Richfolk, Poorfolk, and the Housing In Between

Today’s St. Albert Gazette featured a letter that would be hilarious were it not for the fact that, by all accounts, its authors are dead serious.

A proposed new development in St. Albert would see Habitat for Humanity build 15 units in a 58 unit complex. This has, predictably, led to complaints from residents. But today’s letter took things to a whole new level.

It would be easy to dismiss this as the thoughts of only two people. But the letter points to several stereotypes that exist about suburban vs. inner-city environments, in particular the desirability of each area. This matters to all of us, particularly those of us interested in seeing more diverse (even mixed-income) neighbourhoods, more families living in our city centres, and those interested in maintaining public schools in the city centre and mature neighbourhoods as well.

So with that in mind, I want to address some of the misconceptions in the letter.

Habitat for Humanity bucket

“What we want is for St. Albert to remain as it is with very few low-income households, a place for families that work hard to live here”

The emphasis in the header is mine.

I have no doubt that the authors of this letter work hard and want what’s best for their family. Almost everyone does. What’s dangerous is the assumption that low-income families don’t work hard. To repeat, almost everyone works hard. It wasn’t that long ago that I was working low-end jobs occupied by many of our lowest-income neighbours. In University, I worked for a time in retail and in a call centre. I wouldn’t want to work those jobs again, and a big reason is that they are really hard work, and don’t offer the same sort of satisfaction or intellectual stimulation you find in other jobs. Nonetheless, it’s honest, decent work. I’d suggest that people who truly believe low-income earners don’t work hard should try doing their jobs for a little while; they’ll probably come away with a new found respect for what they do.

“Our cost of living will increase as we will have to pay for low-income subsidies due to higher school fees or other taxes.”

I’m not sure this is substantiated anywhere. I’d also be interested to see if they – or anyone who agrees with this sentiment – acknowledge the ways in which taxpayers have helped them. For example, almost all of us have benefited from a subsidized education system – particularly if we went to post-secondary. Specific to the authors, they note that they are business owners. I assume then that as business owners, they benefit from tax concessions not available to the regular working person. Why is one tax subsidy okay and not another? This is a topic for another post, but I’d be interested to see someone defend the header, without using the “business creates job” truism.

We all benefit from tax breaks/subsidies of others at one time or in one form. In my opinion, we all then have a commensurate responsibility to give back when we can.

“Current residents will have to deal with the likeliness of children influenced by crime in our schools and adults in our community.”

Having grown up in south(west) Edmonton, and gone to schools populated primarily with middle class and upper-middle class kids (Greenfield Elementary, Avalon Junior High, Strathcona Composite HIgh), I feel like I have the background to comment on this. What the Perrys are really getting at is that they see the low-income kids being a bad influence on their own.

In my experience, and that of those I’ve conferred with, there is no correlation between family income level and good behaviour. Many of the kids in my high school who smoked, drank excessively, and did or sold drugs were from the better off families. In fact, Scona was a hotspot for dealing drugs precisely because we didn’t have a community police officer back in the late 1990s. I also knew of at least two well-off kids who ended up in rehab or addictions counseling. And it sure as hell wasn’t because of kids from the projects who were a bad influence on them.

The point, to reiterate, is that bad (and good) apples come from all sorts of backgrounds. The children of these 15 families aren’t going to corrupt the good people of St. Albert.

“there is no level of pre-screening that will prevent some form of crime from infiltrating the proposed development. It will happen, guaranteed.”

Really? I would love to see statistics that back this up. For what it’s worth, the screening process for Habitat for Humanity looks fairly vigorous. It would be hard to argue that people who meet all of the criteria aren’t good citizens.

“Like it or not, the children of St. Albert are high-standard children and have no place for low-income classmates.”…”our teen had a hard time fitting in because of money and it was hard on him”

Besides making all St. Albert teens sound like the Plastics, this is also probably false. Kids will exclude and label other kids for all sorts of reasons. I doubt that living in a nice house and having nice things automatically buys anyone acceptance, unless said person lets other take advantage of their family’s wealth. In which case, I have to ask, why do you want those kids as friends?

“I am all for low-income housing in Edmonton. I believe more independent living housing is required in St. Albert and would be better suited than this proposal.”

I hate to break the news, but there are already homeless people in St. Albert. Look, here’s a story about one.

St. Albert hasn’t gone to hell in a hand basket while some of its residents don’t have a place to call home. Also, as the story points out, there are already 4 Habitat for Humanity homes in St. Albert. Yet, life has gone on for the hard-working residents of the city. Maybe mixing in a bit of non-market housing won’t be the apocalypse. It might even help some people appreciate everything they have.

Mixed-income communities work well across the world. Yet, the stereotypes about “safe” suburbs and “dangerous” inner-city and low income neighbourhoods persist. The sooner we get beyond this, the better off we will all be.