Let Canada's "Loyalist City", Saint John, Take you Back to the Future for the Affordable Housing Solution
We’ve all seen federal, provincial and municipal politicians’ brows become furrowed as they spout empathetic statements about their shared frustration with the public when confronted in media interviews about what can be done to solve the affordable housing crisis. They all know the answer. It’s mixed use residential housing; a combination of single- family homes and townhouses along with low rise condominium and rental apartments in a walkable greenspace neighbourhood. However, affordable housing is one of those third rails in politics that politicians are afraid to tell the truth about because of the fear that they’ll be associated with and stigmatized by the NIMBY (not in my backyard) factor that will spell the end of their career.
NIMBYism is a fear of the unknown. A combination of post- World War II public policy, politics and private sector real estate development promotion in North America created a successful marketing mystique that convinced boomers and millennials that the ideal home life was encapsulated in single family residences ensconced in exclusive residential neighbourhoods. Zoning was utilized to promote and correspondingly restrict middle and upper- class residential neighbourhood development to single family homes. These became the preferred addresses that assured owners of an increase in value and a guaranteed tax-free investment when sold. Any attempt to alter or interfere with the status quo single family home owner mindset, which has been deeply ingrained in the middle and upper classes predominant among voters, is met with a resounding NIMBY.
Now let me take you back to the future on the street where I grew up. Saint John New Brunswick, incorporated in 1783 as Canada’s oldest city, was a boomtown of considerable wealth in the heyday of wooden shipbuilding and the lumber trade of the 19th century. One of its premiere residential streets of that golden era of commerce was Douglas Avenue. It was sprinkled with grand mansions replete with beautifully landscaped lawns maintained by gardeners along with maids an chauffeurs. But it was more than the grand mansions that made it a very desirable place to live. Intermingled with the majestic manses was a mixture of middle- class single family residences, two story townhouse configurations (“flats”) and two and three story working class tenement apartment buildings.
Yes, the mansions were there to stare at and wonder what it would be like to live like the 1%. However, all of the other homes didn’t stand out as aberrations but fitted in because of their quality design and construction. The single- family homes although similar in design were not all the same.
The contractors who built them were small enterprises who added their own signature to the residence such as customized windows and door frames. It was all very subtle and not expensive. It was craftmanship that made them compatible fits with nearby mansions. The two- story townhouse apartments adhered to the same principles. In fact, because the mansions tended to be multi story residences the two - story town house apartments were of a comparable size with comfortable living quarters. The three- story working class tenement apartment buildings consisted of two bedrooms, a kitchen and living room.
But there was more to Douglas Avenue than residences. The New Brunswick Museum, Canada’s oldest continuing museum, an impressive grey stone building with an adjacent green space park gave the street a majestic edge. There was a stately mansion at the edge of the park. However, next door to the mansion was the local RCMP detachment and the residence for the local sergeant. The detachment didn’t have a police station look. It was designed to complement the residential look of the street.
Although our single family residence middle- class home certainly didn’t stand out it fitted in because it had a neat and tidy front lawn and an artistic stained glass window above the door with lilac bushes separating our home from an apartment building next door. In other words, an affordable home fitted in with mansions just several doors away because of quality design and construction. One of the pleasures of walking along Douglas Avenue was and still is just looking at so many of the ordinarily homes and seeing something special adorning the sidings, window and brick work.
And us kids all fitted in. I remember how several us who lived in close proximity to one of the mansions used to enjoy sitting on the manicured lawn watching their fully uniformed chauffeur who looked just like what you would see on Upstairs/Downstairs or Downton Abbey hand washing the limousine once a week. He would play a I’m going to catch you with the hose game as we dodged the spray. One of those boys lived just three doors away in a neat and tidy working- class home whose dad drove a bicycle back and forth to work at MRA every day because there was no way they could ever afford a car. It was just as much fun to keep an eye out for him on a sunny summer afternoon and see if he could keep up with the cars who were driving along Douglas Avenue on their way home from work.
Eastern Bakeries, yes you guessed it, an industrial business was located on Douglas Avenue just across from what was then Saint John Vocational School (VOC). In those days you could sneak in and from a distance watch bread being baked in large scale commercial ovens. The building was tastefully designed with a spacious green space front lawn. It was directly across the street from a grand home that had it’s own greenhouse and a beautiful floral garden maintained by, you guessed it, a full time gardener.
I could go on and do go on about Douglas Avenue in one of the chapters of my book Meaningful Memories (www.johngkelly.ca) but you get the picture. The Loyalist City with an incredible heritage has the solution to the affordable housing crisis. We showed how it could be done 150 years ago but like so much of our heritage it has become lost in the petty politics of today with its appalling lack of leadership
John G. Kelly
Mentoring & Counselling