Tag Archives: housing

(368) Bad dreams

Default LineUK business writer Faisal Islam shows serious, pro-social journalistic intention with his soon-to-be-released book Default Line: the Inside Story of People, Banks and Nations on the Edge.  He calls out the crazy rises in house prices, the reckless lending, the brainwashed borrowing and sickening bail outs of deregulated private banks with public money as the social cyanide that it is.  He joins a precious few other voices decrying the economic macro mess that has been made, not just in Great Britain but in many other places, by a gold rush ethic of home ownership for all.

Mr. Islam’s book was excerpted today in the Guardian.  He doesn’t mince words:

“The recent history of property in Britain is wrapped up in notions of freedom and the social mobility of owner-occupation and right-to-buy. Yet right now, Britain faces a return to a more traditional relationship with the land, in which property is the principal agent for holding back opportunity for all. There are other options, as stable house prices, large high-quality flats and secure rental tenure have delivered in Germany, for example. The property ladder was a one-off opportunity for a lucky generation-and-a-half. Now we are back to a kind of neo-feudalism, in which your quality of life depends on who your parents are, and what they owned,” says Faisal in the final paragraph of the excerpt.

From Ireland to the UK to California and beyond, the real estate monster scorched working people and entire economies with its wrath.  A trebling of house prices in the UK has sprayed quick-drying cement on the aspiration of social mobility for many people in that country.  Other Britons find themselves significantly worse off for having entered the home ownership game at all.  A major redistribution of wealth has taken place thanks to the madness of real estate gaming in the UK and it would seem to be a very unhealthy thing on top of other economic, social and environmental challenges.

This beast, the home ownership dream-turned-to-terror model, also ravaged the United States.  Some features of Britain’s blow out, especially the shoddy and dishonest documentation behind a lot of the mad mortgaging, is just a smaller-scale carbon copy of shenanigans this side of the Atlantic.  Canada finds herself yet to really bottom out 2008-style.  The media here juxtaposes the latest soaring sales and price statistics with predictions of doom.  Our federal government has tightened mortgage regulations, again.  Do we still have a window to avoid the worst aspects of American and British experience?

Default Line is on suburban-poverty.com’s priority library acquisition list.  We’d like to see if it has some wisdom Canadians can use to protect themselves a little from the craziness.  Everywhere you turn in this country it seems like there is a sense that something is going to happen with interest rates and house prices and that it will not be pretty.  Hopefully, Canadians will look back and see what Mr. Islam is talking abo.ut as a warning sign that was heeded, that inspired corrective measures and long term planning for a sensible national economic life.

Home ownership: how the property dream turned into a nightmare

(352) Mall living

800px-Brentwood-town-ctrCanadians were in decades recent nothing if not awesome builders of shopping malls.  Most of the big regional ones are getting long in the tooth and attention turns now to what they will be going forward.  At least three big ones lying westward of Toronto are currently undergoing conventional renovations to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars to make them ever slicker seducers of shoppers.  More parking, upgraded branding, expanded hours and other attractions are being deployed almost as if a war was on between the consumatoria in question.  Some malls, perhaps nervous of a financially stressed population, retail saturation and the demographics of aging, as well as the simple appearance of opportunity, are now adding housing to the mix.

Instead of driving there and hanging out you can now live at the mall.  This idea holds value.  Why not eliminate short motor vehicle trips to make retail purchases?  Doing so saves money and fuel and reduces pollution.  A large mall with a condo slapped on top will have more viability because the patrons of its shops and services live steps away, so might the employees.

How ironic and positive that the increased density cherished by fans of European style city living comes to be facilitated by that most suburban and North American of built structures, the mall.  Is this not a good thing?  A first year architecture student is probably capable of coming up with the right approach to segregated entrances and other little details of layout that maximize the benefits of this possibility.  The mall is dead. Long live the mall!

The death and rebirth of the mall: you don’t drive there, you live there  
Globe & Mail

See also: (247) Shopping malls & (23) Shopping mauled

image: Home, sweet home? Brentwood Shopping Centre in Burnaby, BC by Arnold C via Wikimedia Commons

(346) Whitby

661px-Ashburn-Whitby_Township-Ontario-The_Illustrated_Historical_Atlas_of_the_County_of_Ontario_Toronto_Beers_1877_Just after coverage of the Homelessness Report Card for 2013 The Star published a profile of a single mother involved with social services, experiencing concurrent difficulties and said to be sleeping at night in play structures in parks while pregnant and in the company of her fifteen-month-old son.  Now, these profiles of life at the bottom in the major cities of North America are never particularly hard to find.  The hope is that such stories contribute to change.  Unfortunately, this one could have been in the paper in June of 1983 just as easily as last week.  The only real difference might be found in the setting.  Lisa Roberts has been living outdoors since May in Whitby, a satellite community lying east of Toronto.  Life in Whitby has been characterized by fast population growth, by sprawl, for years now.  We even find Canada’s Tory federal Minister of Finance to be the Member of Parliament for Whitby suggesting extra-strength neoconservative values there, values not readily attached to social spending or even sympathy for those in difficulty. And the reader comments!  …when did Canadians become such snarky, reductive, reactive, socially conservative people?  Even allowing for a certain pathology to the act of online reader commentary there is some hate going on down there, people.

Homeless in the GTA: finding affordable housing especially tough for women

See also: (317) Durham Region

image: 1877 map of Whitby by JH Beers via Wikimedia Commons

(344) ONPHA report

Bird_HousesTo see affordable housing given mainstream media attention in Ontario this week was heartening.  The occasion was the release of a major survey of the past, present and future of the issue from the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association.  The noise generated by sprawl, rising home prices, and large-scale condominium construction has drowned out the fact that the marketplace for housing as we know it at the tail end of a long boom simply cannot come up with good quality, reasonably priced rental accommodation.  The further down the income ladder you are the more likely you are to face some sort of difficulty regarding the cost and quality of your housing.  Such difficulty damages the individual and retards the performance of Ontario as an economic machine.

Ontario experienced population growth and economic expansion in recent years but has actually seen the total number of rental units decline.  By how much between 1996 and 2006 according to census data? 86,000 units is the answer.  Factor in weak wages, food and transportation costs and small wonder working and low income people are struggling.  Middle income people are on the same slippery slope.
Rental development has gone weak in Ontario and home ownership has flourished in a way that is distorting the most basic of experiences, that of housing oneself.

Do we need somebody need to invent us an iPhone application before we connect these things and see that affordable housing options could use some enthusiasm, some meaningful support from all quarters including government and business?  If the people in this society who do the work live poorly and feel poorly that brings down everyone.

Where’s Home? 2013 onpha.on.ca

Ontario’s affordable housing crisis deepens thestar.com

image: birdhouses from The New Student’s Reference Work via Wikimedia Commons

(340) Richmond Hill

Richmond HIll GO StnIn this item from the Toronto Star we come across a fairly typical NIMBY flare up.  The subject is a mixed income housing facility with services for youth on Yonge Street in the community of Richmond Hill.  There’s a need for the housing, the project is at an advanced stage of planning and resources have been allocated.  It’s pretty much “shovel ready” as they say.  “Wait a minute!” cry the residents of nearby subdivisions, some of whom enjoy very nice incomes, among the best in Canada in fact, and who prefer a certain kind of suburban atmosphere.

This is a situation of suburban change and suburban poverty, though you won’t see that last term in the article.  Those fighting for a “traditional” suburbia of big houses and winding roads and not much else near them are uptight about costs and the behaviour of the youth who might access services at the new building.  They don’t like the kind of change, essentially the arrival of urban life, represented by the facility.  The future tenants of the building fear social and physical isolation and that they are misunderstood and somewhat vulnerable.

Controversy in Richmond Hill over social housing

image: from posting by Secondarywaltz to Wikimedia Commons

(321) Rising high

Flemingdon Park buildingsLarge slab apartment buildings, frequently set in groups on open lawns at major intersections or beside highways represent the housing setting for one in five Canadians.  The big slabs are especially suburban, different from their owner-occupied slicker-looking, glass-clad condominium cousins.  The slabs could use some gussying up, some attention to their aesthetics and energy efficiency.  Many could become less isolated through some cleverness in the use of the property around them.

Slab building boomed between the mid 1950s and late 1970s – then we kind of just left the slabs as is.  They house hundreds of thousands in the Toronto area alone and now the slabs are aging.  Originally the slab high rise represented a kind of budget approach to suburban living, they still do, but the owners, residents and regulators of these buildings are probably going to have to sort out a more conscious future for these properties.  Like them, love them, ignore them some more, either way the big residential suburban high rises represent a substantial investment in housing and are going to be with us for many years.  What will they be like and who will live there when they are a hundred years old?

In this piece from the Globe & Mail international affairs writer Doug Saunders looks at some of the numbers and the sociology of suburban high rises.
Saunders: We’re a nation of suburban apartment-dwellers, but afraid to admit it

Will the cities of the future be filled with vertical slums?
Fast Company visits an apartment tower abandoned during construction and now occupied by squatters

See also:
(131) Boom!
(83) 1MILLIONth Tower
(61) Flemo!

image: Flemingdon Park, Toronto by SimonP via Wikimedia Commons

(299) The Housing Monster [Book review]

housing monster coverThe Housing Monster.  PM Press: Oakland, CA, USA, 2012
152 pages, ISBN: 978-1-60486-530-1

If the monster home is the thing that ate your street, well, meet the Housing Monster, it just stuffed your entire society down its throat.

Housing is a primary commodity of modern life.  We can think of living spaces as where the heart is and as a monetary investment right at the very core of how we define our communities in physical and spiritual terms.  Thing is, housing is inescapably the product of economic relationships and processes.  That usually means conflict and inequality and difficulty for many because this is a world of scarcity. There is not really enough of anything to go around, especially the surplus wealth created by a given activity.

In its 150 or so pages The Housing Monster takes a look at pretty much everything to do with keeping roofs over our heads.  The picture isn’t too pretty in this little book, full of stylish-but-grim illustrations, one per page, of the kind usually found in a graphic novel.  If you want an education in the neglected truth about housing, from the often profane and depressing lives of construction workers to the anti-social economics of lending, rental tenancy, land development, class strife, gender relations, unions then this is a very good place to start.

Produced by a small independent publisher, The Housing Monster makes concise statements, rooted in basic Marxist analysis, that deserve a much wider reading than they are likely to get.  We found a single copy of this book in a big box bookstore in Mississauga by accident.

Having lived in southern Ontario, where property development is perhaps our single largest undertaking, a transformative application of many billions of dollars worth of material and labour to thousands of square kilometers of land since 1945, we recognize most of the critique on offer to be authentic.  The urgency of this critique has only intensified since 2008.  Keeping ourselves housed has most of us in debt and drawing deeply indeed on the natural world.

The Housing Monster is intended to be a tool for going deeper than happy, aspirational surface images of the pursuit of real estate, houses, places to live, economic growth and employment.  Even if one is reflexively disinterested in anything associated with Karl Marx, there is a huge need for critical eyes and minds when it comes to housing ourselves.  Nobody can argue with that.

It may not be possible to tame the monster, but after we’ve read this one and shared it around, at least some of us will have a more honest and coherent view of reality.  Most of the people recognizable in The Housing Monster are probably too oppressed for it to make much difference to them.  After the sharp analysis comes a chapter about communal living and the spiritual aspects of waking up and doing something to respond.  I think most of us know there is something wrong, but not what to do about it.

prole.info …for the angry wage worker
at this link you can download a print quality .pdf of the book and find translations of it in more than a dozen languages

(293) Students out there

800px-Old_Finch_and_Kengate_in_Scarborough_RougeStudents usually form a portion of most communities when those communities reach a certain size and come to host insitutions of higher learning.  Generally, this is all to the good.  To be in any way a progressive and economically competitive society, education is advised.  Part of that equation means keeping students, housed, fed, clothed and healthy while they study.  We see friction developing out there on the perimeter where housing is concerned.

Last month in the Toronto Star there was a piece about a city raid in Scarborough on a rooming house near a University of Toronto satellite campus and a Centennial College campus.  Inspectors entered a fairly ordinary-looking home designed for a single family and apparently found “…11 people …crammed together paying $500 to $700 per month each for spaces created by subdividing rooms at 1289 Military Trail.” (GTA section of the Star February 11, 2013)

This conversion is alleged to have been done without permits or inspections and without reasonable regard to the provision of fire exits, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors or proper heating and ventilation.  The owner of the property mentioned above, at the time of inspection, was potentially liable for fines of up to $70,000.  They, and other owners of ad hoc student residences seem reluctant to talk to the media.  Perhaps they may see themselves merely as housing entrepreneurs responding to increased enrollments at nearby schools.  On a bad day, however, they could be seen as slum landlords, taking advantage of a group who may find themselves in a weak position because of their status as students.

Many communities have come to cherish the “eds and meds” portion of the post-industrial economy.  It seems that suburban communities in particular value the presence of colleges and universities for the good paycheques and prestige associated with them.  Schools in turn may find a variety of incentives for expanding in ex-urban areas including cheaper land, physical space and a student-age population ready to study.  Housing in the communities near satellite schools simply may not have adapted quickly enough to student housing needs for a variety of reasons and the schools themsleves may not have invested in their own, on-campus housing infrastructure.  The results seen in the article below model what is happening all over North America in proximity to places of higher learning.  Is it really a great idea to leave housing our future taxpayers, voters, citizens, entrepreneurs, professionals and tradespersons to the random, frequently sloppy efforts of unknown landlords?

No, of course not.  This phenomena must be seen as part of a pattern of suburban-poverty.

Scarborough homeowners charged with running illegal rooming house: bylaw enforcement officers have charged a trio with illegally housing 11 students in a Scarborough home.

(289) Berlin

745px-BerlinBerlin should have Straßen mit Gold gepflasterte.  It is a major city-state by any standard: 3.5 million people in 900 square kilometers with an economic output of about 100 billion Euros.  The city is renowned for its universities, green spaces, public transit, cultural and business life.  It is also much poorer than Germany as a whole.

Spiegel Online International published a brutal piece on Thursday about the slum housing industry in Germany’s capital.  This is a true industry, the large-scale undertaking of rental brokers and property owners to exploit the social difficulty of newcomers and the poor.  Truly hazardous nineteenth century dilapidation and exploitation is visited upon Roma, and other vulnerable people, to the profit of businesses registered outside of Germany.  The authors describe a lack of heat, toilets that don’t work and rents that have skyrocketed.  Those among Europe’s worst off people don’t complain, or cannot complain, indeed, seem not to even know they have the right to complain. “…conditions on some of the floors at Scharnweberstrasse 111 are like those in a refugee camp, with multiple parties sharing the few intact bathrooms,” say the authors.

Scharnweberstrasse 111 is cited as an example of a business model involving some 6,000 apartments and numerous players.  It is a low-rise residential building located barely one kilometer from the end of the runways at Tegel airport.  You can see it for yourself via Google Street View.  A mysterious German said to be abusing social welfare is described as having been the agent for a firm called Helvetica which has partners in the Middle East, Asia and the UK, exemplifying Berlin’s lucrative, internationally-based real estate industry.  Cash rents are funnelled upwards to the partners via Helvetica and a brace of holding companies after a handsome premium is deducted by the broker.  Claims are made as to the social value of housing the Roma, the homeless, the mentally ill, displaced youth and ex-convicts.  But this is true suburban poverty partly facilitated by a sell-off of publically held apartment buildings by a city government under financial stress.  In Berlin, a dynamic real estate and property development market exists alongside socio-economic difficulty with results that are not pretty.

Where this particular mess will be in twenty-five years defies positive imagination.

Real Estate Locusts: Developers Cash in on Europe’s Poorest

Increasing Returns: Berlin’s Poor Collect Bottles to Make Ends Meet

(275) Brampton 2

Züm_Queen_Kennedy_NWThe suburban-poverty.com Lear Jet finds itself touching down in Brampton, ON …yet again!  The Toronto Star’s urban affairs columnist Christopher Hume continues to blaze a trail across suburbia a step or two ahead of us.  Hume is realistic, dry and barely contains his sarcasm in the land of clothes line bans and monster homes.  Locals counterattack viciously in the comment boxes, advising Hume to stay downtown with the other density-loving, latte sipping yuppies.  Almost the inverse of the previous posting’s problem this time the issue is a housing form with too much visibility.  A massive monster home grows in an older suburb.  The owner/builder wants his extended village-sized family under one roof.  To do this he has to go big.  It could get ugly.  Well, actually, ugly it already is.

The point is not what is going on at a single address in Brampton.  Larger issues present themselves.  Again, if this is the best the culture can do to get started working out the housing challenges of the twenty-first century then it doesn’t say much for us.

Now, where did we put our latte spoon?

Brampton monster home controversy exposes suburbanites’ fear of density

Monster homes are here to stay despite Brampton’s new bylaw

image: a taco establishment behind one of Brampton’s groovy new bus stops by Secondarywaltz via Wikimedia Commons