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A 50’s gal remembers housing heaven

November 27, 2013

I was born in 1955. For most of us, the 1950s conjure up an image of shiny faces in shiny new suburban homes. Mom is in the kitchen, dad is at work, and kids play happily on the front lawn.

It seems odd that an era so beloved of conservatives could be affordable housing heaven. Yet I believe it was a time when the modest requests of today’s housing activists — re-invest housing savings to preserve our housing stock; create new homes for the next generation – would not receive the chilly response they do today. They would have been seen as simple common sense.

What did the 1950s have that we don’t have now? 

Confidence in government spending

We often think of the 1950s as the time when people worked hard and stood on their own two feet. But what I remember is the proliferation of government services – a continuation of government investment that helped to dig Canada out of a depression in the 1930s, bankrolled World War II and then settled almost one million returning soldiers in the 1940s and 1.5 million immigrants in the 1950s.[1]

For my family, those government services included free start-up assistance that helped veterans like my dad establish their own businesses; Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation loan guarantees that allowed my low-income parents to buy a home; the baby bonus;[2] free and easily accessible medical care, including a nurse in every school; and a community centre that offered an astonishing array of fitness, language and recreation programs for a family membership of 50 cents/year.

At a time when a high school student could earn $100/week at a summer job, tuition at the University of British Columbia was $453/year. If you could live at home, as I could, you could graduate with money in the bank, simply through summer jobs.

Through this entire period there also were massive investments in public infrastructure: schools, hospitals, roads, sewers, freeways, bridges – all the things that are now demanding re-investment.

I may have been too young to follow adult conversations, but I don’t recall anyone complaining about “tax and spend” governments. Universal programs were seen as a natural part of the good life, and so naturally, governments spent money on them. That’s what government was for.

Effortlessly affordable housing

Our family got help buying a home, but we didn’t need much help. That’s because private market housing was affordable to all but the poorest Canadians.

In the 1950s, the rule of thumb was that housing should cost no more than 20% of a family’s income. (In 1969, the average Canadian household expenditure on housing was 17%.) [3]

Today the standard has jumped to 30%. Even so, 25% of all Canadian households – and 40% of tenants – pay more than 30% of their income on housing.

Here in Toronto, the median family income was $67,740[4] in 2011 and the average price of a Toronto home was $465,000.[5] (It’s now up to  $539,058).[6] The median income for an individual in 2011 was a demoralizing $22,900[7] and the average rent for a one-bedroom Toronto apartment was 1,081.[8]

In other words, in 2011 Jill Average paid 57% of her monthly gross income for the average one-bedroom apartment. As for Joe and Jane Family, even if they have no debts and can pull together an entire year’s income for a downpayment, CMHC’s mortgage calculator says the most they can pay for a house is $301,000. Since 2011, the situation has only become worse.

And back in the 50s? My dad’s low-wage-but-union job could support a four-person family in a nice three-bedroom house. My own first apartment in 1975 – a one-bedroom attic with an ocean view — cost $130/month including utilities. With an entry-level job paying $600/month, I was socking away savings by my 21st birthday. No wonder my generation is the rich one.

Hope, security, community

Does anyone else have the sense that mental illness is on the rise?

It’s something I hear all the time from social housing providers. Ordinary public and non-profit housing is discovering more and more applicants have some form of mental illness or addiction. (It’s not just Toronto either. I was just on the phone to a social housing waiting list administrator in another province. She tells me there used to be 10 healthy seniors for every person with a mental or physical disability applying for singles housing. Now the ratio is 1:1.)

I spent a couple of hours trying to find incidence data to compare the 1950s to today and couldn’t find it – except to learn that Canada’s suicide rate jumped 27% from 1955 to 2008.[9]

But I can’t help observing that many of the hallmarks of mental health recovery – hope, a secure base, supportive relationships – seem to be in shorter supply in 2013 than they were in the 1950s and 60s, especially for young people. According to last weekend’s Globe, “a loneliness crisis is looming.” Job security is obsolete, and housing security is increasingly fragile.

Right now, we are turning to our health system and social housing system to redress the problems. The mental health sector does need more resources. But programs designed to “fix” individuals cannot remedy a hopeless, insecure or lonely society. That takes collective action on a bigger scale.

Why do we put up with it?

In 2013, any proposal to increase government spending, to make housing more affordable, or to promote a more equitable and communitarian society is immediately dismissed. We act as if these are wild-eyed left-wing ideas – impossible to implement.

But they are possible. We know it, because we’ve done it before.

I am no economist, and I don’t really know how restore the standard of living we took for granted a generation ago. But I do know that the first step is to stop treating the status quo as normal or inevitable.

The status quo is not normal. It is not inevitable. And we could do so much better. And if you don’t believe me, go ask your mom.


[1]http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/statistics/facts2010/permanent/ In 1957, Canada welcomed 282,164 immigrants, or 1.7% of the population. By way of comparison, in 2010 we received 280,681 immigrants or 0.8% of the Canadian population.

[2] For a fascinating look at how attitudes have changed, see this Canadian Army newsreel lauding family allowances: “Now the burden of child maintenance will be distributed among all the people of the Dominion.”

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 28, 2013 7:50 pm

    It does make one pine for ‘the good old days.’ Even though terms like ‘the common good’ weren’t in use then, the depression and WW2 did heighten one’s awareness of one’s neighbour and the need to ‘pull together.’

    How do we get that back? How do we move beyond the greed is good mantra to being my neighbour’s keeper, and they mine?
    Maybe we boomers have invested so much into consumerism that our souls are depleted of the conviction and sacrifice needed to turn things around.

    But for some reason I’m hopeful. Talking helps. Blogs like these help. Raising the political conversation from tax cuts to investing in social capital helps. Our kids not having what we have, helps. Churches re-engaging with poor and marginalized people helps. Speaking truth to those in power helps. Prayer helps…’history belongs to the intercessors’ (Walter Wink) helps…the influx of immigrants and refugees, peoples with a keener sense of community than ours, helps…

  2. December 10, 2013 3:42 pm

    “In 2013, any proposal to increase government spending, to make housing more affordable, or to promote a more equitable and communitarian society is immediately dismissed.”

    My own thoughts:

    Changes in housing construction costs may not be passed onto the consumer, but instead captured by the owners of land or by the development industry – housing is a matter of supply and demand, and housing construction costs impact the supply of new housing, but other factors like financing terms and interest rates probably have a greater impact on how much new housing is added.

    I think that people are finally catching on to the idea of income inequality is an issue and the result of 30 years of policies designed to benefit the top 1% to or the top 10%.

    The idea of government providing more housing itself is a non-starter. I see the issue as one of being that incomes have not kept pace – it is an issue of poverty and stagnant incomes.

    Lastly, people’s standards have gone up from the 900 square foot bungalows built circa 1950 to homes with massive kitchens with all the conveniences, 2 car garages etc. – Elisabeth Warren did some very interesting work on how household spending changed – this was before she became a US Senator.

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