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Column: Province Needs Affordable Rent

Today’s column in The StarPhoenix

American Thanksgiving is on Thursday which for some means a day full of turkey dinners and NFL football.

It also means that some Walmart employees in Canton, Ohio, will be having a nice dinner thanks to the generosity of their customers who have donated to the Walmart Associate food drive, which was designed to raise food for struggling store staff.

The Internet kind of went nuts with people attacking the company for paying its staff so poorly that they had to put on a food drive so some of them could have a meal on a national holiday before heading back to work early the next morning, so that customers can shop on Black Friday.

Who is to blame? Without knowing all the circumstances, it’s hard to blame only Walmart.

Churches in Saskatoon for years have put together hampers for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter for families struggling with expenses. Residents of rural communities in Saskatchewan are known for coming together and helping people in need.

In some ways I am encouraged that a big box retailer has a strong enough sense of community to do the same. Yet, that doesn’t take away the feeling that something has gone wrong with our social contract, which is that if you work hard, you will have enough money to live on.

That’s not the case anymore, and it hasn’t been for a long while.

A lot of people are struggling out there. While we have seen tremendous growth in wages in certain industries, others remain stagnant for many reasons. Traditional retailers face competition online, while manufacturing faces incredible pressure from overseas. That competition from all over keeps wages down here, and there’s no easy solution on the wage side.

So, the solution needs to be found on the cost side.

The Globe and Mail recently looked at the impact that a $500,000 average house price is having on the Calgary market. The middle class is being squeezed out of a city that many of them helped to build. The result is that only a certain class of person with a certain expertise is able to make it in Calgary.

Do we want Saskatoon to be that kind of city? While the middle class is safe today in Saskatoon, for those who work in many industries their rent in our city is taking almost 100 per cent of their take home pay, while the ideal is around 30 per cent. This drops to about 50 per cent when you have a roommate or a significant other, but it’s hard to get ahead when after 40 hours of work a week are done, you have only paid the rent.

Our business community is worried about the tax rates in exurbs such as Warman, Martensville and Dundurn. If I were a Saskatoon business person, I would be far more worried about people fleeing the cost of living in the city and spending more of their money where they live.

When that happens, businesses will follow, no matter what the tax rate is. That is when the competition gets really fierce and you see a flow of wealth to the suburbs.

The solution is a housing plan that brings rental costs back down to a reasonable share of income. For the last 40 years incomes have remained flat or declined in Canada. Jobs that used to pay well have been lost or radically changed by globalization. The income issue is a national problem.

The solution that we can concentrate on as a province is the creation of more affordable rental units, which will bring down the rent-to-income ratios to more manageable levels.

Canada is the only western nation without a national housing plan. Unless that changes, the burden falls on the provinces and cities to come up with solutions. While doing something is costly, not doing something can be equally as costly when people leave.

The story of Saskatchewan’s boom has been one of people moving back to a more affordable province where they can get ahead. If we want that to continue, we must make sure that people can afford to live here and thrive. We love to talk about the success people are finding in Saskatoon, but more and more people are also finding the Saskatoon Food Bank, soup kitchens and shelters for the homeless.

As the boom loses its novelty and brings some real challenges, we need to ask ourselves if Saskatoon will be a place for everyone, or only for those who can afford it. If it is going to be for all of us, we need rents that actually reflect the income of many people who are trying to call Saskatoon home. If we don’t do it here, someplace else will.

© Copyright (c) The StarPhoenix

One Comment

  1. Jolo says:

    Let’s do some math.

    2.2 million employees, 15.7 billion profit, is $7000 per employee.

    They could give every single one of their employees a $100/week raise, and still make billions in profit.

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