When I grew up, we didn’t have a whole lot. We had a roof over our heads, though, and that was something I really, really, really appreciate to this day. My Mom bought an old farmhouse in Donnan/King Edward Park in the 1980s, and it’s been quite amazing to watch the changes in my neighbourhood in the last 25 or so years. I wrote a little about that over here.
My Dad, on the other hand, has lived all over the place. As an artist (and welder, sometime carpenter, bicycle mechanic and many other professions), he was on the move quite often when he lived in Edmonton. Many of the houses he rented were as affordable as possible, and as a result we often found ourselves at the ‘forefront’ of change. But not changes initiated by people like us, rather it was change initiated by developers and planners and people eager to make a big buck on ‘hot’ real estate. (Or to ‘revitalize’ neighbourhoods they had deemed derelict and devoid of life).
I still remember his basement studio in this building:
Highlights for me were: the smell of aging wood and brick that hit you once you walked inside. That smell of dust that’s been collecting for decades, falling into every nook and cranny. The little trays of rat poison in the corners of every space (he had to lecture us not to touch them). The photographers and theatre people who stored props in the hallways. The old, creaky, terrifying freight elevator we took to get to the basement. Standing out on the loading dock and watching the Way of the Cross go by. You can still find buildings like this in the Exchange in Winnipeg, and I take a huge breath in as I step into the doorway of AceArt and Urban Shaman, because they remind me of the weekends we spent in the studio, painting with kid-safe acryclics, watching my Dad transform blank canvasses into colourful, riotous paintings.
I will tell you one thing: growing up as the child of an artist killed the mystique for me. Although I went to an arts high school, I was immune to the romanticism of a bohemian life. Not being able to pay rent? Constantly worrying about money? These were the things I associated with being an artist. By and large, most of my classmates, though, were from much more comfortable backgrounds (though not all of them), and to them art was exhilarating. I envied their freedom. I was expected to become a doctor or something useful to help move my family out of relative poverty. I’ve sort of accomplished that, although an aversion to blood and a poor grasp of biochemistry killed any hopes of medical school.
It was a shock to walk down the street as an adult and realize that my dad’s old, dusty, over-priced studio had been turned into slick, upscale lofts. Ah, change! I’m not exactly sure where people like him are supposed to work now. In his case he moved to the coast, so I can’t actually envision which parts of the city would welcome someone like him now. I realize that the city is trying to increase density, and that converting warehouse space to residential units makes a lot sense from a planning standpoint, but it sure leaves a hole in the cultural core.
He also lived here:
At the time we knew the owner was eager to sell the property, in the hopes that downtown real estate would appreciate and it would be worthwhile to cash in. Across the street there were beautiful old houses stretching all the way down the block (now a massive out-of-scale white postawesome condo building sits on the corner of 104th). On the corner across 105 street was an old Victorian house with a lightning rod on the pointed roof of the corner gable. (Now it’s one of those open plan California style beigecore condo deals that sit squatly around the city). In the last two decades, the houses on the corner slowly disappeared to fire (arson?), developers and ‘improvements’. What was a perfectly habitable and welcoming, affordable neighbourhood 20 years ago is a hodgepodge of crap architecture, blank lots standing out like ugly missing teeth, and aspirations of grandeur:
Imagine if we’d striven to preserve the aspects of the ‘hood that made it possible for families like us (read: low-income, Aboriginal) to live there. With everyone decrying the lack of family-friendly housing in downtown Edmonton, I can’t help but say ‘I told you so’. We had perfectly good housing there, it just wasn’t lining developers pockets. So, it had to go. But now we want family friendly housing downtown, and people are scratching their heads about how to do that. We also half-heartedly discuss social and affordable housing, talking about how important it is, but never finding the balls to actually enforce any meaningful social/affordable housing policies.
We even have the gall to laud this as ‘affordable’ housing:
but ignore the fact that it’s largely only accessible to middle-class and established 20-30 something hipsters who could easily pay more. Where’s the housing for single mums? Or elders? Or, say, artists-labourers like my Dad without a penny to their name? (*To be fair, the designation of affordable for the City Market Apartments would be more palatable if we had more affordable housing. Then it wouldn’t stick in my craw so much that we celebrate this development without questioning the problematic aspects of who actually gets to live there, and why there isn’t more truly affordable housing available to city residents. And I should be clear that affordable housing isn’t necessarily the same thing as social housing, and maybe that’s where some of the confusion comes in. In many ways it’s a good start, but a flawed one).
Imagine my surprise when I moved to Scotland and moved into a council flat! In other words, I moved into social housing. It was great, because although my tuition was covered I had very little to live on (about $500 a month). It was depressing to realize that most flats in the city rented for 600-1000 pounds a month. (Aberdeen is an oil city, after all). So, I was incredibly grateful when fellow classmate offered me a room in a cozy little council flat close to school. It was here that I started to learn about the major differences between North American and British attitudes to housing. For one thing, after WWII, millions of citizens had lost their homes, so the British government made a huge effort to build council flats across the country. Although Thatcher decided to sell off many of these in the 80s, there are still quite a few rental units left in a city like Aberdeen.
There was still a stigma attached to my address, but I didn’t really care. I could pay rent, buy groceries, and generally survive. Not something I had easily accomplished in my time in Edmonton. It was something that I had watched my Dad struggle to accomplish as an artist (and welder) in Edmonton. There were problems with my Aberdeen home, to be sure. My sixteen year-old upstairs neighbour was often in trouble with police, and had a reputation as a crack dealer. And a few times I was actually scared to leave the apartment while he went on drug and alcohol fueled rages. But, the big difference was that the Council had a social worker assigned to our building, and they engaged us in a dialogue with the neighbour, the police and the other residents of the building to try and address the issue. Did you know the UK has a Nuisance Neighbour designation? And ways to deal with this?
What really hit me in Scotland is that it IS possible to make safe, secure, affordable housing a reality. There’s no reason for large families to have to live in cramped, overpriced apartments. Or for every new development to be a two-bedroom 800 square foot condo. It is possible for the government to take a stance and say ‘hey, we want more family housing. We want affordable housing. We want seniors to have a safe, affordable place to live in dignity’. Some might deride the so-called British Nanny state for meddling in the market, but what I saw was a country that (despite incredibly vicious cuts to anything deemed socialist under the current coalition government), was still finding ways to put roofs over people’s heads. I could write a whole post about the stigma attached to social housing, or the very deep and disturbing (and immutable) class divides in the UK. But at the end of the day, Britain still has a lot more social housing than we do, and we could learn something from that.
My experience of ‘affordable’ housing in Edmonton growing up was largely watching my Dad live at the hands of slimy landlords who charged as much as they could, but just low enough that someone like my Dad could afford it. We had to put up with sewage back-ups, and constantly being told “well, we’re planning to tear this down soon, so any repairs we make will be minimal”. There is a pervasive sense of insecurity in knowing that your home is just holding a spot for an enterprising developer to come along and turn your home into a shoddily constructed condo or vinyl-sided McMansion.
My experience of affordable housing in the UK was a council-run flat with access to a repair person, renovations (they renovated our bathroom while I was living there), and social and police resources allocated to make sure that everyone was safe. There was a big backyard where kids played. Was it perfect? No, but I had the feeling that someone cared and that if I wanted to address something, I could find a way to do so.
Now, today, I’m learning about a different kind of social housing in the Arctic. My experience of social housing in the Arctic has largely been one of frustration. There are huge housing shortages. Building technologies aren’t completely adapted to northern conditions. Southern actors often make decisions for northern residents. Rental scales discourage people from seeking jobs for fear of watching their rent jump from $32 to $1000 or more. (This is shifting thanks to a territory-wide review of housing policies). Social housing in the NWT has many of the mechanics of the social housing in Aberdeen, but without the resources (or the strong, national commitment to social welfare seen in Scotland) to make it happen. I think we’re allergic to social services in Canada. We set them up to fail by underfunding them, and then throw our hands up and say “see, the market is the only solution!”. (Right, because a remote place couldn’t possibly fall prey to monopolization by speculators eager to squeeze every penny out of potential buyers). A lot of southerners who do wind up coming up North for jobs often get to negotiate housing as part of their hiring, so they don’t experience the housing insecurity that existing residents deal with every day.
In Edmonton, my experience was of a market dominated by market rentals. In Aberdeen I experienced a market where council flats were introduced to ‘even the playing field’ in a country recovering from war. And in the Arctic I’m living in a place where limited subsidized/social housing makes up the majority of housing in most small communities.
In my own personal experience, I think Aberdeen actually has it (mostly) right. It’s important to have housing available to meet the needs of those who can’t buy market rate places. And to have adequate resources allocated to make sure the housing is kept up to standard, and to address the social issues associated with any community. But it’s also useful to have market-rate houses, provided the market is open and fair (not monopolized).
Why am I writing about this? Well, I generally think that a lot of the people who make decisions about affordable housing (or revitalization) have rarely lived in affordable housing. Few decision-makers come from ‘neighbourhoods in transition’ (which I place in quotes because it is kind of a BS way of masking the social imperialism involved in outsiders trying to force change on neighbourhoods). What I have to offer to the conversation is my own experience living in various kinds of affordable housing throughout my life.
One thing I’ve noticed is that the narrative of revitalization of starts when artists move in, and then celebrates the point when young professionals set up camp, and culminates in the point when property appreciates and the majority of housing is out of reach for most average citizens. This narrative ignores the history of a space before the so-called ‘shift’. I want us to reconfigure the teleological approach we take to neighbourhood history and ‘progress’. And to destigmatize affordable housing.
Maybe the best way to do this is to start listening to the stories of neighbourhoods, and to appreciate the attachments that people have to space RIGHT NOW, regardless of whether it meets the glossy aspirations of city hall. And let’s start talking about how to make affordable housing happen. NOW.