Frank Mcloone reaches for the ringing phone in his office at Inglewood Silver Threads, a seniors organization located in the old Inglewood Telephone Exchange. He picks up and immediately sings a line from a song in his thick Scottish accent.
“Silver threads and golden needles cannot mend this heart of mine,” he chimes to the caller before asking, “Good morning, who’s calling the Silver Threads?”
The cheery 65-year-old social worker and addictions counsellor later explains that the song is a small way to bring joy into the lives of lonely seniors living in Inglewood. As the president of a local affordable-housing association, McLoone also wants to ensure that they and other low-income people in his blue-collar community have good living conditions.
Inglewood has been home to working-class Calgarians since the late 1800s. The massive brewery building that looms over Blackfoot Trail is evidence of this, as are the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks that border the community to the southwest. Inglewood is geographically set apart like a small town, with the river to the north and east.
In recent years, Inglewood’s “main street” (9 Avenue SE) has become increasingly gentrified. Seedy corner stores and auto repair shops with peeling paint and cracked windows share the street with restaurants, upscale furniture stores and other trendy retailers.
But as property values skyrocket in Calgary, seniors and families are having a hard time staying in—and moving into— the neighbourhood.
Like many other Canadian cities, Calgary has an affordable- housing crisis. More than 1,700 families and singles in Calgary are waiting to get into one of the city’s 7,700 publicly owned or subsidized affordable units, and about 37 per cent of those on the waiting list are single-parent families. only 20 per cent are two-parent families. Many of these families will wait up to two years before they can move into a unit. Until then, they’ll stay in shelters, church basements or friends’ homes, sleeping on couches and moving from place to place with kids in tow. These children will often go to a different school every couple of weeks—if they go to school at all.
After the tumultuous wait time, during which parents and children sometimes fall into drug or alcohol addiction, these families will finally move into a housing unit they can afford. But they may or may not be warmly received. in a culture afflicted with “not in my backyard” syndrome, low-income dwellers aren’t always treated as welcome additions to the community, and affordable housing is often perceived as a threat— especially when urban planners thrust it onto a community that has had no input into the plan.
In response to the need for affordable housing, a group of Inglewood residents, including McLoone, wants to cultivate long-term solutions to Calgary’s swelling problems of poverty and homelessness. The group is putting into practice the theories of Jack Long, a late Calgary architect, urban planner, alderman and Inglewood resident. The group wants to challenge the impersonal way of planning and building affordable housing by putting a human face on the need and involving more citizens in the planning process. Their goal is to invite more low- income earners, especially families, into their community by encouraging developers to build units specifically for people making $20,000 or less a year. (an income that low doesn’t even allow a family to live in an apartment at market rent anywhere in Calgary, according to the city’s own statistics.)
Long himself was widely appreciated as an architect, having designed many homes and buildings such as the Planetarium (now the Telus World of Science). But when Long became an alderman in the 1980s, his harsh criticism of thoughtless and limitless development earned him some enemies. He protested sharply against sloppy city planning, going so far as to describe the overdevelopment of the city’s downtown as “immoral.”
Long steadfastly believed citizens have a right to plan their environments, more so than developers who purport to know what’s best for people they have never spoken with or interacted with in any meaningful way. “a citizen has a right to plan his environment that is at least as valid as the planner’s right to do it for him,” Long wrote in his 1969 master’s thesis titled Everyman the Planner.
With this idea of citizen-driven planning in mind, the Jack Long group hopes to embrace families that need a strong community. Instead of writing these families off because they may have problems like addictions, they hope Inglewood can be a place where down-and-outs can get back on their feet—even if they are struggling.
“If you don’t want the problem to be in your community, then you have to be part of the solution,” explains Shirley-Anne Reuben, executive director of the Alexandra Centre Society and co-ordinator of the Jack long Foundation. “It doesn’t work to say, ‘we don’t want this problem; put it somewhere else.’ It could be your child who’s going to college and needs an affordable unit to live in. When you put a face on something like that, more people are more likely to look at it.”
Inglewood sorely needs younger newcomers. Currently, there are barely enough families to keep schools and recreation facilities around. Low enrolment in recent years has jeopardized Colonel Walker Community School, a sandstone building built in 1912, and residents have had to fight to keep the school from closing.
Here’s where affordable housing comes in as a solution: more young families would fill the school once again and make use of recreation facilities, bringing fresh life to the area and helping to retain the community’s unique character.
This isn’t the first time the community has fought to keep its identity. In the 1970s, Inglewood residents, including Jack Long, fought off plans by city hall to pave their neighbourhood. Deerfoot Trail was originally planned to be built through Inglewood, instead of its present route east of the community. As well, the city was considering extending Bow Trail through Inglewood, another idea that was successfully shot down by residents who vocally protested the plan.
“There’s a definite long history here of opposition between the community and the city,” says Christine Grabenstetter, an Inglewood resident and physician who had Jack Long as a patient. “If the community association and the community itself had not dug in and fought, the Deerfoot would not be where it is. It would be where we are. There wouldn’t be an Inglewood.”
But Long and the Inglewood residents weren’t content to simply block the threats of ugly development from city hall. In the early 1970s, the community applied for a grant from the federal Neighbourhood Improvement Program (NIP), a nationwide funding initiative that involved the federal, provincial and municipal governments. Through the program, the community decided to rezone for residential use much of what was then industrial land. The community also built four affordable apartment complexes for seniors through the NIP.
“The rationale behind that was that I, as the senior, would move out of the family home into the affordable apartment, and you, as the next generation, would stay in the family home and bring up the next generations of Inglewoodians,” says Mcloone, who is part of the Jack Long group and lives in one of the NIP seniors complexes. “So actually, we’ve repopulated ourselves.”
Reuben points out that the community improvement that came from the NIP was citizen-driven. “A lot of this was done from grassroots, and really from people who were not planners,” she says. “It was just everyday people doing things for their community.”
The Jack Long group is hoping the community will continue to embrace its heritage of self-determination. The group will share its ideas at an open house at the Alexandra Dance Hall on May 23. How the group proceeds will depend on the input they receive, but ideally they’re hoping to work with developers to designate a portion of every development to be afford- able. Thus, affordable units will be interspersed among market housing and not isolated in a ghetto.
This is hardly a new concept in Inglewood, as the community has had giant infills and modern homes right alongside small wartime bungalows for years.
“We want to carry forward what makes this neighbourhood strong,” says Reuben. “Every community can benefit by having a mixed demographic. It makes us all more human.”
Still, the group will undoubtedly have to dispel stereotypes about homelessness. The wealthy Calgarians buying up inner- city properties because of their close proximity to downtown office towers aren’t all sympathetic to the plight of the poor, and may prefer a community purged of ugly things like poverty. but the Jack Long group believes that if the poor are embraced, they can actually strengthen a community.
“Homelessness is not a young guy out of a job,” says Graben- Stetter. “Homelessness is very often an exhausted woman with kids. She just wants a place to raise her kids and not be pounded on. And that woman, when she gets the help she needs, is a very solid, strong part of the community. Her kids are in school. That’s a real good person to have in the community, and Inglewood’s a good community for a kid to grow up in.”
Long himself was opposed to the complete “clean up” of the community that some city planners have in mind. (The recent Inglewood area redevelopment Plan lists “transients and derelicts” who have been dislocated from neighbouring communities as one of Inglewood’s problems.)
“There’s a line that lots of people in 12-step recovery programs know: keep it simple stupid, or KISS,” says Grabenstetter. “Jack long had revised that to ‘keep Inglewood slightly sleazy.’ and that’s kind of what we want…. in Inglewood, there’s a kind of stubborn working class sense that we’re not going to sell our community to those rich people. The old people are brave and a little feisty. There’s a little pepper in the stew.”
Resident Suzanne Leacock is raising a family in Inglewood, and while she doesn’t like using long’s “old school” language to describe the community, she embraces the idea of being open to low-income families. “We want it to be inclusive,” says Leacock. “Opening your community to anyone is a really good direction. That’s what a good community should be. There should be flow coming in and leaving.”
Mcloone agrees that pushing out the marginalized won’t help the community forward. “We’re not trying to homogenize everything,” he says. “We’ve got hookers. We’ve got people who are drug addicted and like to booze. That’s okay. That’s who we are. We do not want to exclude anybody.”
The Jack Long group faces another challenge common to inner-city communities. Thirty years ago, families and singles could easily afford to live in Inglewood, but not anymore. with property values skyrocketing in Calgary, many inner-city homeowners—especially seniors—are facing larger property tax bills than they’re able to pay. Reuben says the community is not only struggling to build affordable housing, but also to keep long-time residents in homes that they’ve owned for years.
“We can’t even keep an affordable unit as an affordable unit,” says Reuben. “Our whole market-value system works against us. What do you do when your house was maybe $8,000—for an expensive house—30 or 40 years ago, and then suddenly in the nineties, someone says, ‘hey, your house is worth $200,000 and you will pay the property taxes on that’?”
Grabenstetter echoes Reuben’s complaints. “we moved to Inglewood in 1989 and bought our house for a song,” she says. “It is completely undermining to think of what that house is worth now.” As an afterthought, she adds: “Not what it’s worth, but what some fool is willing to pay for it.”
The forces of the market aren’t easily held back, especially in laissez-faire Alberta. The average home in Inglewood costs $338,888—up from $105,000 in 1996, and $48,000 in 1986.
Other cities face the same problems, and have created strong policies to deal with exploding market value. In Vancouver, 20 per cent of all major residential development must go to affordable housing. The policy has been in place since 1988, and has created the capacity for over 2,700 new units (though only 800 have been built, because of limited government funding for affordable housing projects). London, England, has similar regulations.
“I don’t know why the city [of Calgary] hasn’t adopted that kind of requirement,” says Reuben. “We wouldn’t be in this problem if they did. Look at the amount of development in Calgary. Even if we had 2 per cent, we’d have a lot of units.”
But the city of Calgary says provincial legislation prevents it from placing those requirements on developers.
“We’d love to [put a requirement on developers],” says Sarah Woodgate, an affordable housing policy coordinator for the city. “But we’re prevented from it by the Municipal Government Act.”
The Municipal Government Act outlines the organization structure and powers of Alberta cities and towns.
“There’s nothing in our [Municipal Government Act] that allows municipalities to tell developers that ‘this is what it’s going to be,’” says Jay O’Neill, a spokesperson for the province’s Department of Municipal Affairs. “Municipalities have other policies and strategies available to them to pursue affordable- housing options.”
Because there are no requirements in Calgary for developers to build affordable housing, the Jack long group will have to convince developers that affordable housing is a good idea. currently, Calgary “encourages” developers to get on board with affordable housing. (In the “planning and regulation” section of the city’s affordable housing strategy, the first listed goal is to “encourage competition and choice in the housing marketplace.”)
Still, the Jack long group is optimistic about the role their community can play in the future of affordable housing. Because its residents have in the past asserted their right to shape their environment, Inglewood still has plenty of people who want to keep its gritty character alive.
“When the people of Inglewood are asked to be introspective, they seem to find some kind of vision that is all-embracing,” says McLoone. “I think you’ll find that in any low-income area. They seem to have a handle on collaborative living, as opposed to competitive existence.”
Jeremy Klaszus is the contributing editor at Alberta Views.