti, or just peer into the mind of most people and this is what you’ll see. ‘Cause it’s funny. Actually, this one I’d actually vote for.

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UDI’s facts on segregating Calgary

UDI post2008

You know what’s uncomfortable? Living next to tattooed lesbians, or gays or just straight dudes with tattoos. Especially if they shop at Safeway alongside more respectable members of suburban society. I mean, yes, you have to come across them from time to time when you work downtown, but these people should really stay down there (haha) and leave the suburbs to us straight, white folks. Or the northeast to other people. It’s just the way things should be.

Thankfully the Urban Development Institute, a collection of Calgary developers headed by former Calgary Herald publisher Guy Huntingford, have thoughtfully put this notion of a segregated city to print as the first (and now deleted) post in their Just the Facts campaign.

After correctly pointing out that Calgary is not New York City, this brave document goes on to highlight why it’s not New York City and how great that is. You see, it’s about “comfort capital,” ensuring that those who live in our city never have to step out of their comfort zone and associate with “others.”

Let’s let the UDI do the talking:

“It’s not a subject of much discussion, but research suggests residency location choice is strongly linked to how comfortable a person feels in a place where no one is like them. And it doesn’t just apply to visible minorities searching out the diaspora,” reads the document.

“It can be the guy with tattoos, feeling on display every time he shops at the Safeway on the city’s periphery.

“Or the gay couple in a world of heterosexual suburbanites.

“And yes, the person who is a member of a visible minority community.

“It can be even more basic than that – having the hippest nightspots close by isn’t important to the woman who wouldn’t know what to wear anyway. Even if she wanted to go clubbing, which she doesn’t.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve been shopping with my white wife  (who totally doesn’t know what to wear to one of those fancy downtown elite nightclubs) at Safeway, minding our own business when some young guy with tattoos nervously pops up in the produce aisle to grab some apples before quickly snaking away. If we could just figure out which house he’s in, we could probably get a mob together to demand he go back downtown. It’s unnerving for all involved. He’s not happy. We’re certainly not happy. Really, tattoos in the suburbs!? I never.

The folks who ensured that Calgary is dominated by rows upon rows of single vision neighbourhoods have it right on this one. Again, their words:

“But what the research highlights is that people go where they feel comfortable, and diversity of a city – the ‘comfort capital’ index – is a large part of its livability. Shoe-horning everyone into mandated, single-vision neighbourhoods won’t work.”

You can read this brilliant call for a segregated city below because nothing really disappears on the Internet. I, for one, would like to salute them for their brave stance, ignoring any notion that sexism, racism, homophobia or classism is inappropriate in today’s day and age. Cheers to diversity (in its proper place)!

(Oh and that awesome map at the top? That’s mine, not theirs, just in case someone gets all confused and legally.)

JTF Worldclass Comfortcapital

** Update **

UDI has apologized for the post. According to CEO Guy Huntingford, “The article used examples in a good-will effort to illustrate how some Calgarians might view themselves within the context of their neighbourhoods.”