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.