Saturday, April 22, 2017

Income testing – can I bring a formula sheet?

Low income.  Middle income. Regressive taxation.  It’s election time, so these words are being thrown around like cheap candy at a small town parade.  Whenever some new benefit or tax is proposed, an argument pops up faster than the new Massey Bridge – how does this impact the ‘rich’ compared to the ‘not-so-rich,’ with scorn for policies that appear to give greater benefits to the well off. 

Income testing is often proposed as a solution to these issues, a way of distributing taxes and benefits in a more equitable manner.  Both the NDP and Green party platforms include new or expanded use of income testing for various measures, such as
  • Daycare
  • Climate action rebate
  • Expanding rental assistance
  • Student loan interest
  • Education grants
  • Homeowner grant
  • Progressive property tax
  • Low income benefit 

The Liberal platform doesn’t speak of many particulars on this matter, but their platform document mostly consists of “holy crap, we’re awesome” and “bewaaaaare the 1990’s…..” so, we’ll just leave it aside.  

The challenge with income tested programs is they effectively increase the tax rate on low-income earners earnings.  So what’s meant to provide a progressive distribution of taxes and benefits can end up asserting itself in a very regressive manner. 

If you are a high income earner and earn an additional dollar, you pay your marginal tax rate on it.  If you’re a low income earner and you earn an additional dollar, you pay your (lower) marginal tax rate on it, but you also lose various benefits due to having a higher income.  Those losses of benefits are effectively a tax on low income earners. 

A few years ago the CD Howe institute looked at this and put out a study of the marginal effective tax rate for families in the western provinces.  It was a good look, but some of the various benefits have changed (e.g. Canada Child Benefit) and they didn’t include certain costs and benefits, such as MSP premiums.  So I figured I’d take a crack at it using the latest tax rates and benefits for BC.

I looked at a single parent of two school age children, as they have more potential benefits available to them (and to be clawed back) and are often the type of people we are concerned with when talking about low income families.  I considered looking at a dual parent family, but things get crazier than Miley Cyrus’s hair, and the numbers for a single parent are enough to get the point across.

I wanted to estimate a taxpayer’s average and marginal tax rates across various income levels, accounting not only for income tax, but all the various additional taxes, fees, and income tested benefits to assess just how much income is taxed back as you increase your wages.  So I looked at a Costco warehouse pack of various taxes and benefits.
  • Taxable income (wages, EI, interest on savings, whatever)
  • GST/HST Credit
  • BC Low Income Climate Credit
  • Canada Pension Plan contributions (employee only)
  • Employment Insurance contributions (employee only)
  • Working Income Tax Benefit
  • Canada Child Benefit
  • BC Family Bonus
  • BC Rental Assistance Program
  • BC Childcare subsidy
  • Medical Services Plan premiums
  • Federal and Provincial Income Tax (incl. basic exemption, CPP, EI, BC Tax Reduction, and $5000/yr in childcare costs)

Basically, I assumed that the taxpayer was going to pay all their obligations personally, and that they would claim any benefits they are eligible for.  Various tax rates came from, Canada Child Benefit, WITB, and BC Family bonus from the CRA benefits estimator, BC Rental Assistance from their estimator (assuming renting in Metro Vancouver), and MSP from the BC government website.  Estimating BC childcare subsidies was a pain in the ass, and calculated by hand using the formulae and tables in the regulations.  All were done using current or 2017 rates, except for the CRA benefits estimator as it only goes to 2016.

I then estimated the various taxes and benefits for someone earning wages of $0 to $50,000 in $5,000 increments.   For each wage level, I calculated the total income including all benefits, the total taxes, including MSP and payroll taxes, and determined the average tax rate at that income level.

For each increment of $5,000 in wages, I calculated the additional gross income (easy, exactly $5,000 in each case), the additional net income (additional income after taxes and benefits are adjusted) and calculated the marginal tax rate on that $5,000 of additional earning.  This marginal tax rate was based on the amount of after tax income gained compared to the gain in gross earnings, and accounted for increases in taxes payed and reductions in benefits received.  For example, if you earned an extra $5000 in wages, but payed an extra $500 in taxes and lost $1000 in benefits, the marginal tax rate would be 30%. 

The CD Howe study I mentioned above found BC dual income families face a marginal effective tax rate that was slightly negative up until about $15,000 of income, at which point it shot up to between 20% and 60%, before levelling off around 35%. 

When you add in more income tested benefits, the numbers gets worse. However, the general pattern I found is very similar to that in the CD Howe study. Plotting it out, we see many interesting things. 

Firstly, with zero taxable income, a single parent can get over $27,000 in various forms of income/government benefits.  And this is not including social services such as CPP, EI, or income assistance (though those would all be taxable income, and thus move the person up the chart). 

Secondly, going from $5,000 to $10,000 in taxable income, there is a negative marginal tax rate, that is after tax income rises faster than gross income, hooray!  This is due to the Working Income Tax Benefit, which is a refundable tax credit.  Sadly, once we get past $15,000 in taxable income, things turn very not hooray.

Moving from $15,000 to $25,000, there is actually an effective marginal tax rate that is greater than 100%. I always harp on people who say “I don’t want to earn more, it’ll put me in a higher tax bracket,” because the way income taxes work, you never lose more in taxes than you gain in income.  Well, apparently you can.  If you are a single parent earning in the $15,000 to $25,000 range and claiming all these benefits, earning an extra dollar of taxable income will mean you take home 20 cents less than you did before.

I know everyone likes to harp on MSP as being regressive, but MSP has barely even started at this point. The key drivers here are the loss of rental assistance and childcare subsidies. 

Moving up in income from $30,000, the marginal tax rate drops off from 80% down to 50% as various benefits are lost (and thus no longer clawed back) and MSP premiums climbe and then level out.  Side note since I know someone will ask – I ran this with the 2016 MSP premiums as well, when they were twice as much.  It shifted things around a bit, slightly higher marginal tax rates in the $20-30k range, slightly lower in the $30k+, but the numbers were all within 5-10 points.  Likewise, eliminating MSP entirely makes an equivalent impact in the other direct.  The chart below shows where the taxes and clawbacks are coming from for two of the higher marginal effective tax rates.

Out of curiosity, I also did the analysis for a single adult, with far fewer benefits available.  While the magnitude of the marginal rates were much smaller due to this, the pattern was still the same – negative rates until $10,000, peaking at around 44% at $20,000, then dropping down and levelling off at 32%.

Also out of curiosity I looked at the marginal rate of increasing a single parent’s income from $100,000 to $105,000.  Since your MSP, CPP and EI are already maxed out, and the only benefit still remaining is a small amount of the Canada Child Benefit, despite having much higher marginal income tax rates, the effective marginal tax rate at this level is only (only!) 43%. 

None of this is to say income testing is good or bad, or the alternatives are necessarily better or worse.  Different hammers for cracking different skulls and all that.  Since apparently mullets are a thing again this election, all this is to say that while income testing is progressive business up front, it has a regressive party going on in the back.  What's the incentive to earn more if you're only going to keep 20% of it or worse.

Compounding this is the un-coordinated nature of the various benefits from different levels of government, and we end up with the situation where a single parent can take more money home by earning less.  I struggle to see anything progressive in that. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Heritage. A word in seach of a meaning.

A while back, Mike Folka asked some questions on his blog and twitter account attempting to get a discussion going around heritage in our community.  I’d been long wanting to write something on heritage and preservation, but every time I tried I kept running into mental blocks – I felt like I wasn’t even sure of what was being discussed, let alone what I could contribute to it.  All I had were questions, and as more and more issues came up, I just had more and more questions.  

So I took Mike’s call to arms as an opportunity to collect my questions into one place.  I sent them to him, but I have no idea what evil intentions he has.  With the Queens Park Heritage Area popping up again recently, I thought I’d expand on them a bit and put them up here to hear what others have to say.   

1.     When we as a community or a government or an individual say we want to ‘preserve heritage and/or character,’ what exactly does that mean? What specifically are we trying to preserve? For whom are we preserving it?  And to what end? Frankly, unless this is answered clearly, any discussion of heritage is just hoodoo-voodoo.  

This is the main issue I have with the whole heritage discussion in New West.  To me it feels like whenever someone uses the term ‘preserve our heritage,’ it’s just a euphemism for “they shouldn’t be able to tear down their house because I like it.”  

2.     Heritage, much like community, is about people.  While artifacts, including houses, can provide valuable touchstones and longevity that people do not have, preserving heritage should be about people. 
On that note, the May Queen dance issue stood out to me as a glaring example of people’s interest in preserving heritage artifacts, but not people and institutions.  

3.     Speaking of people, they do bad things at times.  How do those bad things fit into preservation, alongside atonement and reconciliation? 

We’ve had our share of bad stuff right here in New West, from the treatment of first nations, a pretty nasty prison and I’d imagine many more things I’ve never heard of.  How do we maintain heritage while recognizing what happened?

Consider for example how Germany has banned the Nazi flag, and some places in the US are now banning the Confederate flag.  Obviously we don’t want to glorify the evils of the past, but neither do I think it’s right just to bury or hide it, where it can be too easily forgotten.  And how do we manage this with constantly changing moral norms?  What are we celebrating and preserving today that will have our descendants calling us savage monsters?  

4.     Heritage neighbourhoods.  Again, this is focused on artifacts, or ‘character’, and not people.  But by restricting the land uses you are limiting the kinds of people who would choose to live there.  How do we reconcile this with trying to promote diversity in our communities?  

5.     Similarly, how do you reconcile preserving the heritage character of a neighbourhood with allowing people to define their community’s character?  A community’s character is a reflection of the people within it.  To what extent are we saying ‘you can come to this neighbourhood, but you can’t alter it,’ both explicitly (you can’t change your house) and implicitly (you’re not welcome here if you don’t play along)? 

This is the most insidious part of neighbourhood covenants to me.  It’s one thing to say you are just limiting architectural or aesthetic concerns over homes and land uses, but this can easily turn into a tool for trying to keep ‘certain’ people out of an area.  This isn’t just a covenant issue – there are a lot of homeowners associations and stratas that give me the creeps because of this.  

6.     Since housing seems to get the most of the focus, some questions specifically related to that:
a.     Balancing private property rights. I’m aware that we don’t give property owners carte blanche permission to develop their land, but at what point do restrictions on property development move from reasonable to not? How does this fit into the context of all the other restrictions owners face on using their property?
b.     Density - by designating entire neighbourhoods as ‘heritage’ how much are you limiting the amount of density that can be added there? How does that fit in with the OCP and regional goals?
c.      How are we defining neighbourhood character?  There is talk about allowing ‘gentle’ infill in areas like Queens Park.  What is gentle?  What is rough? How are we deciding what is allowable and fits in with the heritage character of the area, and what is ‘out of character’? Who is deciding it? What gives them the knowledge, and frankly the right, to pass judgement on it?
d.     How do you balance preserving old housing with environmental goals?
                                                      i.          Land use - maintaining large areas for evil Single Family Homes.  I’d include here transit as well, this makes it more costly to provide frequent, reliably service and encourages car dependency.  
                                                    ii.          Energy use - old homes are generally much less energy efficient than newer ones
                                                   iii.          Safety - Older buildings have nowhere near the seismic, fire and general safety features modern buildings do.  Is it worth preserving a building that is not sufficiently safe?  
                                                   iv.          Retrofitting can alleviate some of these issues, but how much can be changed and the building still considered heritage?  
e.     Along those lines, does building a new home in a ‘heritage’ style meet the intent? Must a house be old wood and bricks to be considered heritage? 
If we razed Queens Park and built all new homes to modern standards, but architecturally equivalent to the old ones, would it still be the same? If we build a new house out of recycled material from torn down old houses, is it ‘heritage’?
f.       How do we balance preserving stock while allowing redevelopment and densification?  This is a much more long term concern, but as more and more homes and neighbourhoods become restricted, development is forced onto a smaller available land base.  How does this impact affordability, infrastructure requirements, city services?  
g.     Why are new ‘monster homes’ evil, but old ‘monster homes’ good? I see many heritage houses that dwarf the McMansions so many decry.  Yes, some of these old houses have been partitioned into multiple units, but many of the new large homes are also used for multiple generations or more than one family.  
7.     Why are First Nations rarely mentioned in terms of heritage preservation? They get lip service at times, but as soon their concerns stand in the way of building a high school, all bets are off.  And the people/institutions vs. artifacts questions apply doubly here.  
8.     Commercial/Industrial heritage.  Again, there’s interest in preserving a few buildings, but not preservation of the businesses, industries, associations and services that built our city.  FRDC is doing some good stuff here, but their focus is somewhat narrow.  
And back to neighbourhood agreements, how do we incorporate multi-modal development in character controlled area?
9.     Today’s society is tomorrow’s heritage.  If we are concerned with protecting heritage, how are we identifying what is happening now that should be preserved in the future? And how should we preserve it? 

Sorry I don’t have something more positive to contribute.  I think that stems from the fact that frankly, I don’t have a clear sense of what it is we as a city/community are trying to accomplish through ‘heritage preservation,’  besides getting other people to stop tearing down houses they like.  If I had a better sense of that, perhaps I could offer something more constructive.  

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Transit with a Growing Family

We are blessed to live in a city and region that has good transit service available.  However, as I’ve levelled up in adulting, going from Single to Married to having now Three Children, how I use and what I value in transit has changed with me.  Taking kids on transit brings a whole new set of issues that were not a concern before I had kids, and unfortunately the sum of those issues ultimately drove me away from using transit as a primary transportation method. 

As a single and newly married bloke, I was carless.  Over the last eight years, we’ve gone from zero to three kids and back and forth between zero and one cars (about four years each).  During my seven months in hospital, my wife was a single mom with three kids (including a one-year-old) and no car.  We chose where we lived in Vancouver and New West in large part due to access to transit and to be within walking distance of many services we use.  So we’re not a family that looks at transit and says “no way!”  We’re a family that has tried it for years, and eventually said “fuck it.”

While there are many things that have gone into our decisions on transportation, for sake of discussion I’ll break them into cost, convenience, and ‘other stuff.’ 


While transit in Metro Vancouver is very economical as a single adult, it gets relatively less so as your family gets larger.  Kids under 5 are free.  That’s fine, but as soon as you want to take your kids to school on transit you need to pay up.  They do get a reduced fare, and can travel all three zones at that price, but it’s not an insignificant expense, particularly as you have more children. 

For example, the cost for transit passes for our family would be $230, soon to be $280.  That includes the freebie three zone pass my wife gets.  Additionally, if we’re primarily using transit and going carless, there are other costs for cabs, car rentals/car shares and other such, for us around $125-$150 per month.  Overall transportation costs: $350-$400 per month. 

Running a car full time costs us $350 a month, all in.  That covers most of our transportation needs – commuting three days a week, activities, occasional road trips to the interior and so on.  We do use transit for some things, which is maybe another $50 per month in tickets.  So total transportation costs of ~$400 per month.  So by going primarily transit, it doesn’t save us much if any money.  It’d be even worse if we had to pay for my wife’s pass.

Convenience - Can I Get There?

While transit service overall is good in Metro Vancouver, depending on where specifically you want to go it can range anywhere from terrific to terrible.  Downtown New West to Downtown Vancouver?  Terrific!  Fleetwood to Poco?  Terrible. 

Then there’s going somewhere not within the transit service area.  If you’re hitting one of the main lines in the Fraser Valley, transferring over to FVRT can sometimes work.  But anywhere else it becomes highly impractical.  Going to Victoria?  That can work if you’re heading to Sidney or central Victoria.  The kids love riding on the double deckers.  Nanaimo or the Sunshine Coast?  It’s fine until you get off the ferry on the other side.  That can work great for adults.  But two adults and three kids typically means we need two cars to meet us, and we’re dragging three carseats along the whole way.

If I want to visit friends in Mission, it’s over two hours on four busses.  And that’s only where the busses go, while they run.  Want to explore some of our incredible provincial parks?  The North Shore can be done, but that’s about it.  Car rentals/shares offer alternatives here, but multi-hour trips start driving up that side of the cost equation pretty quickly. 

Convenience - Timing/Flexibility

Timing can be an issue for short trips and long.  Suppose we wanted to hit up Mongo Bongo in Uptown for dinner.  By car it’s a 10 minute drive each way, free parking, we can enjoy dinner at our own pace and have a nice time. 

Transit:  25 minutes each way (remember, there’s kids involved) and $6.25 to get there.  Once we’re there, we need to decide.  Do we press to finish dinner quickly, run outside to catch the bus downtown just before our transfers expire (hope it’s on time!).  Or do we eat dinner at a relaxed pace and spend another $6.25 to go home? Tight connections are far more manageable as an adult than with multiple kids.  

Multiple stops on one trip.  This is a huge issue for us, and I believe is a big part of what pushes people to drive their kids to school, especially in the suburbs. It’s not the getting the kids to school that’s the issue, it’s the where the parents are going next that makes the decision. 

When we moved to Quayside, our kids went to John Robson.  I could walk them there in 15-20 minutes, back to the skytrain in 5-10, and take the train and a bus to work in another 25.  A 45-55 minute commute.  Not my ideal, but workable. 

Then things changed.  First our school moved to the other end of downtown.  Then Translink extended my bus route 10-15 minutes each way.  Now a 45-55 minute commute became nearly an hour and a half.  I could reasonably walk or bus my kids to school.  I could reasonably transit to work.  But when trying to combine the trips it became unworkable. 

After school has the flip side of this – picking up the kids is fine, but trying to combine that with after school activities or appointments becomes a logistics planning exercise. 

Other Stuff - Accessibility

If you’re taking a bus or train during a busy period, good luck trying to keep your kids contained.  Getting a few seats together, for at least the littlest ones?  Maybe if someone is kind enough to offer up a spot for you.  But for seven months my wife would be taking the train downtown during rush hour and have to pack our one year old (at the time) in her arms. 

Accessibility can be an issue in certain areas.  While we lived in Uptown, we would regularly take the 155/156 buses.  At the time we had a newborn and a two-year-old and often used a stroller.  Given the ridership of those routes, the accessible seats were frequently taken up by older people with walkers, wheelchairs or scooters.  I don’t begrudge them those spots at all, but when we’re regularly getting passed by because we can’t fit on the bus with our kids, transit becomes less attractive. 

One great thing about transit in Metro Vancouver is that essentially all the busses are low floor.  High floor buses (257, I’m looking at you) were a pain to deal with strollers (and wheelchairs and other mobility aids), so props to Translink for getting their whole fleet low floor.  That said – Community Shuttles and strollers?  Don’t even bother. 

Other Stuff - Hassle

Stuff.  Packing 2 adults and 3 kids onto a crowded bus is one thing.  Trying to do it with multiple suitcases when you’re going to the airport, or bringing everyone’s car seats for when you get to Nanaimo, or a even just a couple of sports bags and the process becomes exponentially more complicated.  This is one area where the kids getting older has helped somewhat, but has also lead to an increase of lost items. 

People.  Taking kids on transit introduced us to some of the best and worst in people.  We have had countless experiences of our kids engaging with fellow riders, making friends, receiving gifts (careful with this – it can be really sweet or really creepy depending on how it’s done) and just incredible kindness from total strangers.

Conversely, we had people who think your kid singing or giggling is an intrusion on their silent morning commute.  People who are outraged a two year old is standing on a seat to look out a window.  And God forbid your child has a meltdown – you will meet several professional parents who know exactly what you need to do (and a blessed few who help settle them down or otherwise support you). 

Weather. A climate controlled car is just a lot more comfortable than a crowded bus in summer, or an exposed transit stop in winter, and kids tend to be a lot moodier about it than adults.  Of course proper clothing and preparation can make it more bearable, but it’s hard to compete with a car for comfort. 

Mental Space:  Here is another area where having kids completely reversed transit for me.  With no kids, I often enjoyed time on transit.  I could get comfy on a seat, drift off in my thoughts or enjoy some music or a podcast.  Taking transit was far less mentally draining than driving. 

Enter children.  Mental space on transit is now mostly consumed with managing said children.  And the space they consume grows exponentially with their number.  There are good days and bad, but with kids a long transit ride isn’t the pleasant, relaxing experience it was before. 

Other options

Car sharing/car rentals.  We do utilize this for some things.  I’ve been a Car2Go member for many years.  Combined with transit, it’s a dandy way of getting around Vancouver.  Until recently, it was just a 2-seater though.  Now between it and Evo there are five-seat one-way options available.  Haven’t had the chance to try out the Car2Go one yet, but I’m keen to. 

Rental cars were a regular supplement to our transit years, and worked pretty well.  That said, I find this option worked best for longer timeframes.  When we were carless, we would sometimes rent a car for trips to the Kootenays, and it was brilliant.  Getting one for a few hour picnic at Rolley Lake was less appealing.   

Human Powered Wheels.  We do make use of bikes, skateboards, scooters and a big red wagon.  For the older kids, a combined bike to school/work could potentially work well on some days, but it’s something we still need to try.  But generally these options tend to replace walking trips as opposed to driving trips. 

What can be done?

None of the issues I raised are deal breakers on their own.  It’s the combination of effects that pushes us away from transit.  If I’m going to get out of my car, I need something better in at least one of these areas.  Why would I pay more for a longer, less convenient, more hassle filled trip? 

The stronger the benefit transit offers in any area, the more likely I am to take it.  Going downtown?  Skytrain is cheaper, faster, and at least as convenient.  It usually wins.  Metrotown – driving’s cheaper, they take the same time, and to me the hassle of parking at Metrotown is worse than the hassle of bringing my kids on the train.  Toss up.  Taking my kids for dinner Uptown?  Driving is cheaper, faster, and more convenient. 

Some things would be improved, through general service improvements.  More buses overall means less crowding and easier connections. 

I don’t mind paying for my kids transit fares in theory, but as the kids and costs accumulate it makes the driving option relatively more appealing, as those costs don’t increase in the same way.  Even small things, like the old Family Pass, would go a long way.  We go to church in downtown Vancouver so this made the skytrain ideal for us. 

Increasing the cost of driving through things like mobility pricing will push the cost equation more in transit’s favour.  That said, it would take a very major increase to get us to shift to principally taking transit just on the cost. 

Similarly, finding a way to get passes into families’ hands would go a long way.  The U-pass program has shown if you give people passes they will use them.  Currently, it’s a vicious cycle.  If we had passes, we would use transit much more often.  But given the issues above, I can’t justify getting passes.  So if we do want to use transit, we need to buy tickets, which are even more punitive farewise. 

During the transit plebsicte, I half-jokingly suggested enacting a major vehicle levy (on the order of several hundred dollars), but including an annual transit pass with this.  I’d still pay to register my car even with such a large fee.  But I’d at least have a pass then, which would get me on transit far more often.   

EngineerScotty had some interesting things to say on this at HumanTransit, particularly on how transit oriented neighbourhoods are often not family friendly and vice versa. 

But overall, there’s no magic bullet.  It’s all the small things that add up together that determines how we travel.  Overall, I think our region is moving in the right direction on this.  Hopefully transit will become more and more attractive as things take hold.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Trying Not to go Broke While Feeding a Family of Five

A friend recently posted about her family’s grocery expenses on Facebook, and it generated quite a discussion.  I originally typed up a massive reply talking about all the different things we do (and some we don’t) to try and manage the grocery bill for our family of five, but it didn’t feel appropriate there. So in the interest of trying to get blogging again and maybe, just maybe, helping someone along the way, I’m putting it up here. 

It's easy to spend a lot on groceries. We spend about $800-900 per month on food, not counting restaurant meals. Compared to others in the mentioned discussion, generally families of 4-5, we were well on the lower end, but certainly not the lowest.  We have figured a few things out on our own, but we owe a great deal of knowledge to the part-time nanny we had last year.  She had worked as a church and camp chef for a long time, and I’m still amazed at how far she was able to make grocery money go.  So much of the credit for this goes to her.  I’ll start with some general thoughts, and then get into some specific things we do for different kinds of food. 

I’ll start by saying we are big store shoppers.  While we do regularly hit the farmers’ market, and occasionally grab organic items instead of non-, most of our shopping is done from regular bins and aisle of Safeway, Save-on, and the like.  In general, I find Superstore, Costco, and yes even Walmart, have excellent prices on dry, canned and some frozen goods, but don’t offer any deals on fresh. Some local markets, like Denny’s, have excellent prices on fresh produce and can have some smoking deals on dry goods too, particularly ethnic items.  This pricing can come at the expense of appearance, but I don’t generally need my peppers to be photogenic.  Other markets have big store like pricing, so do your diligence.  Tenth to the Fraser has a good article on produce markets in New West.  Safeway and Save-on don’t offer anything special, but I consider them the baseline. In my experience, I’ve found Save-on to have slightly better regular pricing, but Safeway tends to have much better sales. 

One of the commenters in the Facebook discussion mentioned a common complaint I hear, that premade food is so much cheaper than healthy food. I don’t buy into that.  While it can take some planning, taking advantage of sales, and freezer space, there are almost always healthier, less costly options than pre-made.  One example was given of chicken nuggets being cheaper than fresh chicken breast.  Yes, if you want the best cut, fresh off the bird, you can often find nuggets cheaper than that.  But if you go for thighs or whole birds on sale, it’s often cheaper.  Heck, our Safeway regularly has 10 lb boxes of frozen breasts for only $25.  Even on sale I don’t see nuggets for $2.50 a pound.  Beans, noodles, rice, and other things of this ilk offer cheap, filling, and more nutritious alternatives to meals in a can or a box. 

The biggest thing I learned from our nanny was to keep our kitchen, and in particular our freezer, well stocked.  Firstly, it lets us get the most out of sales. But more significantly, by having a good mix of things at home, we minimize the six pm "we have nothing to eat" panic, running out to get "one or two things." Even if it's as simple as flour, eggs and milk (crepes or fresh bread) or some boullion and frozen veggies (soup!) we've really seen the benefit of ensuring staples are always on hand. It’s to the point now where a half full pantry or deep freeze drives me crazy.  It also means when you're looking at that recipe you really want to make, but are missing one-two ingredients, you'll often have decent substitutes available.  

We try stick to what's in season and use a small market instead of a big store.  As mentioned they often have produce that doesn't look quite as nice as Safeway but is just as good. If we want off season produce (at some point in winter I will need a strawberry smoothie) we watch for sales in the frozen aisle. This is more for summer produce in winter; fall and winter produce doesn’t seem as volatile to me. 

That said, this is the area I don’t mind spending some more money if the food is getting eaten. Yes, raspberries aren’t cheap come October.  But the kids eat them like candy.  If I’m spending a bit more to have them eating raspberries instead of Goldfish, I can live with that. 

If you eat meat, I think this is the area that offers the most potential savings.  First – eat less of it.  As a teenager I was practically a carnivore, but have settled down since then. We typically have meat as part of 3-5 dinners a week, and it’s usually only a small part of the meal. Depending on what you use for proteins, going fully vegetarian can save you money.  We’re not that hard core, so have found some other ways to keep our meat bill down.

The second biggest thing I learned from our nanny was to buy off-cuts and clearance meats whenever we find something potentially usable, and throw them in the freezer. Similarly, buy bulk packs, split them and freeze them. Fresh lean ground beef is usually $6-7/lb here, bulk packs regularly go on sale for $2.50/lb.  If you know your way around a knife, buying whole chickens can get you several meals out of one bird.   

Dairy's the hardest area for me to find any savings. I watch for deals on cheese, and a few kinds can be frozen reasonably well, but milk, butter and eggs? I got nothing. And even if we do find a sale and load up, we go through it so quickly it doesn’t last long anyways.  I’d love to hear if you have any suggestions here. 

For bread we do a few things.  If we’re buying, we generally just get the store brand regular bread.  If there’s a really good sale on store or name brand bread I’ll try and load up the freezer.  Same for other breads – English muffins, bagels, tortillas - I get lots when there’s a sale, but like dairy we tend to go through them so quickly it doesn’t last long.  For other specialty breads (herbed breads, banana loaf, etc), I’ve been pulling out the bread maker a lot more lately.  One think I keep forgetting to try is the discount store McGavin’s Bread Basket on 12th.

Dry and Frozen Goods
I try and get these from the big box stores whenever possible. Their prices, especially their store brand items, tend to be unbeatable.  Of course individual items are all different, but watch for sales and you can easily get things for 1/3rd the price of Safeway or Save-on. I find this drives me the craziest with things like crackers and snacky-type foods.  When I get them from the big box stores I don’t mind quite as much when the kids devour two boxes in five seconds.

This is the area where you can often find the most straight up volume of food for your dollar.  Again, things like dried beans, lentils, and rice are very cheap and provide a good base for the rest of your meal.  For example, the other day I made a big pot of chili.  Eating just the chili, it would have lasted two dinners and maybe a couple of bowls for lunch.  But boil up a dollar's worth of rice to set it on and we had dinner for a week.  

Those are the main things we do to keep the grocery bill from being, well not too painful at least. 
There are lots of ways we could do better still. While we used to meal plan regularly, we don’t much these days, and it can provide significant benefits, ensuring you’re only buying what you need and making the most of it. We could make better use of our 'waste' food to make stocks and things like that. We don't use the produce markets or discount bread stores as much as we could. We don’t do any sort of canning or other preservation.  While we'd love to spend less, overall we feel our grocery bill isn't completely insane for the amount of energy we invest in reducing it. And I feel we eat well, both in terms of quantity and quality. 

That said I remember how much food I ate as a teenager, and I am afraid of what’s coming.  Very afraid. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Hyack Parade Highlights, or Where the Hell Have I Been the Past Year?

I'm back!  The last time I took a break this long from the blog was because I moved out of New West, so it didn't quite feel appropriate to keep posting here.

This time I was still in New West.  Very in New West, but not posting for another reason.  The short version is starting last June, I spent a seven month stint in Royal Columbian Hospital, including nearly three months in the ICU, dealing with a pancreas that was doing its damndest to kill me.  The last few months I've been recovering at home. If you want to read the long story, my wife kept an incredible blog of the whole ordeal.  For various reasons I'm not linking to it here, but will share if asked nicely (try twitter).  

Things are looking much brighter now.  I was feeling well enough today that after taking the kids to their dance classes this morning, I decided to keep them Uptown for the Hyack parade.  Despite living in New West for nearly five years total now, I've never actually been to the Hyack parade before.  

I'll admit I had low expectations.  I grew up in a town not much bigger than New West, and the parades there were uniformly lame.  So I wasn't expecting much.  But I was pleasantly surprised by not only the number of participants, but the variety and quality of them as well.  It was cool to see not only local groups and organizations but a number of groups from down in Washington as well.  

While the candy throwing was pretty limited, we did get free hot dogs.  Seriously!  And we bumped into just about everyone else from my kids' classes - small town living again. 

Here is a video I took showing many of the groups.  Sorry I wasn't able to get them all.  If you're around next year and haven't gone to a Hyack parade before, definitely come check it out - it's a lot of fun.  

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Space for Faith - Urban Planning and The Church

New Westminster’s Child and Youth strategy is a good first step in developing plans and policies to make the city more inviting for families to live.  Two of the tenets the strategy identifies are Belonging and Inclusion.  Historically, one of the key community connection points for belonging and inclusion was the local church.  As a bad Christian, I was curious to see how the city had accounted for the needs of the local communities of faith in its community and related plans. 

Reviewing the official documentation finds scant mention of churches, temples, or other houses of worship, despite a healthy collection of them in the city.  Reviewing five community plans, the only real references I found to houses of worship were in reflection of their heritage value for the downtown churches, or in the context of South Asian ‘culture and diversity,’ as with the Sikh Temple Sukhsagar in Queensborough.  New Westminster is not alone here, Vancouver did just the same in their West End plan.  Despite several vibrant, active churches in the west end, how those churches and members fit in to the plan is not discussed. 

Holy Trinity Cathedral - Parish Founded 1859
So how is that oversight going to play out in the coming years?  Looking at the census data for New Westminster paints a picture that probably surprises no one. 

Religious Affiliation
City Total Population
Other religions
No religious affiliation
Total Religious

As of 2011, roughly 61% of city residents are claiming a religious affiliation.  It strikes me as odd that the city planning documents generally ignore the potential needs for some 60% of its population.  Particularly given that even as the proportion of religious residents shrinks, due to a growing population the absolute number of religious residents is still growing.  Metro Vancouver growth projections show New Westminster having ~102,000 people come 2041.  If the current rate of religious affiliation holds through then, then another 22,000 people will be looking for places to worship and fellowship.  Even if the rate drops to 50%, that’s still 11,000 more adherents than today.  Where will they all go?

We have some idea from what has played out in the city and regionally in recent history.  The two most visible signs of this are the leasing of commercial spaces by churches and the suburban style mega-church.  According to the zoning bylaws, churches are permitted in CM-1, or Commercial/Industrial zones, or Institutional zones.  However, we have examples such as Five Stones Church or the Redeemed Christian Church of God setting up in straight commercial spaces. 

Five Stones Church in the heart of downtown New Westminster
Now there are some benefits to siting churches in commercial zones – they could share parking with the nearby businesses that don’t need it on weekends, it’s generally transit accessible, it draws more people to the area in quieter times, etc.  They churches can minister to people who are working in the area.  They’re closer to many of the people in need that they should be serving.  But it’s clearly not what’s intended by the zoning laws as they stand.  And shouldn’t the city actively consider the benefits and costs and then manage it instead of letting the chips fall haphazardly as they do now? 

Being a developed, compact city, the mega-church has not really come to New Westminster.  Calvary Worship Centre at the foot of 12th Street is probably the closest thing we have going to a "mega-church", and from what I can tell they just took over an old Legion building, and being reasonably centrally located have fewer of the issues associated with mega-churches.

But large churches in other cities contribute to sprawl (you can argue if the zoning restrictions contributed to that too) and have a regional draw, taking local residents out of town.   I would rather have our residents attending local churches helping local people deal with local issues that see everyone scatter on Sunday. 

Historical churches have additional issues.  Several churches in New Westminster were built around the turn of the (previous) century.  There weren’t as many cars around then, so the churches were easily accessible for the folks living in the area.  But over time, development has pushed homes out from these churches.  How do they maintain accessibility to their adherents?  Needs have changed, regulations have been strengthened - are these churches able to keep up to date and relevant while still complying with local bylaws?

Also absent in the 1900s were seismic codes.  Holy Trinity Cathedral has started the process to develop some of its property, the proceeds of which will be partially used to upgrade their cathedral to modern standards.  My church is amidst the same process right now.  How should the city handle these kind of developments?  Many of these churches are on the historical building register – should the city be providing more active support to maintain the heritage value of these buildings?

As discussed at RethinkUrban, churches hold geographically central locations, and as such are often in the midst of the city’s social issues.  Why are they not being included as stakeholders in the urban planning?  I don’t believe it’s ill will or malice – in every church-city interaction I’m aware of, the city has been unfailingly helpful.  I think it’s more that communities of faith have failed to keep up with how development and planning engage with the community theses days, and make their voices heard.  As the planning process has become more conversational, we as people and communities of faith have failed to join in that conversation. 

One city that has tried to change this is Calgary.  After Calgary developed its City Centre plan, a group of faith organizations recognized the issues discussed here and took action.  They took inventory of the faith communities in the area.  They studied the role those institutions play in the city.  They proposed discussion and changes to the city.  This led to amendments to the City Centre plan last year.  While most of the changes were simple recognition of the roles faith organizations play, there is value in that recognition.  It also brought in a policy to recognize the role both faith and non-faith based institutions have in promoting social stability and assisting community members in need.  

New Westminster Councillor Jonathan Cote was gracious enough to speak with me about this, and what he said was encouraging.  One, the city is already involved with a number of churches in terms of services for the homeless, new immigrants, and other people in need.  Working with such groups is already in the Official Community Plan, and the city intends to continue.  This is a natural point of contact, as the missional side of the church and the government both have similar goals in protecting the vulnerable in our community.  

Two, the city tries to be accommodating when churches and temples come to the city with their planning and development needs.  The city recognizes that many of the buildings were built a long time ago and do not suit current needs, and is willing to work with the churches in terms of variances and zoning to help them update their facilities to meet the needs of their congregations. 

Three, the city also sees the churches working to partner up and more fully utilize the assets within the city, for example having multiple services run by different organizations in the same church building.  I've seen signs of this on many churches in the city.  Will this accommodate 10-20,000 more people?  I don’t know, but it’s a start. 

Four, Cote recognized that in the overarching planning, there may be some gaps in recognizing and accounting for the spiritual needs of the city’s residents.  This is particularly the case given the significant growth in immigrant populations which can bring very specific religious requirements with them. 

Finally, we spoke on how communities of faith can make their voices heard. The Official Community Plan (OCP) is being updated, and there are a number of ways to be involved.  The update of the OCP is a great opportunity for people of faith both as individuals and communities to provide input to the city on how the government and communities should support each other. 

From the OCP website,
“The updated OCP will provide a renewed vision for New Westminster, and the regulatory framework to guide growth toward that vision.
The OCP will contain policies on housing, parks & open space, arts & culture, heritage, energy, utility services, transportation, well-being, hazards, economy and environment.”

Do faith and spiritual needs belong in there?  I believe they do and will be saying so through the channels provided.  If we as communities of faith come together to present a common vision on this, Councillor Cote also said there may be other opportunities for such a group to be heard.  I would encourage all people of faith in New West, both as individuals and communities, to participate in this process and let the city know how you believe faith should be shaping our city.