Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Of Mice and Meth

“What I really wanted to do was sell ice cream, but I couldn’t get around the zoning by-laws!”

Dear Winnipeg,

How have you been holding up?

My wife and I have been doing ok, trying to get work done with the kids home from school, while simultaneously trying to coordinate with their (saintly) teachers to keep them on track with their elementary school education, all without the benefit of being able to just send them outside to burn off some energy. A challenge for sure.

[If we can just prevent the kids from killing each other, I think I’m going to call that a win.]

But I realize that still places us very much in Camp Fortunate. We both still have our incomes, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change, at least in the next little while.

A lot of people are going through a much bigger world of hurt right now.

With a reported one million Canadians filing for unemployment in a single week, and another million the following week, Royal Bank of Canada’s analysts estimate that the current unemployment rate is “likely 15 percent or higher”.

Yikes.

And apparently, it’s probably going to get worse. [I hear Carole Baskin refuses to be in the new episode of Tiger King. I know!]

According to Maclean’s:

Even if social distancing measures were to be lifted soon, some of those jobs are gone for good. Companies like Westjet and the Winnipeg bus manufacturer New Flyer Industries have said part of the cuts made in March will be permanent. Other businesses have closed shop entirely.

Maclean’s, Coronavirus plunges Canada’s economy into the abyss (April 6, 2020).

On top of that, the stock market has lost much of its value, wiping out a large part of what retirees or soon-to-be retirees were going to live on.

So what are we going to do when, eventually, daily life is allowed to return to normal?

How will we rebuild our economy so people have jobs again? How will retirees replace the lost income they planned to live on?

How will we rebuild our lives so WE can get back to normal?

One thing is for sure, we can’t just wait for the Aspers and the Chipmans to save us.

I mean, I’m sure they’ll do their part, but we can’t JUST rely on big business. We all have a role to play if we want to get out of this quickly, and stronger than before. That’s how we used to do it.

During the Depression, a struggling couple might have converted their second floor into a separate suite to rent out. Extra income for them, affordable housing for someone else who might have lost their home or apartment due to the tanking economy, and extra property taxes for the City.

Win-win-win.

My neighbours across the street still had a second kitchen upstairs right up until they removed it last year. There’s evidence of the same in my own 105-year-old house. And I suspect this applies to many of the big, old two-storey houses around here.

Behind this unassuming dresser lie the vestiges of a 2nd floor kitchen!

But while the family who lived in my house during the Depression was able to make ends meet by adapting an additional living quarters upstairs to rent out, nowadays my family cannot. We don’t meet the parking requirements.

Back in the day, someone could easily start a business from their home, even part-time, or incrementally, with less capital and less risk, since it eliminated the need to rent or buy a separate space. Store in the front, living quarters in the back.

The remnants of these architectural mullets (“business in the front, party in the back”) are peppered throughout our older neighbourhoods.

While they are very common in our older neighbourhoods, these are mostly illegal now, outlawed by our segregated zoning rules. Why? We don’t want traffic in our neighbourhoods.

We’ve made rules against the very things that would help us in a time like this, not because we don’t like people, not because we don’t like the convenience of having nearby businesses, not because we hate economic development, financial resilience, or better-funded City services.

Nope, we did it for one reason. Cars. In our quest to control how many cars could drive or park in our neighbourhoods, we changed our development rules to separate things to leave room for parking, we segregated land uses to leave room for driving, all of which made things bigger, more expensive to develop and further apart.

[That’s like burning down your house to get rid of termites. I mean, yeah, the termites are gone now, but…]

But as Jane Jacobs astutely observed over sixty years ago, it’s not the use that’s incompatible, it’s the scale.

Living right next door to a mom-and-pop store? Adorable.

Living right next door to Costco? If you need me, I’ll be making toast in the bath…

The worst thing about this ice cream shop is that it isn’t closer to my house! Yum!

Over the last seven decades, we’ve changed the rules of development, instead of simply focusing on changing the rules of transportation. Things that in the past could just be done by paying a small permit fee and off you go, now require lengthy public hearings, appeals, variances, conditional uses, rezonings, many expensive fees and much more, if they can be done at all.

As a side effect, that has made it much harder for our City, and our citizens, to adapt in the face of financial hardship. And it’s made it nearly impossible for many people to even participate, since the cost, in both time and money, for even the most basic of adaptations is now much, much higher.

We’ve raised the barrier to entry, so only those starting out with money (or the ability to borrow it) are able to get in the game. All others need not apply.

That has always left a significant segment of the population without many options to better their lot in life. In our post-COVID world, that segment will all of a sudden be much larger.

There are many who may be left with no other choice than to take a page from Walter White in order to ensure their family’s financial security.

After all, according to Frederick J. Desroches, Sociology and Legal Studies Professor at the University of Waterloo:

Barriers to entry into the higher levels of the drug markets were minimal, and most dealers attained their positions without having to undergo lengthy apprenticeships or accumulate large quantities of capital.

From “The Crime That Pays: Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime in Canada”, by Frederick J. Desroches

At a minimum, we need to make starting a business, or adding a rental suite, easier to get into than opening a meth lab. Even if you’re starting out with nothing. Actually, especially if you’re starting out with nothing.

No conditional uses, no variances, no rezonings, no public hearings. For anything up to a triplex, and most live-work businesses, you just pay your (small) permit fee and go.

Want to open an accounting office out of your home? Cool, do it.

Want to start cutting hair out of your basement? Give ‘er.

Want to open a dance studio, or a karate dojo in your garage? Hi-ya, my friend!

Want to use the front of your house for a neighbourhood bakery, coffee shop, or hardware store? Seriously, I can’t wait to eat, drink, or screw your wares!

[Um, yes.]

And I know we’ve talked about his before, but the small, pedestrian-oriented way of doing things is not only more resilient than the large, car-oriented way, it’s also better for city coffers.

Take a look at this old Safeway. Even before COVID, it has sat vacant for almost five years and counting… who has the means to take over this space? The barrier to entry is too high, and the list of potential businesses for it is limited to a few national chains.

Has been vacant since November 2015, unless you count the unofficial park-and-ride that has appeared.

Remember what I said about relying on big business? But instead compare it to this little workhorse up the street:

Since 2015, this has been a convenience store, then a bakery and now, a clothing store. And it also has a pair of 2-bedroom apartments on top.

The fact that it’s small makes it more accessible to a wider range of businesses. And if a startup doesn’t make it, there’s a deep pool of potential replacements for it. This space does not stay vacant for long. Not to mention that it generates over 3 times the property taxes per square foot than the old Safeway site. And we’ve already discussed why that’s important.

So if it’s good for business, good for people, good for the economy, good for the City, why aren’t we doing it already?

We need to change our rules to make it possible for people to start with nothing, and build up to something. And the great thing is, not only is all of this already under City jurisdiction, but changing the rules doesn’t cost anything! And that’s a relief because the City’s finances just went from bad to worse in the last 3 weeks alone.

And once we’ve done that, we can get to work fixing the real thing we take issue with: transportation. And I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you, but the solutions there are actually cheaper than the status quo!

Look, we’ve all heard the old story: “My grandpa started with nothing, but he pulled himself up by the bootstraps, and by golly, made something of himself!”

The reality is that your grandpa could. You can’t. The rules simply don’t allow it anymore.

Sorry to wreck your plans.

But it’s like they say, the best-laid plans oft lead to cooking meth for a living. Or something like that.

Love,

Elmwood Guy