I am a single mother who lives in downtown Edmonton with my 9-year-old daughter. When my marriage ended 5.5 years ago, I was faced with the reality that I needed to find a safe and family-friendly space for my daughter and I since I could no longer live in the marital home my ex-husband and I owned. Our legal proceedings took almost three years to finalize, and during this time I incurred incredible legal costs and was not able to access money from the sale of our home or personal business, nor was I able to access spousal support. These factors greatly affect a person’s ability to secure housing, even without having a child.
Prior to the end of my marriage, I had always been the primary parent, which greatly lowered my earning potential, even though it was also an incredible asset to the health and well-being of our family. My other profession was that of a freelance writer – a job which can be feast or famine – but one that also afforded me the flexibility to spend quality time with my daughter in the shared custody arrangement following the divorce.
In order to simplify my life and expenses, I purposefully chose to live downtown, so that I could live within walking distance of schools, leisure amenities and grocery stores, and could benefit from the opportunity for spontaneous social interaction and networking opportunities, since much of my writing and volunteer work was related to urban issues. Because my extended family did not live in the city and I was navigating some very difficult emotional territory in my new role as a single parent and solo income earner, I knew I needed to rely more heavily on the community at large for support in order to maintain my mental health and sense of place in a community.
Despite all of the “sustainable neighbourhood” and “vibrant community” rhetoric I helped my own city propagate through my work as a community activist and journalist, I was absolutely shocked to discover that almost all of the buildings within my price range and chosen location were not accessible to me (in a time when I needed them the most) because they were considered “adult-only.”
When I approached property management companies such as Midwest, I was told that children did not belong in high rises. Others told me that I should try and find more suitable family dwellings in other neighbourhoods. All of these responses shocked me and struck me as archaic, since I am one who is deeply committed to community-building initiatives and have always tried my best to raise my child to be a considerate and respectful human being. Besides that, I also believed that my role as a parent was to decide what worked best for me and my family, not the role of developers or property management companies to dictate the appropriate ways and places to raise a child. I would even go as far as to say this seemed like a very anti-Albertan attitude.
At first I thought I was overreacting to being turned away, but when I started sharing my story with others, the majority of people I spoke to had no idea that condo boards, rental companies and property management companies in all neighbourhoods in all towns and cities in Alberta could legally prevent children from living in their buildings. They truly couldn’t believe this would be the case, because frankly, it is and sounds, nonsensical.
Another group of people that I encountered (mostly at the playgrounds and play groups) were parents from various socio-economic backgrounds who had run into similar obstacles, and were silently angry and humiliated by the barriers they had encountered in trying to access family-friendly housing in their own city. Many of them had decided to keep their experiences to themselves and just move on until they found something suitable. Some stories also included anecdotes from professional women admitting they were putting off having children because they loved their condos and did not want to move if they chose to start a family.
What shocked me the most however, was learning that this housing issue is not news to people who have the power to change laws. In fact, many of our provincial, municipal and community leaders were already aware that these discriminatory laws were issues facing their constituents, yet they consciously and strategically chose not to speak publicly about this issue for fear of alienating voters, angering developers and real estate associations, or strategically choosing to back down from an issue they thought they might lose in the court of public opinion, or an issue that may be sufficiently “out of sight, out of mind” for the majority of people.
Perhaps this is what politics is all about, and I am willing to accept that sometimes playing the “long game” is a valid strategy in achieving desired results. But I am also going to suggest that GREAT politics and true leadership involves taking GREAT risks, and employing personal courage, passion and conviction to speak frankly and boldly on behalf of those who are not willing, able or brave enough to advocate for issues relating to their own human rights. When I realized that this was not happening, I decided to do what a writer is supposed to do. Speak. Prod. Question. Inform.
So this is what I am saying.
I believe that housing is for humans. Period.
The issue of child-friendly housing is not a partisan issue. This is a human rights issue and an issue that must be addressed now – not left for future generations – if we actually want to build communities that are truly vibrant, sustainable and inspiring in reality, not just on architectural drawings. I believe with all of my heart in the power of sharing our stories as an effective mode of political activism and transformation. The individual has the power to use their voice, words and vote for the benefit of the collective. We must motivate and direct our less-bold leaders to do their jobs, which is to work for us.
In the case of child-friendly housing in Alberta, I choose to imagine that the majority of Albertans want a province that is hospitable to all humans – regardless of age, race, gender or political affiliation. This is why I am choosing to speak up on this topic and I am hoping you will do the same.
By the way, I did finally find a rare one-bedroom walk-up apartment downtown that allowed children, and a few years later, a two-bedroom apartment in a building populated by many other pet owners and parents with children, many of whom had been turned away from other buildings. I will be eternally grateful to the people who rented to me, even though the laws protect their rights not to. I am also very grateful for the adversity I had to experience, so that I had the opportunity to understand what others before me have already faced in silence.
Lastly, my experience of living in a city as an educated and responsible person who cannot rely solely on money as a source of protection and comfort, has taught me that the most valuable investment I will ever make is not in real estate, but rather in the people and places that make me feel safe, empowered and at home – in other words, community.
I hope my story will inspire you to consider how you can contribute to the health and safety of your own neighbourhoods – which are hopefully growing and nurturing our future leaders, entrepreneurs, teachers, civil servants, artists, developers, community-builders –and if we are very lucky, maybe even a writer or two. Please email your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org. I can also arrange to interview you over the phone.
Jodie McKague is a freelance writer and founding member of the Child-Friendly Housing Coalition of Alberta.