Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Income Inequality in Peel

A three-part series in the Toronto Star has challenged assumptions about life in Peel. Normally, when I think of Peel, I think of prosperous middle-class suburbs that attract a substantial immigration. While the proportions vary, I would have guessed most Peel residents are reasonably comfortable middle-class. These assumptions bear little resemblance to the changing nature of Peel.

According to the Toronto Star, income inequality is growing dramatically in the region. The description I offered much better describes Peel in 1980 than 2013. In 1980 over 80% of residents of Peel were middle-income. This number has declined significantly. Several factors have combined to change the region. Sifts in the Canadian economy (particularly the decline of manufacturing), high levels of immigration and the Great Recession are just a few of the “causes”. As of 2010 45% of Peel’s neighbourhoods are categorized as low- or very low-income

In part, this transformation is understandable. I’m confident that if you looked at the fringe neighbourhoods or the newest suburbs you would find a high number of middle-income , or better, households. The older neighbourhoods have matured, and the population has diversified. My neighbourhood is somewhat of a prestige neighbourhood in Brampton. When it was constructed, as I understand it, it attracted doctors, lawyers and other professionals. Over the decades the composition has changed. The OntarioProjections census' analysis shows that my neighbourhood is now composed mostly of tradespeople. Based on this alone you can see how it could change the composition. However, there is much more to it than that.

It is difficult to look at this data and not filter it through my own life experience. I grew up in Peel and much of my family lives here as well. Obviously anecdotal evidence is not the end all, but here are some of my and my family’s impressions.

My sister is a few years older than I, but in many ways we’re at a similar point in our lives. We are early in our careers and working to begin our adult lives. A promising job opportunity came across my desk recently and in my excitement I tried to figure out what kind of life I could build with that lifestyle and income. The answer was... not promising. I estimated my potential income at several points and then, bravely, went to mortgage calculators to roughly see the type of loan I could theoretically afford.

The average income in the GTA in 2010 was $44,217, this was roughly the base number I used for my calculations. Based on that the calculators told me that I could get a mortgage of about $160,000. I believe it is safe to say that aside from a couple of condos it is impossible to find a home for that price or less. So, I fudged the numbers a bit. What if I paid more down? What if I made a little more theoretical money? The highest amount of money I got was $260,000. In the neighbourhood I grew up in, similar to whatis described in this article, bungalows and split-level homes routinely sell for $300,000-$450,000+.

Given where average income is, I assume for more people it is only through combined income with a spouse that most people can afford these homes. With a growing number of unmarried, or single-parent families, or merely single adults the issues in finding reasonable housing becomes more difficult. Compounding the problems is the restrictions on basement apartments the municipalities have.

New basement apartments have not been permitted since 1995. This is a very bad idea. Based on my own experience in St. Catharines, basement units can provide much needed income for families and, more importantly, provide affordable housing.

What about employment? I have been remarkably fortunate since leaving university that I have had well-paying jobs in the city of Brampton. While I was looking prospects seemed quite grim. Again, anecdotally, I know many individuals struggling to find work, especially those with higher education. Major centres like Toronto seem like the only places with the jobs that match skills, but commuting from Brampton into Toronto can be very difficult and expensive. My sister works in Toronto and commuted for years. Finally, the expense of the commute became too great and she joined the wave of young people moving from the suburbs into the city.

Since reading the articles I cannot help but look at my community differently, and consider new information through a new lens. I try as often as I can to bike to work. When I’m passing neighbourhoods I try to think about life for the people that live there, and if they are part of the growing low-income population of the city, struggling to get by.

One of the key problems I see facing Brampton and Peel is that we too often think of ourselves as suburbs, or small cities. Brampton is now larger than Hamilton, and Hamilton, as anyone from the Hammer will tell you, is a city. As growing cities we face problems like most cities: employment problems, traffic, growing poverty and income inequality, and increased pressure on social services. Thinking and acting like a city also has distinct benefits and overall is a positive for our community, but only if we properly address the drawbacks and issues facing residents who call this place home.

Below are the links to all three articles:

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