Inside the weird world of Canada's discriminatory anti-family housing policies

Metaphorical storm clouds of a housing discrimination crisis brewing over Edmonton. Image: MaxPixel

Michael Janz knew that he and his partner Sally Tang were about to become rule breakers in their condominium in the northern Canadian city of Edmonton.

Their crime? To have a child and hope to stay in the condominium that they owned.

But Janz is a guy who likes to question things and the condominium is made of concrete, right next to a school, and has plenty of space for a toddler at 1,200 sq ft. So they tried anyway. And failed.

The couple appealed to their condominium’s board when Tang became pregnant.

“We were like, 'Explain to us why having a toddler, an infant, is going to disrupt the community or cause undo hardship to everyone else in the building’” Janz said.

“There's no answer to that question that I've yet to find that's satisfactory. Because our stroller will cause upset in the elevator? Well so does my neighbour's walker.”

The condo board told Janz and Tang they had to leave before their son was born. Those were the rules. “It was like, ‘Congratulations, you’re out.’”

Adult only rules are a common age discrimination applied to multi-unit housing in Alberta, Canada’s fourth largest province. But the situation is reaching a crunch point.

Children of the housing crisis

Alberta’s largest cities, like Edmonton — a mostly suburban Canadian city of about one million — are seeing some of the country’s fastest growth rates and now have some of its youngest populations. All this means that pressures for new, affordable and diverse housing are increasing.

At the same time, following a human-rights court challenge from a senior, the provincial government has been ordered to outlaw all age discrimination, putting it in line with all other Canadian provinces.

But the kicker is that it has until 2018 to determine what it will exempt from this new illegality, from the standard exemptions of demanding people be a certain age to drink alcohol or drive a car, to the more contentious ones currently in place dictating who can live where based on age.

Downtown Edmonton, land of skyscrapers and bad housing policies. Image: WinterforceMedia

On one side are millennial families and family-friendly housing advocates, pushing for the government to strike out its current age-discrimination loopholes in multi-unit housing and allow families in Alberta to choose housing many Europeans would take as standard, rather than a detached house in the car-dependent suburbs.

On the other hand are established housing developers, industry insiders and advocates for seniors, most of whom want the rules maintained — perhaps unsurprising in an affluent city on the plains where a detached house is seen as the norm and not a luxury.

Condo compromise

Representing much of the condominium industry’s position in the debate is Anand Sharma, president of the northern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Condominium Institute.

Sharma said the organization is set to push the Alberta government to uphold its age-discriminations, but only because it supports the right of seniors to live in communities that let in only those older than 55.


The side effect, he said, is that this might mean the other age-discrimination rules will have to remain, too.

“It’s a very sensitive issue, and I know from my personal life, my friends view it as a human rights issue,” Sharma said.

“But working in the industry and talking to people, the indication from everyone in the condominium community is they believe age restrictions should be permitted.”

Volunteers recently created the Family Friendly Housing Coalition of Alberta in an effort to use the opportunity of the government’s inspection of its own laws to force developers and others to allow people with children to live places other than a detached house in a sprawl-creating suburb.

The kind of sprawling detached houses families are forced into. Image: Upstate NYer

But the problem, said David Shepherd, an Edmonton member of the legislative assembly with the ruling NDP government, is that very few in the industry or even government know how widespread the adult-only rules are for multi-unit housing in Alberta, since nobody has been tracking them.

Alberta’s laws mean a condominium board can change its bylaws to discriminate based on age if 75 per cent of members approve that change.

The danger of developers

But industry insiders say developers are behind the bylaws in most cases, and they are creating them for a reason.

Raj Dhunna, the chief operating officer of Edmonton’s Regency Developments, which builds large-scale tower condominiums, said economic factors are at play.

While Dhunna said he hasn’t applied age restriction rules on his buildings in the past, he notes that in the future he might, as aging baby boomers are now in the market for smaller-scale housing where they won’t hear children.

Alberta's future may rest on the goodwill of developers. Image: WinterforceMedia

But Janz, who offered a cash bond to his condominium board in order to buy time to find new housing — which he has, though it’s currently being built — doesn’t think many of the arguments for age discrimination should fly in a modern society.

“I think for the last 50 years some of it was economics,” he said.

“You had much bigger families. You had seven children and it made sense — you wanted a [detached] house sooner. But you look around the world, and there's thousands of other cities that have complete communities, where you can live from cradle to grave in one building.”

Alberta will determine by 2018 if that will be possible as well.

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This app connects strangers in two cities across the world. But can it tackle urban loneliness?

New Delhi, in India, where many of Duet-App's users come from. Image: Ville Miettinen

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people”. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

Our relationship to where we live and the spaces we inhabit define who we are and how we feel. But how often do we articulate the emotional impact of this relationship, whether this be loneliness, frustration or even civic pride?

“When I moved to a new city, started living alone, wanted to drink less, stay indoors more, and when I realised that I cannot make any more best friends.”

A new social network, a simple app that connects two individuals from the UK and India, aims to counter some of these issues.  Over the course of a year connected pairs receive one question a day through the app and their responses are exchanged with each other. A simple interaction that gradually builds a series of one-on-one relationships and invites users to imagine, over time, the other person living their life.

Distant geographies are an implicit part of the experience, therefore many of the questions nudge users to explore correlations between their physical and emotional landscapes. The data shows us that many of the Duet-App users are located in populous urban cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Manchester, Leeds and London, places that can just as often discourage feelings of belonging and place-making as much as they foster them.

“I had thought I'd never be able to live here again. but here I am living again at home after almost a decade living elsewhere. Living in Mumbai is a contact sport, and I can't do without it's chaos and infectious energy.”

Mumbai, India. Image: Deepak Gupta

In general cities are getting bigger and spreading wider at the same time as our communications are increasingly being conducted online and via digital gateways.

There is a sense that much of our online personas project an idealised version of ourselves; we increasingly document and express our daily lives through a filter and we are not always comfortable with a spontaneous expression of ourselves. Duet-App seeks to foster alternative digital relationships that through their anonymity allow us to be more honest and free.

“I feel a lot of people assume that I always have a lot going on for me and everything's always happy and amazing. I wish they could appreciate... how much of my own anxiety I swim in every single day. I appear and behave “normal” on the outside, calm and composed but there are always storms going on in my head.”

In exploring the responses to the questions so far, those that often garner the most replies relate directly to how we feel about our personal position in the world around us. Often these questions act as provocations not only to share responses but to reflect and articulate our thoughts around how we feel about what we are doing in the here and now.

Manchester, another popular city for Duet-App users. Image: Julius 

“Sometimes I feel sad about it [getting old] because I saw how easy it would be to feel lonely, and the fact that the world is set up for able-bodied young people is a bit of a travesty.”

Although many social media platforms allow for distant engagement and access into the lives of others we are in the main still curating and choosing our friendship circles. Through Duet-App this is randomised (and anonymised) with the intention of bypassing the traditional mechanics of how we broker online relationships. While directly exploring the digital space as a place for intimacy.


“Where do you go for peace?

“Well the internet, really. I do some mindless browsing, peek into the fandoms, listen to a few songs. Calms me down.”

Snapshots into the lives of someone existing and playing out their lives remotely can highlight shared concerns that break down preconceptions of how life is lived by others. Prompted by the reflections of a stranger exposed to our lives, digital relationships can encourage us to address the physical space we inhabit and the effects that the cities we live out our lives in have on our own well being. 

Catherine Baxendale is director of Invisible Flock.

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