Sometimes the tricky part of using this space is trying to make something coherent out of the thousand different thoughts that are happening in my head at any given time. As I’m punching out these words I have no idea where it’s going to go and I’ve barely figured out how to begin, so strap in.
Let’s start with the following tweet Wednesday from Mayor Cam Guthrie. “When are people going to get angry? Because I’m angry. I’m angry as Mayor & angry as a dad of two kids that feel like they, & their friends, have no hope of a life of affordable living & housing. Their generation is looking for hope. We need to give it to them quickly.”
Guthrie was sharing a news article with the headline, “'Record-high number' of people in Canada don't think they'll ever afford a home: survey.” One-third of non-home owners responded to a poll saying that they believe that they’ll never lose that “non” prefix. That’s an increase of eight points in six months and 15 points year-over-year.
I appreciate that Guthrie is angry about affordability, but I worry that he’s worried for the wrong reasons.
I moved to Guelph 20 years ago, and I can say without shame or condemnation that in all that time I’ve never been able to afford to buy a house here. I’ve never been wealthy enough to play in that strata, and I can’t say that’s ever made me angry. I’m also pretty skeptical of Canadian society’s instance that the ultimate measure of success is owning things.
Conversely, when I moved here, the rent was comfortably affordable. At least for me. I appreciate that my condition is not the same as others, but there was once a reasonable chance of finding somewhere affordable in Guelph to rent, and that has not been a reality since long before our current predicament.
I’d be willing to bet that there are more people in Guelph who are angry that the rent is too damn high versus the number of people who are angry that they can’t buy a home. If you’re able to buy a house, even if it’s not in Guelph, you are in a far better position that the dozens of people who may be about to be evicted from 90 Carden St.
While the mayor’s anger was reserved for Twitter, one of his colleagues registered his displeasure at Committee of the Whole and the source of his ire was city staff putting limits on local real estate investors with large portfolios.
This had to do with the development of policy around short-term rentals through platforms like Airbnb; staff want to limit business license holders to two properties, the one you live and the one you rent out short-term. Councillor Dan Gibson though felt this was needless punitive to people who own a lot of properties in a town that everyone acknowledges is experiencing a housing crisis.
Now Gibson and Guthrie have always been the two most cynical voices on council about regulating short-term rentals, but at least Guthrie had the good sense to bite his tongue before sticking his foot in his mouth. For a second there it seemed like he was going to suggest that the city was about to regulate Airbnbs harder than cannabis shops.
As for Gibson, he may be right that in an ideal world we would not put limits on business people doing business, but you can’t look at short-term rentals in isolation from the rest of the housing system. Also, it’s just a bad look to see a member of city council stand in defense of people who own multiple houses for the purpose of making a profit during a – what’s that thing again? – housing crisis.
Mayor Guthrie has said many times that building every unit that comes to the city for approval counts because its giving someone in Guelph a needed place to live, so shouldn’t the same be said for all the houses being held as ad hoc hotels?
This, combined with the solid 90 minutes that committee spent talking about the tree canopy this week, might make people on the frontline of the housing crisis angry enough to think that our local council isn’t terribly concerned about the dwindling affordability picture.
That’s not say that trees aren’t important.
I got dinged last year for suggesting that local park advocates shouldn’t turn every council agenda item tangentially connected to parkland into the Second Battle of the Somme, but my point was that if you’re struggling to afford, find or hold on to a place to live, the state of our parks and tree canopy are only a consideration because you might end up sleeping in a park, under a tree.
It’s the appearance of things that I’m worried about, and I was confronted with the difference between action and appearance at OPIRG’s Rebel Symposium last weekend. A session on housing painted a dire picture by people experiencing homelessness and some of the support workers that stand next to them, and they are incredibly unimpressed with local action on the issue.
What are they angry about? The fact that it feels like decisions are being made for people experiencing homelessness without soliciting their input, or the fact that it seems like we’re trying to pigeonhole people by limiting the options available. They’re also angry about council’s increased spending on police services even though there’s technically little that council can do to override that budget and reallocate the funds.
The technicalities don’t matter to the people on the margins, they’re the ones with the least say about their own fate, so we should perhaps be ranking their anger first in the order of things to be angry about.
So if the mayor’s under the impression that there’s no anger in this community about the current state of housing, he just might be talking to the wrong people.