The High Life

Ottawa XPress – Shotgun – November 4, 2004

“If a man wishes to rid himself of a feeling of unbearable oppression, he may have to take to hashish.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche

Everywhere I turn I hear people telling me they’re living the good life. But when I look beneath the surface, something isn’t quite right.

While some people might go on about their four-bedroom house, taking vacations, and saving for their children’s futures, I notice that it’s not unusual for those same people to have a lingering student debt of $40,000 plus interest. I chose a different route. Over just a few years, yours truly here knocked $20,000 off OSAP down to the current $1,800.

Call me efficient.

Or, you could follow my accountant’s lead and call me a druggie.

My accountant thinks I have a drug habit because, after looking at my finances, he can’t figure out where $17,500 of my earnings went this year. Based on my salary, and after monthly expenses like rent, food and tampons, he noticed a serious pile of cash missing, and no down payment on a waterfront property to show for it. So where did it go if not up my nose? Not true. I don’t have a drug problem. I have a social life and student debt, thank you.

The accountant’s calculations didn’t take into account the payments of hundreds of dollars that I, like many others, pay out to OSAP every month. It didn’t take into consideration that whenever ex-students have a few extra bucks, we slap it on our loans, we pay for eyeglasses, we buy shooters.

And sushi.

I initially contacted the accountant three years ago at the recommendation of a fellow writer who suggested he would understand the position, goals and needs of an independent artist.

Some of the answers I was looking for were specific to my own situation (like, “When can I afford to self-publish another book?”), but others were ones that seem to be preoccupying many people these days: How should I move my money so that, come tax time, I won’t get screwed? Should I load up on RSPs and how much? How long would it take to get enough cash for a down payment on a condo?

I left his office feeling oppressed and depressed, knowing what I knew already: I have no savings and no investments but, pretty soon, I will have no debt. I thought that was a good thing, but it seems that no debt and no assets doesn’t quite balance out the way it should. In the accountant’s eyes, I’d be better off with a load of debt if I at least owned a 635-square-foot pot to piss in.

For those who are finally starting to come into the clear, and can now afford a proper suit or a new couch, there’s no time to rest – suddenly the push is to pad our RSPs to use someday as a down payment. Just as we’re getting our lifestyles in an orderly downtown fashion, we’re being prodded to take advantage of cheap mortgage rates and to buy, buy, buy.

But beware: Real estate is a truly expensive addiction. Once you start, it’s hard to stop. I was once temporarily convinced to go halfsies on a $203,000 Claridge Homes shoebox downtown with parking and storage, two floors from the sky. I’m not usually too concerned with material things, but I will never forget the power I felt when signing for something so expensive.

The Claridge rep didn’t even bat an eye at my Sloan T-shirt and toque. This company is no fool and knows that appearance doesn’t determine buying power. Still, it’s ironic that while Claridge is so down with the hipster-emerging-buyers these days, they’re about to wipe out the key businesses aimed towards this demographic: Capital City Music Hall, Record Runner, the sex shop, and Mexi’s.

In case you didn’t know, Claridge has pitched a proposal to build two 25-storey condo buildings on Rideau Street between Cumberland and Waller. Not quite a revitalize-the-core condo rush.

But if parts of Ottawa culture are bulldozed away to make room for these monsters, I have to ask at what price? How can I pay good money and not feel like a traitor, owning culture-destroying property? On top of that, aren’t people warned away from condos as a shit investment because of condo fees and low re-sale value? So who will move in? Probably students new to Ottawa who don’t have a clue about the history of their digs.

Think about it: investment-savvy parents will scoop up the condos for their university children to live in and manage. It’ll turn into a slum. So this buying pressure we’re all feeling is really about being forced to buy a house in Orleans or Kanata.

Picture it: all alone in butt-fuck nowhere, you and your sound investment, surrounded by young families.

If you didn’t have a drug problem before, it’s now on its way.

You know, maybe I went to an accountant for an answer that can’t be calculated with a spreadsheet. When we went into debt because of university, it was to invest in an education. Is the next step to go into debt by investing our life away for the “good life”?

This is your brain. This is your brain on a CIBC mortgage television commercial with Dido playing in the background.

Just say no… for now.

– Sylvie Hill