Calgary is a city both blessed and cursed.
It’s blessed to be surrounded by a treasure trove of natural resources, some beneath the ground, others growing atop. Over many decades, we’ve harvested those various goodies to build and support a lifestyle making our city among the most livable on the planet. For the most part, it’s made us healthy, wealthy and wise.
But such bounty is also a curse, as it invariably leads to some type of economic bust; the prices the world is willing to pay for oil, gas, lumber, wheat or cattle are never stable for long, although attempting to time such fluctuations is a mug’s game – try investing your hard-earned cash into the futures markets if you want to test that nugget of financial wisdom.
Anyone living here for any appreciable length of time understands these alternate faces of economic life. Calgary remains the quintessential boom-and-bust city and, despite valiant diversification efforts over the years, this teeter-totter of economic reality remains.
Of course, calls for such diversification are always louder when the bust arrives: during boom times our memories fail us as we gleefully climb back high on the hog of providence, which we then ride for as long as it allows. We’re only human, after all.
Today we’re sitting pretty once again, attracting hundreds of newcomers each week to our city. That’s why rents and house prices are jumping so quickly. (Ottawa helped spur this current influx by opening wide the immigration spigot without any real plan to deal with the resulting huge numbers of new Canadians flooding in.)
Anyhow, the cost of renting a place in Calgary is rising faster than any other major city in the country, according to a recent report. So, just as night follows day, the calls immediately arose for rent controls: demanding government step in and stop big hikes, thereby punishing these imagined greedy landlords.
But what those advocating this simplistic solution don’t mention – or perhaps don’t even comprehend – is that Calgary’s prices remain a lowly 26th out of the 35 Canadian cities surveyed. That’s actually one of the magnets attracting folk, along with higher wages and lower taxes. Yes, accommodation, whether renting or buying, remains a bargain here compared to many major cities.
And why is this? Because we went through a nasty bust that began in 2015 when energy prices collapsed. This downturn was subsequently magnified when COVID arrived. But, as always, things rebounded. Sometimes, in our city, you just have to hang in there.
Companies don’t build rental accommodations, condos or family homes because they have some burning desire to put a roof over everyone’s head, having drunk the United Nations’ Kool-Aid about housing being a human right. (It’s not. Nor is having a smartphone or designer jeans. Rights have little to do with possessions and everything to do with equality under the law.)
No, those developers, builders and investors are looking for a return on their money. They are gambling the economy will stay strong enough so, by the time construction’s finished, the risk will prove worthwhile. And if they didn’t expect such a future payday, then why would they step forward in the first place? This simple risk and reward equation confuses some folk. That’s why they want government to do it instead, alongside almost everything else.
Except that attitude isn’t what made this city rise up to become one of the world’s most desirable places in which to put down roots. Government didn’t build Calgary, people arriving here with a dream did. And that dream often included the chance to strike it big.
Nope, rent controls aren’t us. Busts are.
Give it a while and those same landlords will be offering the first month free and all the streaming services you could wish for, all of them on the house. You’ll feel blessed, at least for a while.
Hey, it’s just Calgary.
Chris Nelson is a regular Herald columnist.