We need more AJ's, not less.
The idea for this blog post had been rolling around as a nagging frustration for many years. A comment made by a volunteer of mine on a recent canvass put it into words.
L-R: Campaign volunteers AJ, Michelle, and Mo
Meet AJ. He’s in the bottom left of this photo. AJ has been helping me with my campaign. He is a Ward 11 resident, currently renting an apartment while finishing his Ph. D in Geography at Western University.
He’s a delightful guy. Smart, funny, easy to chat with. I’m glad to have met him.
Upon moving to London from Waterloo in 2018, AJ tried to immediately engage in local politics as a politically minded and highly educated person.
AJ was born and raised in Oshawa, the first in his family to attend university, from a family that could not financially support him to do so.
For his undergrad, he had scraped together enough money from working all through high school and securing OSAP loans to pay for his first year. He managed to graduate with a modest amount of debt by working through his entire undergrad degree.
His first attempt at getting engaged locally here in Ward 11 didn’t go well.
He attended the 2018 candidates debate at Landon Library Branch of the London Public Library, and asked all of the candidates what they planned to do in order to ensure that newcomers and graduate students who chose to come to London felt like they belong and wanted to stay here.
The competitors frankly had no idea, according to AJ.
“The incumbent gave platitudes about being an “open” community and rested (his) “hope” that I would just choose to stay here.”
AJ did try to stay here.
In late 2019, he tried to buy a home in Ward 11 but the market was quickly outpacing his ability to pay.
“I watched my incumbent councilor throw up hollow policy arguments against any development in the city. Development that could have helped me buy a home, by ensuring an adequate supply of housing. Allegedly “progressive”, I saw a bitter NIMBY councilor with an arrogance towards what types of homes people could buy in Ward 11 and London.”
By fall 2021, AJ and I befriended each other online over our passion for Ward 11 and London, and similar experiences found when trying to engage with our current and outgoing councilor.
We spent a few months chatting online and eventually met for a pint in person at the Wortley Roadhouse. AJ is an experienced political supporter from campaigns at all levels of government. He offered to help my campaign team when I decided to run for the Ward 11 position.
While out on a recent canvass, AJ and I met the owner of a local construction company that happens to live in the heart of Old South. We spent a solid forty minutes in his driveway learning the perils of trying to build housing in London, particularly in Old South and within 1000m of the BRT line.
This owner shared that he invests over $3mm per year into the local economy, and is constantly torn:
He can build in London and lose or make 5% on a build; depending on how particular the municipal inspectors decide to be; or how pedantic the Committee of Adjustment is about adapting rules to suit the actual site
He can build in Elgin or Middlesex or Oxford Counties, and know he will make roughly a respectable 15% profit each and every time he builds, enabling him to pay his workers more, re-invest in his business, and contribute more housing.
As planning, development, and building is AJ and Andrew’s level of expertise, I mostly stood back and listened to their conversation and absorbed their knowledge and heard their frustrations.
One thing that really stuck out to me, as Andrew discussed his reasons for not having already left London (hint: his neighbours and hope for a new council), was AJ remarking “I can’t wait to get out of here for good once I am done school.”
This hurt. For two reasons.
One, because I selfishly don’t like losing kind and supportive friends. But two, and more importantly, is that AJ is another version of something I have seen on an ongoing basis since finishing my own Post Secondary studies in 2007.
London has a “brain drain” problem.
We have two world class post-secondary educational institutions in Western and Fanshawe, along with one of the biggest teaching hospitals in Canada at London Health Sciences Centre.
We have no problem attracting people from across Ontario, Canada, and around the world to gain an elite education or training opportunity that will open numerous doors for a bright and successful future. We just have a hard time keeping them.
The reasons for not staying continue to evolve as London shifts and changes, but they tend to focus around three key areas.
#1 - Lack of change and innovation.
We have research opportunities at Western. We have started to develop programs like the RH Accelerator small business incubator. But we as a city tend to be rife with NIMBYism and very resistant to change.
We see this in Ward 11 with a continual insistence on having the same events every year for community members, by being resistant to new ideas like bringing a splash pad to Wortley Village, and by not planning and preparing for a brighter and more innovative future full of fresh perspective and energy.
#2 - Lack of employment opportunities that align with their expertise
I’m not sure exactly what AJ’s career goal is, nor when talking to him do I think he knows really where he wants to be in 2024.
He does want to be out of London though. He does not see a future here as a municipal planner, professor, or consultant.
I know that planners and professors are unionized jobs with a capped wage structure and that we are frequently losing these highly-qualified people to other jurisdictions that can simply pay more, offer a better quality of life, and embrace newcomers in their community.
My old neighbour, Amy, loved Western University and marketing so much that she ended up getting a Ph. D in it.
By the time she was done, she was told that she was so overqualified for the few marketing roles in town that she ended up moving her husband and young kids to Oregon to become a professor instead. We have a problem with precarious and at-will work in London and have lost a lot of well-paying employers to other jurisdictions. Many London residents, including Ward 11ers, commute out of town to places like Woodstock to get paid what their time is worth. Other cities in Ontario simply have better opportunities closer to home because they are a simpler place to do business and to find work and succeed.
#3 - They have nowhere to live
My wife and I bought our forever home in 2013. We, as two working professionals, paid a price for a 4 bedroom home in the neighborhood we want to retire in that is slightly more than half the price of the average home in London in 2022.
This is a detailed and nuanced topic, but essentially London is the fastest growing city in Ontario and has far outgrown our projections in The London Plan, driving pricing for a limited housing supply through the roof. As a result, we have some of the most expensive housing in Ontario. More can be read in Economist Mike Moffatt’s twitter feed. Mike has London roots and focuses lots on our specific challenges.
We only sold 497 homes last month, with the average sale price being $635,296. If AJ somehow could afford a $127,000 20% down payment on a totally average home as a grad student in his late 20’s with no family support, his monthly mortgage at the current rate of 5.39% would be $3,156.09.
If he was spending the recommended 30% of his monthly income on housing, owning a home would mean that AJ would have to make $102,254 a year after taxes as a graduate student in order to become a London home owner.
City Council has not made building efficiently a priority in quite some time, as evidenced by our housing supply growth compared to our population growth.
Some of our current councilors have lost sight of how to fix this and spent time arguing with experts like AJ over solutions instead of considering their input.
We are going to lose AJ and continue to lose others like him, because we haven’t done the work to create a welcoming city with opportunities to thrive, afford a safe place to live, and feel that you are a part of innovation and progress.
I’m the most progressive candidate in the Ward 11 race, and will do my best to win the seat and try to convince AJ and others to start finding reasons to stay; and to convince my colleagues to stop arguing and start trying to find common ground and listening to our community’s experts as we move forward together.
Because we need more AJ’s. We need more Amy’s.
Our future as a thriving and welcoming city that supports and appeals to as many as possible depends on it.
Let’s try voting for something new and see where it takes us. I am sure that we will end up in a much better place than we are currently.