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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.