Making room

The topic of housing is a difficult one in Canada these days. Young people in our big cities are feeling increasingly squeezed and the pressure of housing bubbles is becoming a common topic of conversation. As someone who has a degree in urban strategies and design I have known about housing issues and policy for a while but the last couple of months it feels a bit different. I’ve started to take it personally.

I had this vision of how my life was going to work out last year during my masters that I have now abandoned to the inevitability of having two contract jobs with no guaranteed hours that fill up my schedule and pay me enough to cover about what it would cost to rent a one bedroom apartment in any part of Calgary’s historic core — you know those rare urban spaces we have where going for coffee doesn’t mean a two hour bike ride — and nothing else. I don’t want much, just a space of my own that is comfortable and clean. I want some fairy lights and bunting and a Great Gatsby poster and a standing desk. That dream feels so far out of reach. I’d have to earn about three times as much as I do to achieve it and there isn’t room for a third or fourth job in my life.

The thing is that despite what we say about millennials and our expenditures on avocado toast and lattes housing is out of reach for many of us. I shouldn’t have to earn $60,000 a year to be able to buy food and live in a walkable urban neighbourhood. I frequently feel like there is no room in Canada’s major cities for me to have a home, to survive, to live. I want to be a part of a community and build a life. I want to feel like I have a place I belong in.

This year I went on a Jane’s Walk in Ramsay, a community in Calgary that I worked in and could potentially see myself living in. Ramsay is supposed to be hip and artsy and cheaper on account of the potentially contaminated soil and the odours from the chicken factory, when I noticed tones of NIMBYness and lots of McMansions. Our guide had a nice small historic home now worth over $1 million — in the last potentially affordable corner of the inner city in Calgary — and proudly noted that her and some neighbours stopped a five-storey condo with ground floor retail on the community’s natural high street. She had voiced no objections to the expensive and large homes taking out historic properties and taking over the neighbourhood but the type of housing that someone average might be able to afford and that God forbid was something other than a single-detached home was to be stopped and stamped out. She had her home and her equity, what did I matter?

Calgary is becoming a land of McMansions. As our aging middle suburbs turnover they aren’t densifying and no variety is being introduced in these communities. The houses are just getting bigger and the communities are becoming enclaves for wealthy elites. I will never be able to afford a home in the community I grew up in.

We care so much about property values that we have forgotten that people need somewhere to actually live. I need somewhere to actually live. We need a variety of housing options because there are a variety of people with a variety of wants and needs.

If you own a home already and are scared of change and density of any kind even modest midrise I am finding it harder and harder to hear concerns about character, privacy and shade because these seem trivial in comparison to my general sense that there is no place for me in my country’s cities, that I don’t get to survive or have a place to live. I have worked hard, have more than one job and have a couple of fancy pieces of paper that were supposed to get me somewhere and still I would drown if I lived on my own. These concerns about preserving our low-density communities seem a lot higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than my basic I can’t afford somewhere to live need.

In Vancouver, the city I’d like to live in and build a life in, eighty per cent of land is still zoned for only single-detached dwellings. If you don’t want to live in a single-detached home or can’t afford one where are you supposed to go? Because I am a massive nerd and because this video basically sums up everything I feel I am going to include it. Watch it once (or a dozen times).

I got started writing this because my sister shared a letter to the editor by a lady who was evicted from her home in Toronto after her landlord sold it for a handsome profit to an investor.

Explaining the housing bubble and speculation to an eight year old is difficult, but she actually caught on pretty quickly. “But if no one is actually going to live there, why can’t we stay? I thought houses were for living in. Why does our landlord need to make so much money?” Smart kid. Fair question.

And so I’ve become just another statistic in the stories that have dominated the front page for more than a month. I’ll move into a small apartment – that is if I’m lucky enough to be picked from the hundreds of people who apply for each new listing. And that will cost most of my monthly income. I’ll walk by the Popeye’s Chicken that moved into the storefront where a local florist proudly displayed his bouquets for years; until his rent doubled and he went bankrupt. I’ll look away from the row of “for lease” signs littering the windows of now empty stores where I used to buy fresh fish, share an ice cream on a warm summer evening and stock up on homemade lemon bars made daily by Gus at the family owned bakery. I’ll pick up a Starbucks (there are lots of those) and think back on the city that Toronto used to be – vibrant, welcoming, full of opportunity.

So, Mr. Landlord, thank you. You’ve taught me an important life lesson – greed wins. I am a Torontonian who contributes to the economy of this city, volunteers in this city, chose to raise my daughter in this city. Heck, I even pay my water bill early every three months. And yet this city has no room for me. Literally.

What all of these stories add up to is a generation of people squeezed and excluded and struggling. I am a part of that generation. Even my friends with decent stable jobs feel the pressure. People who already own homes find it hard to see the argument I am making. I should just work harder and then I too can take part in this Canadian ideal of a single-detached home for all. I have a different ideal: a diverse range of housing choices and flexible zoning, increased spending on affordable housing and treating homes as places where people live rather than investments. If the young people in your city and country are asking questions like where am I supposed to live, how am I supposed to survive and is there even a place for me then you need to listen to them and change some things. If you don’t the answer will increasingly feel like a resounding no.

 

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