Filmmaker says government and citizens must stop hampering affordable housing

As the boom drove rents in Calgary to record levels Brent Spiess took a camera and went down to the Drop-In Centre. He started interviewing people affected by the housing crisis including a former factory manager who went from having a $60000-per year income to staying at the shelter unable to find a place to live. “He had no assurance every night that he could get a place to sleep” says Spiess. “That’s something this film’s trying to get at – over 50 per cent of the people in shelters are working.” The film is Bridge to Community: The Affordable Housing Crisis in Alberta. Over the year that it took Spiess to make it rents and house values climbed astronomically and the shortage of accommodation reached a crisis situation. “It’s not just the homeless it’s the middle class affected by this” says Spiess. Along the way he interviewed everyone from young students to seniors feeling squeezed by the high cost of housing. At the same time he found average people trying to find solutions themselves. While he was making the movie he was approached by a group of senior citizens who were trying to build an affordable housing complex in Ogden. One of them spoke to Spiess on camera and told him that their efforts were hampered by the city which they say reneged on a promise to provide the land for the project. “When people’s income doesn’t go up with rents the government should step in” he says. “They should at least do something so people aren’t cannibalized by greedy landlords.” He also feels that efforts to fix the shortage are being impeded by neighbourhoods that resist affordable housing projects. “Many people look down on the poor and don’t want them in (their communities)” he says. “As Alberta has become prosperous people have become snobbish. We don’t have a sense of what a true community is anymore.” In Inglewood where Spiess lives the community objected to an affordable housing project being built in the area a couple of years ago. He cites the Mustard Seed tower as the most recent example of a housing project that faced opposition because it would house low-income people in a residential area. In May the Mustard Seed unveiled a plan to build a tower of affordable housing adjacent to its site at Centre Street and 10 Avenue S.W. Two weeks ago Ald. Madeleine King who represents the area brought a motion to city council asking that the tower be split up and units built in several locations. “It certainly appeared to me that the poor weren’t welcome in her downtown area” says Floyd Perras the Mustard Seed’s operations officer. Perras argues that as the neighbourhood becomes increasingly gentrified the tower will be the only spot of diversity in the area. He says that King didn’t offer the Mustard Seed any land as an alternative to developing in its current space and that when she brought the issue up at council it was too late. “We already did a lot of consultation we got a positive response from the community” he says. “(We want) to find the best solution to create a strong diverse community where everyone can live happily.” Last Monday King withdrew her motion allowing the Mustard Seed to proceed with the project. Perras hopes to break ground next spring and to have the building finished by 2010. As for the affordable housing project that divided Spiess’s home community it eventually went forward. The Inglewood Project as it’s currently being called broke ground last month on a site in the southeast corner of the neighbourhood. Scheduled for completion at the end of the year it will contain 114 suites. Meanwhile Spiess hopes his film will help encourage people to take action in the face of the crisis. “As more and more people get informed they realize the depth of the problem” he says. “Do more people have to become homeless before the city wakes up?”