Thursday, January 26, 2012

Taking a Second Look at Second Suites, part 1

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation insures mortgages so aspiring homeowners need a lower down payment. But the CMHC also keeps a finger on the pulse of the housing market in each community, both ownership and rental.
Theirnews for Barrie isn’t good. Rental vacancy rates dropped to 1.7% in 2011 and are projected to be only 1.5% in 2012. A healthy vacancy rate is 3%, providing a good choice in units for tenants and a secure market for landlords.
Two main consequences of low vacancy rates are higher rents and worse choice in units. People must settle for apartments which are too small, in the wrong part of town, or otherwise substandard, yet pay more for them. Lousy or overpriced housing is one more stress for families already struggling with higher electric and water bills and increasing gas prices or transit fares.
New rental housing isn’t coming very fast, if at all. There are promises to include affordable housing in the mix in the new annexation lands, but those are still many years off. Even once construction starts, higher density affordable units are usually the last to be built, only after the developers have made the big money selling premium properties.
Intensification is great, but there is a dearth of affordable housing proposals for our existing urban areas. Any higher density proposal meets with zoning obstacles and neighbourhood opposition, and most apartment buildings that get approved are aimed at seniors. This leaves out the rest of the demographics.
One of the best and quickest solutions would be to increase the facility for second units (apartments in houses, or granny suites) in all existing neighbourhoods. In fact, in recognition of this, the province is requiring municipalities to alter their official plans to allow for greater use of this housing mode, as part of the Strong Communities through Affordable Housing Act.
Second suites are a gentle form of intensification. Requiring no new construction or infrastructure, they don’t create a visible change in the neighbourhood. Instead, they fill underutilized space in existing homes. Our houses have grown larger while average family size has shrunk, leaving a lot of half-empty homes that can easily be split and shared.
Second units make housing more affordable for tenants and owners. A young family buying a home can rent out part of it to help pay the mortgage. Seniors and empty-nesters with an apartment get help with expenses, and someone to share yard work and show-shoveling duties. Aging or emptying residential areas are renewed as younger families move in. Having more residents improves the sense of community and security of the street.
In part two, I will address myths behind common objections to second suites.

Published in the Barrie Examiner as Root Issues: "Second suites a gentle form of intensification"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of the Ontario School of Economic Science and Earthsharing Canada

Friday, January 20, 2012

Sam’s legacy thrives on through special Guatemalan project

Not many people get the chance to truly save another’s life. My cousin did, before his own life was cut short. Now, in his memory, one village’s children get a better education, as January marks the beginning of the new school year in Guatemala.
For three years Sam Clarke volunteered with the Guatemala Stove Project, the charity founded by my uncle Tom of which I’ve written before. In 2007, he helped as a photographer, taking photos of the families with their new, efficient ceramic cookstoves provided by Project donors. In one household, he noticed the mother was hiding a young girl behind her skirts. He investigated and discovered she suffered from a severely cleft palate.  
Among poor rural Guatemalans, disfigurement like this means a tragic life of shame, misery, poor health, and ostracism. But the Project helped this little girl and turned her life around. The Project covered her travel costs to a distant city where an American medical charity provided a series of surgeries. She can now speak and eat properly, fully participate in her family and community, and someday marry and have a family of her own.
Sadly, Sam’s own promising young life was cut short the following year, when he was struck and killed while biking from class at London’s Fanshawe College, where his passions for music and social justice were just beginning to be expressed. But his legacy lives on through the Sam Clarke Memorial Fund.
In 2009 the Fund built and equipped a schoolhouse in the remote Guatemalan village of Panimaquim. Named “Escuela Los NiƱos de Sam,” this two-classroom brick building provides the village’s 35 children with a good place to learn, complete with two-room latrine, washing station, and its own kitchen where local moms take turns cooking healthy meals. The Project initially funded two years of school lunches and has set up a chicken coop with 100 chickens as a self-sustaining source of food and income so students can continue to have a healthy lunch in years to come.
The Project’s next goal is a scholarship fund for higher education for a couple of the village’s children. This impoverished region would benefit greatly from the professional skills of a local doctor, nurse, lawyer, or teacher.
One of the Guatemala Stove Project’s strengths is flexibility. The $225 per stove that donors give allows for some extra discretionary funds which can be used for things like that young girl’s travel expenses, or for the wheelchair the project bought for a 10-year-old with cerebral palsy who was still being carried on his mother’s back. If you’d like to help with projects like these, or support the Sam Clarke Memorial Fund directly, please visit

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

I know you are, but what am I?

According to Resource Minister Joe Oliver’s open letter, I’m a foreign-backed environmentalist “threatening to hijack our regulatory system to achieve my radical ideological agenda”. Really?!
Utilizing rhetoric and misleading information, the Minister tars people trying to exercise their democratic rights in hearings examining the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal as some kind of anti-Canadian force. He even denigrates our own regulatory process, already significantly weakened (or as the spin goes, “streamlined”) under the Harper regime, with false anecdotes about skating rinks [1] and misattributions of the MacKenzie Valley pipeline delays [2].
Oliver accuses anyone questioning Northern Gateway as being against all forestry, mining, oil, gas, even hydro-electricity. Who are these people? Certainly not the ones I know within the environmental movement. My colleagues are well aware that we need a balanced economy, but also know that undertaking major projects with insufficient planning and oversight leads to critical accidents with tragic consequences. This specific project could easily result in massive leaks, not to mention the catastrophic oil spills that tankers at the end of the pipeline could inflict upon a very sensitive BC coast.
Canada needs a sustainable economy, one which will provide generations of prosperity and preserve our magnificent natural wealth. Recklessly extracting fossil fuels at the fastest rate robs future generations of their share of wealth while destroying the ecological systems that keep us all alive and healthy. Vast resources exist under our feet, but that’s no reason to ignore all factors other than maximizing extraction dollars today.
As David Suzuki has noted, the goals of those who urge caution in such projects are actually pretty conservative: to live within our means, save some for tomorrow, and consider the legacy we leave for our children.
And as pointed out by Vancouver Observer writer David P. Ball, Oliver’s letter uses the same rhetorical devices as a recent speech by Syrian dictator al-Assad, painting a picture of a looming and maleficent foreign influence trying to harm Canada. Yet all sense of proportion is lost. Sure, some Canadian environmental groups have received financial support from American foundations with shared goals of environmental preservation. Yet how much money has poured into tar sands development from foreign multinationals and Chinese government-owned companies? Billions of dollars and counting. Foreign firms have bought claims to so much tar sands that I wonder if we can still call it “our” oil.
And how can we call such oil “ethical” if the ownership, decision-making, and profits fall to the same countries we deride as “unethical”? Foreign investment clearly strongly influences the federal and Alberta governments, and they seem willing to step on democratic consultations so they can stuff their pockets faster.
I’m a foreign-backed radical? Back at you, Minister.
[1] Minister Oliver claims that overbearing federal environmental assessment standards delayed the use of a frozen pond for skating for two months. In fact, it was an outdoor rink in a schoolyard, and the two months didn't delay it, as it was ready for Christmas skating. And the only reason it would need federal permission is because it is within Banff national park; but in fact all it needed was school board permission.
[2] Oliver claims it took 9 years to approve the MacKenzie Valley pipeline. Yet its application was filed in 2004 and approved in 2011, which is only 7 years. And the last year's delay was due to a disagreement on funding between the proponent and the government, nothing to do with any environmental review.

A shorter version of this was published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Joe Oliver needs to take a look in the mirror".

Update: Further analysis from the Vancouver Observer, this time comparing Oliver & Harper's messaging to McCarthyism.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Stoneleigh to share priceless knowledge

A year ago, Transition Barrie and GEAR hosted energy consultant and financial analyst Nicole Foss to a packed crowd at Georgian College to offer her perspective on the global financial and energy crisis that we currently see unfolding.
Nicole, who writes under the pen-name ‘Stoneleigh’ on website The Automatic Earth, brings a wealth of knowledge about the continuing sovereign debt crisis and the impact of unsustainable energy policies.
Based on a farm near Ottawa where she and her partner are preparing off-grid self-sufficiency to weather the coming storm, Nicole has been speaking all over North America, Europe and Asia on the global financial situation and its correlation to the energy crisis looming in our not-too-distant future. Parallels between energy subsidies and financial bubbles teach important lessons, both in how we arrange our systems and how we pay for them.
Her analysis suggests we have developed an unsustainable credit bubble over the past 30 years that must eventually burst. Many of the forecasts Nicole made here last year are already playing out on the global stage. Europe’s debt crisis stumbles from bad to worse, the American position worsened by an administration hostage to partisan gamesmanship. Meanwhile, special interests continue to drive energy policy.
Foss outlines the circumstance that led to this situation both from a financial and resource perspective and lays out her interpretation of the likely outcome using past market crashes as models for market reaction.
She then offers her perspective on ways to reduce and prepare for the impact of what she predicts will be a correction more severe than the Great Depression. Individuals and communities that take steps now to prepare for the effects of debt saturation and resource scarcity stand a much better chance to control their own financial destinies.
Canadians have so far escaped much of the fallout of this global crisis, but it will catch up with us. We are a resource-based economy, importing much of our necessities via lengthy supply chains. With a global economy that runs on credit, a bursting bubble will cause almost all commerce to halt, a worst-case scenario averted (or delayed) in 2008 only through massive bailouts and support of failed financial institutions in the USA.
Please join us next Tuesday, January 10th at 7PM at Barrie’s Southshore Centre to hear Stoneleigh’s update. A $5 donation is appreciated. For tickets, Call Mike at 705.721.6867 or email Karen at
Given the complexity of the situation and the conflicting messages broadcast through various media, hearing a well-informed and unbiased analysis of the events that will have increasing impact on our personal lives is a valuable investment of time.

Written for my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner, published under the title "Be informed in the face of looming collapse"

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of the Ontario School of Economic Science and Earthsharing Canada.