Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for December 24th, 2008

Deal for Chicago Rail Line Approved

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Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Surface Transportation Board on Wednesday approved a merger of rail companies, in a move designed to relieve rail and auto traffic congestion in the Chicago area.

The board unanimously approved the Canadian National Railway Co.’s purchase of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway Co. from U.S. Steel Corp. Canadian National offered to pay $300 million for the line and spend another $140 million to upgrade the line and help communities mitigate the traffic impacts.

There was a lot of politicking around this one – but it came down to some communities against others. And despite the “threat” that the election of Barack Obama was supposed to pose to the deal, common sense prevailed.

This will also be good news for Prince Rupert – as the route from there to the midwest will now see significant time savings.

EJ&E rail train at Gilmer Road in Hawthorn Woods

EJ&E rail train at Gilmer Road in Hawthorn Woods

Written by Stephen Rees

December 24, 2008 at 12:24 pm

Posted in Railway

Tagged with , ,

My Christmas Card

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snow tree 2008_1222, originally uploaded by Stephen Rees.

To all the readers and commenters on this blog, my very best wishes to you.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 24, 2008 at 10:33 am

Posted in personal thoughts

Economy has builders eyeing a return to rental apartments

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Frances Bula in the Globe and Mail reports that developers in BC are thinking about building new rental apartments instead of condos. Given a vacancy rate of 0.5% and steadily rising rents, that may not be a bad idea. This type of development practically ceased in Canada in the 1970s when federal tax incentives for apartment buildings were ended.

A couple of things occurred to me. The first is that even in the boom times, many condos were not being bought by occupiers – many were speculative “flippers” – and others were bought for the purpose of  letting. In fact some strata councils introduced rules forbidding rentals (like mine) as way of “keeping out the riff raff”. There is a lot of the rental market which is distinctly grey – suites that do meet the building code and may well not be reported for tax purposes. Many municipalities have decided to abandon the idea of enforcement against illegal suites, recognising that they serve an essential social function, but still worry about the health and safety aspects of spaces being used for human occupation that fail to meet even the most basic standards.

Secondly the operation of rental units actually requires a lot of professional skill and attention – but usually does not get it. Big developers like Cressey still have significant rental holdings. But the way the legislation has been changed by the present government has removed much of the protection tenants once had. And this has done very little so far to bring new units onto the market. The most recent major news in this sector has been the forced eviction of tenants by owners claiming the need for vacant possession to renovate, but actually being cover for stiff rent increases. The law currently allows landlords to raise rents every year up to a specific limit. There is, of course, no provision for tenants to keep rents down or get them reduced.

Under the old law as a tenant of a Cressey property I became an unwilling expert in the workings of the provincial agency that was supposed to regulate tenancies. I spent quite a bit of time and effort in quasi-litigation just to get the place where I lived looked after properly. The work that had been done just before we moved in was simply cosmetic and was designed to c0ver up problems that has been left unrepaired for years. The worst was the simple failure to ensure that tiles in the bathroom were properly grouted. After long rounds of visits to the Landlord and Tenant offices – and paying rent into escrow – the landlord finally brought in contractors who had to replace the bathroom floor and the kitchen ceiling – but not before trying to blame me for leaks which had been going on for years before I arrived. It was an abrasive and unpleasant experience. But all I wanted them to do was look after their property properly. Cressey, of course, was much more interested in its new developments for sale. It is a lot easier to blame the tenants for everything – and harass them – than actually try to ensure that you have adequately maintained units.

There is a great deal of prejudice against tenants. One of the people I used to commute with in Victoria was appalled that, as a tenant, I had the right to vote in municipal elections. Very few landlords are as good as the last one I had, who went out of his way to ensure I was comfortable. He is one of the very few I have known who recognised that his interests and mine interlocked. I am fairly certain that this Vancouver Craig’s List ad is a spoof but who knows.

It is probably too much to expect that many municipalities will get into this business. Though the developers are suggesting they need incentives “temporarily forgoing property taxes or development charges” – and even expecting the province to get involved.  The market may well actually work for a while without these kinds of support. But what is equally clear is that the market has grotesquely failed – and that is evident by the homelessness problem. And the market is generally not at all interested in getting into “social housing”. Although, of course, there have been and are those only too willing to try and exploit the homeless too. And it seems the current political atmosphere here is still stuck in 19th century attitudes to the poor that prevent us from doing what we could do to help in terms of a wider variety of tenures and support mechanisms.

What is really sad is so many of the people who could be moving us to become a more inclusive and caring society will  be in churches this week, singing carols and talking about a homeless family forced to occupy a stable and give birth to a child among the animals. Their political philosophy seems to get hung up on the idea that only private acts of charity have any moral value. Yes it is very good to work in a food bank or give out blankets and warm jackets at this time of year. But we do that every year and it never changes – the need is, if anything, growing. Our politicians need to get their heads around the idea that a decent home and an adequate social safety net are indeed Canadian values that we cherish and expect our governments – at all levels – to rebuild. And soon.

I think that is probably a good point to stop blogging and go enjoy the holiday myself. I trust that all of you who read this blog will have a safe and happy holiday – and not have to spend too much time stuck at airports.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 24, 2008 at 9:21 am

Posted in housing