I sent a variation of this post to all City Councillors in response to the Planning and Operations Committee voting for a proposal that would limit affordable housing projects in core neighbourhoods.
As someone who has worked at starting affordable and emergency housing projects in the core neighbourhoods, I can’t help but think Planning and Operations is overlooking a variety of factors in making this decision.
Here are my concerns
In moving affordable housing out of the core neighbourhoods, costs are going to go way up for housing providers. Already the grant money is often insufficient to pay for costs, even when I submit a barebones grant proposal. In providing services like affordable housing, the costs can be the same but the revenue is way lower which means that your operating margins are really low. I hope this isn’t news to you but there isn’t a lot of money in affordable housing to be made. The rents organization like CUMFI and Quint charge are insanely low to match the really low amount of money that Social Sevices pays which is $459/month. So as contractors and materials cost more, the rent remains at a pre-boom rate. Sure we can charge more but then you are literally taking food off of someone’s table. I hate to say it but it’s almost impossible to get a mortgage and pay it at those rates which is why our housing stock was so horrible before the boom. According to CMHC, landlords struggle to maintain buildings at those rental rates. That grants matter and they aren’t enough to build affordable housing elsewhere in the city.
To build elsewhere in the city, you are looking at higher costs, much higher costs. The problem is that many organizations get their grant money from the federal government’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy or from agencies like Sask Housing. Unless City Council can compel the Harper and Wall governments to expand HPS or Sask Housing programs, many of those project can not and will not be built in more expensive neighbourhoods. The current round of funding from the federal government is only $1.9 million and that has numerous agencies competing for those grants. There is not an abundance of dollars out there and the far outstrips supply.
Affordable Housing done right is costly. Our clients can be really hard on a building. Building hardware needs to be heavy duty and commercial grade and things tend to break down more depending on the population that you are working with. While this gets better in time (as skills are taught), it’s more expensive to run some of these,
The real issue in the core neighbourhoods (and all over the city) is poorly designed and conceptualized social projects. I have heard of service providers told to remove brickwork from a project, take out amenities, and other aspects of the building because it is “affordable” and “those people don’t deserve that”. The result is lower quality housing stock and buildings without green space or setbacks (which push people waiting for service onto sidewalks and streets).
The city needs to take an approach of raising the standards of many of these projects with the province and federal government so the impact of the building raises the standard of the neighbourhood. Many cities are building better affordable housing units than Saskatoon is. Using better design and enforcing standards can help both the neighbourhood and those in need of affordable housing. Good design can solve a lot of the problems in the neighbourhoods.
Of course access to services still matter. For a person on Social Services, they get $259/month for their basic allowance. Many take an advance of $240 paid back over 6 months which is $40 off of every check. Because many have to access emergency services, they are charged for them as an “over payment” which comes off another $15/month.
Too many people on Social Services are trying to buy food, clothes, phone and everything else for $200 which means that services like The Salvation Army, Saskatoon Food Bank, and the Friendship Inn are essential services to survive (and according to many statements by SS staff, are factored into when the province calculates their living allowance). By dispersing all of the affordable housing throughout the city, we are asking some to choose between food and housing. In many cities studies have shown that people have to walk up to 20 miles in a day to access services. When given that choice, studies and literature have shown that some will turn to crime and make really bad decisions. I have written before of people telling me that it’s easy to “turn a trick” or “sell an 8-ball” when things get bad which not only are crimes but tend to make them homeless. If the City of Saskatoon is going to disperse poverty, it needs to provide supports as well and they don’t exist.
Shirley Isbister’s comments to The StarPhoenix are right “…But Isbister says the whole philosophy of moving social services and housing out of the core is based on a false premise that affordable housing is the problem, not the solution to neighbourhood problems such as crime and drug abuse.”
There are some really good urban planning arguments for moving people throughout the city. James Howard Kunstler writes about them in the Geography of Nowhere but the problem is that our system right now is focused on services being delivered out of the core. By limiting affordable housing in the core and moving it outside, we risk creating more problems for the city and hurting a lot of people who need those services. There are some other ways to tackle the issues but until that is done at a provincial level, dispersing poverty throughout the city… in a city that isn’t equipped to provide those supports is going to hurt people and neighbourhoods in all wards. The proposal from P&O will work in the future but it won’t work now.
I would encourage Saskatoon City Council to defeat this policy on Monday evening and start exploring new options to fix service delivery. This is a complicated issue and the proposed “solution” could very well make things a lot worse.