My column in yesterday’s The StarPhoenix (not breaking a lot of news around here today)
In late March, the international aid organization World Vision released a report titled Poverty at Your Doorsteps, which looked at poverty in five major Canadian cities to see how they recovered after the recent global recession.
The report observes a growing economic disparity between the rich and poor in Canada. Poverty is becoming increasingly concentrated among singles, young adults, aboriginal people, recent immigrants and persons with disabilities. These findings have been documented in other national and local reports, including Saskatoon’s own housing business plan.
To compare cities is difficult, as they all have different economic contexts. Even cities as close geographically as Hamilton and Toronto have different fundamentals that drive growth and shape their employment.
However, despite their differences, there is a common thread in each of the five cities. It’s the lack of affordable housing – something that we struggle with in Saskatoon, as well.
According to Statistics Canada, incomes in Saskatoon have grown on average by $12,000 per household since 2006, which is above the national average. The problem for many is that the average house price in our city has risen to around $340,000 during that time, or by more than $150,000.
The statistics are medians that don’t tell the whole story, but it is a trend that affects many people.
Those who work outside the skilled trades or the resource sector have had a tough time, as their wages have not grown at the same rate. Not surprisingly, the Saskatoon Food Bank reported in 2011 that it had 64,930 hamper requests from families, representing 87,963 adults and 64,908 children. The rent has to come from somewhere.
What’s most frustrating is that this problem exists because of the prosperity. It’s not a failure of economic policies but the result of good ones. The better our economy performs, the greater the number of people who move here and the higher the real estate prices rise. More people are left behind because of skyrocketing rents.
If city hall prognosticators are correct in their growth forecasts, and Saskatoon grows to be a city of a half million people in the next 30 years, the lack of affordable housing is a problem that won’t go away.
Despite housing traditionally being a provincial responsibility, the city is doing a lot on this front. It provides housing grants to help people afford their first house, offers grants for affordable housing units across the spectrum of needs, and has gifted parcels of land for projects.
Saskatoon does more than any other city in Canada to make housing affordable. We are a model for all other municipalities, but still aren’t getting ahead. Waiting lists for affordable housing continue to grow.
It’s tough to determine how effective the city’s efforts have been, but compared to Regina whose apartment vacancy rate in 2012 was a minuscule 0.6 per cent rather than Saskatoon’s really low rate of 3.1 per cent, those efforts can be termed successful.
There is a limit to what a city or province can do. Canada is one of few developed countries that doesn’t have a national housing strategy.
Our federal government played a role in national housing policy since the Second World War. For good and for bad, it played a large role in urban affairs and housing into the 1980s. However, since the end of the Trudeau government in 1984, no government has really wanted to tackle housing in Canada.
By the time 1993 came along, the feds got out of housing altogether to focus on the deficit, and left the responsibility with the provinces and cities.
The loss wasn’t felt immediately. The glut of rental properties in most cities had both the units and the rates to absorb new tenants. It’s hard to believe that in the 1980s one could rent an apartment in Saskatoon and get one or two rent-free months each year. Those days are long gone.
With population growth and widening economic disparity, it is time for another national housing strategy that can support local needs while avoiding some of the mistakes of the past. Saskatoon and the province have made some significant progress, but this is a national issue.
The gap between wages and rent is growing. Unaffordable rents and huge mortgages are not a strategy and, until we have one, the problem won’t be solved. The best way to help the working poor get ahead is to provide them with affordable shelter. To make this happen is going to take all three levels of government.
It’s time for Ottawa to step up again.
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