Your City for June 2013

Illustration by Kyle Bustin

The signs are everywhere. Front lawns or windows spangled with For Sale signs. Classified websites hawking one-bedroom basement apartments for $850 a month P.O.U. Office towers and condominium developments sprouting like morel mushrooms after a forest fire.

When a hovel fixer-upper on Hamilton Avenue runs you $225,000, and when a split-level in Paradise costs $400,000, there can be no doubt: the St. John’s metro area is in the midst of an unprecedented boom. People really want to live here.

The city’s May 2013 economic update revealed that property values in the city have risen 106 per cent since 2006. By any measure, that’s an astonishing rate of growth, especially considering somewhere in the midst of that time span was the minor hiccup, the brief spell of indigestion in the world economy we’ve come to refer affectionately to as The Great Recession.

Generally speaking, economists take real estate prices as a bellwether of the overall economy, so it must be a fine time to live here in St. John’s. At least for some people. As with any place that has embraced consumerism wholesale, there needs to be some people who lose and some people who tumble out of the machinery like faulty gears. A real estate boom brings more than its fair share of growing pains, too, even for the un-disadvantaged.

City council seems to vacillate between being hip to alleviating these growing pains and being woefully underprepared for them. For instance, in the May 21 meeting, council unanimously voted to spend $1.5 million on developing an 8.4-acre park in the Kenmount Terrace area. The park will be adjacent to a larger swath of wetlands that the city was able to snag for $1. The wetlands will be folded into the city’s protective bosom. The park shows a clear recognition that people in the Southlands/Kenmount Terrace sprawlplex are in need of a recreation area, but as if to dissuade people from thinking that it’s an outright gold-star idea, Mayor Dennis O’Keefe was quick to say of the park (as quoted in a CBC article from May 21) that “Public transport won’t be a problem” because “Metrobus is just down the road.”

Ah, Metrobus. The diseased organ in the otherwise healthy body. Oh sure, bus routes extend to every sector and far-flung cranny of the city, but if you’re pressed for time or are in any way accustomed to things moving on a rigid schedule, forget about it. Some people would argue that a well-functioning public transportation infrastructure is vital to the growth of a city. City council is showing faint signs that maybe they know this too, at least on a theoretical level.

The new Metrobus depot, which cost $28 million, is scheduled to open later this year. Additionally, the Metrobus fleet is being upgraded, which will cost $15 million over the next three years. With these multimillion-dollar investments, perhaps the bus-riding public can be optimistic that one day soon, Metrobus will actually be of practical use.

There’s been a lot of talk in the media of late about the perils and pitfalls of the boomtown, specifically in the rise of hard drug use and the expansion of the prostitution industry. Whatever your position is on these blights, they seem insignificant in comparison to the broader problem of some people just plain not being able to afford to live here anymore.

The people who are going to be hardest hit by the rapid rise in real estate values are seniors on fixed incomes, young people just making their transition into adult life, and low-income citizens. Sure, the issue of affordable housing is complex and pretty much insoluble in a free-market system, but council at least seems cognizant that there’s a need for it. At the regular meeting on April 29, for example, council granted approval for a low-income housing development at 71 Guy Street that will be operated by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s just one development run by one charity.

Mayoral candidate Sheilagh O’Leary has been remarkably quiet on most issues since announcing her candidacy, except on the issue of affordable housing for seniors. She has broached the topic of doing more for seniors affected by rising property values and tax rates a number of times since the budget was approved in January, in most cases earning rebukes from the mayor and other members of council. The 2013 budget includes a review of tax rates for seniors with an eye to eventually providing relief for them, but O’Leary has repeatedly stated that not enough is being done. While it’s a smart issue for her to be campaigning on, it also happens to be true — the population is aging, and more and more retirees will eventually face the challenge of skyrocketing taxes that follow alongside skyrocketing property values.

While unveiling the city’s capital works budget for the next three years on May 13, some of council’s rhetoric strayed into the reaches of hyperbole. It was referred to as “an historic” document. “Our children’s children’s children” was a phrase that might have even been uttered at one point.

Cutting through the bloviation and bluster, though, it actually does begin to appear as a historic budget. The city is in the midst of a transformation that’s perhaps never been equalled in the almost 400 years it has existed.

And along with this transformation comes a raft of complex issues that council needs to be ready address in the long view. Stay tuned.

Election Watch 2013

Deputy-mayoral candidate Ron Ellsworth kicked up a minor war of words with the mayor, suggesting that city hall’s restructuring will result in a $500,000 salary increase. The mayor shot back that since most of the changes are internal, there will be almost a nil effect on salary.

As of May 21, ex-mayoral candidate Geoff Chaulk is back in the race. Chaulk dropped out of the mayoral race in April, citing health reasons.

Follow Nathan’s live play-by-play of the drama of city politics every Monday at 4:30 pm on Twitter @thescopeNL