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Necole Hines struggles to get ahead in Calgary while working full-time and raising three teenage boys. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)
Necole Hines struggles to get ahead in Calgary while working full-time and raising three teenage boys. (Chris Bolin for The Globe and Mail)

Calgary’s oil boom threatens to bust the middle class Add to ...

This is part of The Globe's Wealth Paradox series, a two-week examination into how the income divide is shaping Canada.

There’s been no lack of work.

When Necole Hines moved to Calgary from Toronto nine years ago, she was offered teller positions at four different banks. When she got laid off from a recent job at a stock photography company, she easily found another in sales and administration at a magazine.

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Ms. Hines – who spent a year in university but has no degree – has always made lower-end but respectable wages, most recently around $50,000 a year.

But that salary doesn’t go very far in what has become one of Canada’s most expensive cities, where an oil boom has created reams of new money and driven up the cost of everything from housing to groceries.

The signs of wealth are everywhere – from the frenzy to build the new tallest skyscrapers, skyrocketing sales at the four-year-old Bentley dealership, and plans for high-end malls and neighbourhoods at every turn.

In the country’s energy capital, where business people, lawyers, engineers and geologists earn some of the highest salaries in Canada, households making less than a six-figure income – who many would classify as middle class – face a tough slog.

Calgary families earning up to $68,175 still qualify for a three-bedroom social housing unit, proof that even amid Calgary’s wealth, middle-class households are being increasingly squeezed. The tight labour market created by the expansion of the energy industry has not eliminated the issue of income inequality. Far from it – the rise in the cost of living is adding to the pressure.

Ms. Hines will attest that if you’re not working for an oil and gas company, or one of the other corporate towers that make up the landscape of the downtown, it’s an expensive place to be.

“If you don’t get into that right industry, you’re still having to pay for the same things as somebody else making that amount of money,” Ms. Hines said.

She found she needed a car because public transit isn’t reliable, and food basics such as produce and cereal are more expensive. (The Consumer Price Index was higher in Calgary in 2012 than any other city in Canada, except for Edmonton.) In a city where home ownership is prized, the average single-family home costs more than $516,000, so the single mother of three rents the main floor of a house. Although she is the main breadwinner for her family, Ms. Hines has never felt as if she’s been able to get ahead. “In this city, it’s not that easy.”

Although Calgary’s resource-based economy is not as frenetic as it was during the mid and late-2000s, accounting and finance professionals still make more than 105 per cent of the Canadian average salary for such jobs, according to staffing firm Robert Half. Kevin Johnson, managing-vice president at the firm’s Calgary office, said bonuses and “very healthy moving allowances” are a norm for everyone from senior IT professionals to executive administrative assistants. The city is poised to overtake Ottawa-Gatineau as the census metropolitan area with the highest median before-tax family income, according to Statistics Canada.

Alberta’s bountiful oil and gas resources have given many people steady work, and have made others rich. Calgary is home to more than one in 10 of Canada’s wealthiest tax filers, those with an annual income of at least $201,400. Between 1989 and 2010, its share of the national total more than doubled, to 11 per cent from 5 per cent.

But the influx of money and 20,000 newcomers to the city each year – whether it’s for views of the Rocky Mountains or the low unemployment rate – means the demand for every service, from housing to hairdressers, has gone up.

“It’s not all sunshine and rainbows in Calgary,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said in an interview. “There are a lot of people who are vulnerable. There are a lot of people who are living on the margins.”

While Calgary has become home to one of the country’s highest family median annual incomes – now at $93,410 – increasing wealth has not affected everyone equally. In an analysis of Statistics Canada income-tax data, the University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute says Calgary is Canada’s most unequal city, as the bottom 90 per cent of income earners saw an average increase in pay (adjusted for inflation) of only $2,000 between 1982 and 2010.

Alberta has the highest average hourly wages in the country, but certain sectors routinely benefit more than others. For instance, while people in business, finance or sales saw large average increases in hourly rates over the past 12 months, wages in art, culture and recreation occupations dropped.

For Calgarians who dedicate a large portion of their earnings to basic needs, the city can be difficult to navigate. Affordable housing units in Calgary’s tight housing market – made even tighter by the loss of stock in the recent floods – have been turned into condo or luxury developments, and rents are among the highest in Canada. The Prairie provinces continue to see higher year-over-year increases for food from stores and restaurants, according to the national statistics agency.

There are approximately 114,000 Calgarians, or about 10 per cent of the city’s population, living below the poverty line, said Jeanette Sutherland, work force and productivity manager for Calgary Economic Development.

“These can be people who are in fact working,” Ms. Sutherland said. “There are some high costs that come with a city that is attractive to business and one of the leading head office locations in the country. There is going to be that disparity.”

She added while the city’s economic prosperity is a huge advantage, “we want to make sure that growth is sustainable so that income levels will be able to catch up, and people will be able to afford to live in our city.”

The potential for steady employment has drawn workers from all over the country, and the world. And Fariborz Birjandian, executive director of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, said the city works when a young couple has some support, and they both get a job. “A lot of people are doing very well,” Mr. Birjandian said, while also noting that housing is a big problem for many newcomers. “There’s lots of good stories. Otherwise people wouldn’t come.”

Even in a city known for its wide-open spaces and endless burbs, the rents are the third highest of any major city in Canada, after Vancouver and Toronto. On the popular RentFaster.ca website, the average apartment rental price, across all size categories, is about $1,423. The vacancy rate has hovered around 1.3 per cent in the first half of the year. The June floods saw thousands of city homes damaged, some of which are still being repaired or restored, and the rental situation has worsened.

Mr. Nenshi believes the vacancy rate is now effectively zero. “That is something that keeps me up at night,” he said.

The flood hit some of Calgary’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, but also areas filled with renters and middle-income earners. Mr. Nenshi said he’s worried that the flood was or will be the final straw for people who were already just getting by. The Mayor said he’s hoping the city’s poverty reduction strategy, which council passed earlier this year, will cut the city’s poverty rate by half in the next 10 years. But he said he has a somewhat “agnostic” take on the issue of income inequality.

“When we talk about income inequality, sometimes it sounds like we’re saying that it’s bad that there are wealthy people. And what I argue is it’s bad that there are poor people.”

Like the Mayor, Ms. Hines believes it can get better. This year she started WingsnTings, a new catering business focused on Jamaican cuisine, and will open a stall at one of the city’s farmer’s markets on Dec. 1. She hopes by next year she can make WingsnTings her full time job, and eventually boost her family’s income.

“It’s not the easiest in certain industries to move up. Sometimes you’re just at your level, and that’s where you’re going to be,” she said. “I’m not waiting for a raise that might never come.”

BY THE NUMBERS

$516,000 – Average price of a single-family home in Calgary

2 in 10 – Number of Canada’s wealthiest tax filers who lived in Alberta in 2010, up from 1 in 10 a decade earlier

Follow on Twitter: @KellyCryderman

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