Half a house vs. not caring about the poor

For some reason iTunes decided that I don’t actually listen to my favourite podcast and they stopped updating it. I have been wondering that happened to 99PI. Did Roman Mars get hit by a bus? Was he on vacation? No they were just going about their business unbeknownst to me.

One of the episodes I listened to yesterday was about some half a house projects in Chile. I took a course on Latin American Cities in Edinburgh and knew about the project in question as well as lots of background. It stems from an approach to slums and housing provision called sites and services where the government provides basic utilities and public realm amenities while leaving families to build the rest themselves. This was a response to mass migration and unregulated squatter settlements. It was also influenced by attitudes towards housing and budget limitations. People in Latin America, especially poor people, like to be able to alter their homes as they need to and can. Some money comes in add an extra room. A grandchild is on the way or a cousin arrives build an extra floor. As their life changes so do their dwellings. They do not like being housed in apartments because the walls and space is fixed. You have to move if you want more room and if you’re living in social housing you don’t have the resources for that.

Latin America was interesting to study because it is a very innovative place in cities. Scarcity has inspired a lot of creative solutions. We in the West look to Latin America for ideas but we have a very different situation. We have a lot more resources. It is a problem of willpower rather than scarcity. The HUD official interviewed for the podcast did a great job of pointing this out. In BC and Alberta we have so much wealth that if we want to do something we can. It may mean raising taxes or forgoing something else (like Calgary’s $4.5 billion ring road) but we can build any infrastructure we decide it is worth building.

In Latin America BRT was used because subways were took expensive. While subways can still be a bit expensive they are by no means beyond what Canadians can afford. We’d rather just pay low taxes or spend that money on interchanges. In my research for my dissertation a lot of articles covered the debate between BRT and LRT. A lot of them found that the more high quality features you want your BRT to have (like dedicated right of way, paying before boarding, stations) the more expensive it is. At a certain point you may as well just spend the bit extra and get LRT because the savings disappear. Calgary recently decided to go with the more expensive underground option for the Green Line downtown because it will result in a higher quality and more beneficial scheme. Council decided to go with quality over cheap.

The same goes for housing. We don’t need half a house for people. We don’t have issues with squatters slums or people wanting to expand their homes themselves. We have the problem of homelessness and affordability. If we decided to we could provide all Canadians with homes. Lethbridge did it. For the first time in my life the federal government is looking to expand their role in housing and is adopting a housing first approach.

While Latin America can teach us a lot and there are many innovative solutions coming out of the region the answers to our problems are a lot more obvious. Cities need money to spend on projects, higher taxes would create a more equal society and our attitudes towards infrastructure spending are a huge problem.

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