Evan Woolley on why we need to 'work our asses off'

City councillor’s view on shaping our city’s future in 2016. The struggles around affordable housing, and how not being able to afford a place doesn’t mean you're not working hard enough.

Optimism, frustration and a call to arms

Coun. Evan Woolley says it's about time we started getting serious about tackling affordable housing in Calgary and stop stigmatizing those who can't make rent. (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)

Editor's Note: For Calgary at a Crossroads we invited Calgary councillors to write a New Year's message to their city. Here's one who took us up on the offer.

I must admit that when I was asked to write this note for Calgary at a Crossroads, I struggled to get the words onto paper.

For two weeks I mulled, wrestled, hit walls, and threw out draft after draft. This sort of thing is usually easy for us politicians: we can speak about the successes of the past year, the opportunities that lay ahead, the compassion we feel for many families — especially during the holidays — in this difficult economic downturn, and the resolve with which we intend to face the coming challenges. But this year, this time, it didn't feel right.

I am optimistic about our prospects. How could I not be? I am a born-and-raised Calgarian. We do not fear the future here; we mould it. Hope, ingenuity, hard work and courage is in our civic DNA, and these traits have allowed us to build a truly world-class city, where leadership and innovation are in abundance. It is a city that I am immensely proud to live in, to help build, and to represent.

At the same time, I am deeply frustrated.

Cardboard homes

Although easing with the troubled economy, Calgary's rental market has been tight, and expensive. (CBC)

Every workday I take the train or bike to work, often below zero in the heavy snow, and I encounter fellow citizens who are homeless. Our shelters are full, and so a few pieces of cardboard are often the only defence against the elements.

Whole families live on the street. Abused women who are brave enough to leave their spouses sometimes don't know where to turn, and find themselves caught in a new spiral of drugs, depression and despair. Housing remains expensive while employment and wages fall, so when a family experiences a layoff they often discover that no matter how hard they try, they cannot come up with the money for rent.

To be blunt, we are failing on affordable housing.

Over the past two years, the City of Calgary has not put a single new subsidized home on the market. Meanwhile, we do great work through the Calgary Housing Company, but it struggles with old models, older buildings, and antiquated agreements with the federal and provincial governments.

On council, we commission dreamy reports that are long on process but short on action.

Empathy and acumen

Too many Calgarians rely on shelters like the Drop-In Centre. (Google Street View)

In neighbourhoods, we argue over how many units an affordable housing site should have rather than recognize the awesome social, economic and cultural power of diversity. We drag our feet, year after year, decade after decade, and soon we'll end up in a city that feels so far behind it will seem stupid to try anymore.

In 2016, I want to take real action on housing.

We will need a strategy that looks at the whole spectrum, from affordable housing to housing affordability to pathways for home ownership, and we will need to back this up with solid, concerted, undeniable action.

We will need compassion as well as courage, empathy as well as acumen, ideas as well as decisiveness. We will need to abandon this backward and simplistic thinking that tells us poverty is permanent, that when someone can't afford the market rate for rent they must not be working hard enough. We will need to build a future from our shared dreams and strengths, not our precedents. We will need to embrace the idea of progress and work our asses off in order to achieve it.

Gritty resilience 

A member of the Alpha House DOAP Encampment Team checks out a homeless camp in northwest Calgary. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

We can do this, because we are Calgary.

I know of no other city with the same mixture of positive attitude, innovative spirit and gritty resilience.

In Calgary, whether by luck or a century of hard work, or both, we are in a position to re-imagine ourselves by the choices we make now.

We are not bound by what we can't do, but liberated by what we can. We are not defined by booms and busts, or population growth figures, or crises of migration. We are not composed of the emotions that rise and fall with the price of oil. We are certainly not a city that is built upon fear of the future. In Calgary, we are not afraid of what is yet to come; we shape it.

In 2016, let's begin to shape a future in which anybody who needs a place to stay has one.

Let's have the vision to see a Calgary where Calgarians are not left out in the cold. Let's continue building a city that leads the world, rather than follows it. Let's be real. Let's be smart. Let's be bold. Let's tackle the challenge of affordable housing once and for all. 

CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.

About the Author

Evan Woolley

Evan Woolley is the Councillor for Ward 8. Born and raised in Calgary, he was elected in 2013. Previously he worked as a Community Relations Advisor in the Office of Sustainability .


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