Making Space: The Costs of Doing Business

October 8, 2020 | Blog

This is the fourth part of a six-part series sharing the outcomes of a six-month study on cash flow and financial precarity with a dozen individuals living and working in the Greater Toronto Area in what is described as the ‘gig economy’.

The cash flow study was delivered by DUCA Impact Lab and UKAI Projects.

See part one of the series to learn more about the methodology and intentions of the study. Each post will explore findings in the data set that suggest further exploration and/or relevance to the development of innovative financial instruments that support the experiences of those feeling precarity or volatility in their work.

“I work at X company. I've been there for about five years. I switch from part time to full time over there and back and forth, depending on my schedule. And they laid me off and when I first applied to CERB, like my EI wasn't ready yet. They didn't even send me my Record of Employment. So, I was just really like where do I stand? Where do I apply for CERB? Do I apply for EI? My rent is coming up. I'm not eating right now. I don't have any money right now, so I don't know what to do. So, it was a weird time and it took so long for someone to finally get in contact with me.”

-        Study Participant

The study involved comprehensive tracking of cash flow on a transaction by transaction basis from October 1, 2019 to March 31, 2020. Late in the study period, Canada saw isolation orders as the COVID-19 pandemic moved across North America and the world. Qualitative interviews conducted prior, during and after the study period provide elaboration on the emerging statistical themes arising from the study.

This series of blog posts will elaborate on the results of this research and begin pointing to trends and opportunities for both those offering services in the arts and culture community and those seeking to understand the kinds of financial services required in a rapidly evolving labour market. The research study consisted of 12 creators aged 24 to 46. Seven of the participants identified as male with five identifying as female. Eight of the twelve identified as non-white with three of the eight identifying as part of the African diaspora. Participation was drawn from across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) and represented a range of employment situations, creative disciplines, and educational levels. Two of the twelve participants failed to complete the full study period. Three of the twelve are parents of school age children.

Careless spending, or necessary adaptation?

At first glance, the data seemed to suggest an unsustainable pattern of consumption and an opportunity for reducing expenses. For example, in tracking the financial activity of creatives working fully or partially in the gig economy, we noted a surprising trend related to the amount of money spent on food purchased for preparation in the home and food related to eating out. On average, individuals spent 7% of their gross income on dining out and 7% on groceries. These figures are similar to those for the broader Toronto population. However, the median purchase amount of over 650 transactions was $11.24, suggesting a large number of small transactions rather than infrequent group dining.

However, deeper exploration revealed that this pattern was not based on preferences, but rather the structure of freelance work and the creative economy generally, particularly under conditions of precarity.

The importance of place and its impact on financial health

The average cost of rent per month was $549.63 within the group. Interviews confirmed that most participants had a living situation where they lived rent-free in a multi-generational home or are distributing costs by living with multiple roommates. For those that are paying rent, the average monthly cost of rent is $989.34, which is far below the average rents in the Greater Toronto Area.According to Rentals.ca and Bullpen Research & Consulting, the average rent for a one-bedroom unit was $2,299 in January 2020, in the middle of the study period. Two-bedroom apartments reached $2,914. To adapt to these conditions, participants often found themselves; living with family; sharing rent with roommates or partners; and/or living at a distance from the city including Pickering, Richmond Hill, Ajax and Mississauga. The downtown core remains the centre for creative work in the city, yet only two of the participants live in that area and one has moved away since completion of the study period. Many also live outside of convenient transportation corridors and rely on a vehicle to conduct business, meet with clients, and in some cases for work as a driver with Uber or Lyft.

One participant discussed the tensions of staying close to Toronto and the affordability issues it generated. They explained that “my girlfriend’s sister and her husband and their one kid, they just bought a house for their budget … a two bedroom. And they couldn't find anything here or in Durham. So, they had to move all the way out to Cobourg. But he's an electrician, you know, like he's going to find work anywhere. I can't just do something like that. If I were to do something like that, just leave to Cobourg, I would have to give up everything here and start over. What am I going to do out in Cobourg? Working McDonald's back at minimum wage? I can't do that”

Living far from the downtown and in complex living relationships contribute to a persistent need to “go out” to meet those that might support their creative ambitions. Vehicle sharing further complicates this process, and contributes significantly to costs related to fuel, insurance, and eating out. One participant put it simply, “I spend too much on recreational habits … is it still recreational … I don’t know … too much in transportation costs and junk food”.  Another was similarly direct, offering that, “I feel I spend way too much money on transportation and food. I feel I spend too little on saving for the future”.

Space to work and collaborate is essential, but not free

The creative work, particularly for those that work with specialized technologies, often necessarily occurs in music studios, digital media labs, rehearsal spaces, and so on. This work is in addition to other revenue-generating activity in the gig economy. This makes stable cycles of preparing and eating food difficult and requires frequent movement. Several participants reported sleeping regularly in rented or borrowed studio spaces and lamented the lack of affordable spaces to create work and non-commercial spaces to meet with other creatives to plan and deal.

One participant offered that, “I probably spend time in three different Starbucks a day just meeting with people and not having an office to bring them to. And you can’t just sit there and not spend money, particularly given how I look, and so I end up buying a lot of drinks that I just don’t want or need, particularly when it’s cold”. Three study participants regularly used the library for meetings, though the ability to collaborate or to involve larger groups felt limited in these spaces.

Adaptations to precarity and high costs of living cause shifts in both transportation and eating habits that have both lifestyle and financial implications. The gig economy and creative work offer little regularity in scheduling and few free and open spaces to meet and collaborate. Access to transportation becomes essential, and many of the study participants are living in areas poorly served by mass transit. Moreover, the lack of free spaces or offices to conduct business incur additional costs and limit the ability to do business and collaborate without incurring fees. The centre of creative work remains in downtown Toronto, and for emerging creatives, relocating too far from the city centre removes all possibilities for a sustainable professional practice. Once established, that shift might be made, but when income is hardest to generate, staying close to the city and frequenting commercial spaces to conduct business are too often required.

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