Tag Archives: affordable housing

Affordable apparently means shoddy

Francois Biber on the poor quality homes that are being delivered under the City of Saskatoon’s affordable home ownership program

Leonard LaRochelle took possession of his modular home on Borden Crescent through the city’s affordable housing program in 2011. Now, 2014 has been nothing but headaches and money lost to basement flooding.

“The water actually came all the way underneath the flooring,” LaRochelle said, walking through his basement – floor boards torn up, moldy insulation scattered everywhere and furniture and drywall all huddled in the middle of the room.

Three different leaks sprung in LaRochelle’s basement this spring, causing him to tear down the walls of his newly finished basement and pull up $1,200 worth of flooring.

He said he called the builder to see if they would look at the cracks in the concrete foundation, and they agreed. However, the results weren’t exactly what LaRochelle was expecting.

After a couple of visits from a maintenance worker, LaRochelle said they patched the holes on the inside of the home, but they didn’t do anything to seal the home from the outside.

“As water continues to build up inside, in the fall if we get a freeze that water is going to expand and spider and make so many more issues,” LaRochelle said, adding exposed wood on the outside of the home is starting to rot.

When the builder wouldn’t comply, he went to City Hall. There, LaRochelle said he asked building inspection managers to have his home inspected again.

“The response I got from the inspection manager was that the inspection had initially passed so they wouldn’t find anything different now, so they couldn’t change anything that’s been done and they refused to get another inspection,” LaRochelle said, adding his next step was to take the issue to his city councillor, Ann Iwanchuk.

“It’s concerning to hear residents having these issues, we want home ownership to be a positive experience for all,” Iwanchuk said. “When I was made aware of these concerns about a month ago, I’ve gone to the administration and asked to go back to the builder and they’re currently in the process of getting more information.”

Director of planning and development, Alan Wallace, said they’ve opened up an investigation into the matter and they’ll be reaching out to homeowners and the builder to see if anything can be done to resolve the issue.

“Until we get all the facts we won’t know what’s going on up there,” Wallace said, adding the city’s hands are somewhat tied, because the contract is complete.

Of course you haven’t seen anything until you have seen the leaks in this dramatic video below.

You won’t find videos like this in Calgary or Toronto (mostly because they have tougher building codes).  Hopefully that is ROCK 102 playing in the background.

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

Janice Braden on the OurYXE podcast

Janice Braden

Janice Braden joined us for the OurYXE podcast this week where we talked for a little over an hour about the Municipal Planning Commission, architecture, affordable housing, and city building.  It was a great discussion and I learned a lot from Janice.   Next weekend we are looking at chatting with Shaun Dyer, the executive director of the John Howard Society.  We will be talking about corrections, crime, and our community.

City considers spreading affordable housing

If the city goes through with this, it will be a tremendous mistake

The City of Saskatoon will likely curtail financial incentives for new affordable rental housing in core neighbourhoods in an effort to spread out social housing throughout the city.

A city committee voted in favour Tuesday of adopting rules that would make it more difficult for affordable housing units to be built in neighbourhoods such as Riversdale and Pleasant Hill, which are already home to much of the city’s affordable housing.

“We are never going to be able to rejuvenate these neighbourhoods unless we get at this at some point,” Coun. Pat Lorje told the city’s planning and operations committee.

The city provides up to 10 per cent of the upfront construction costs for people or organizations looking to build affordable units. If the new rules are endorsed by city council, new units would only receive that incentive if they are not built in core areas that already have a “concentration of affordable housing.”

Lorje has long been a proponent of moving social services and social housing away from the core neighbourhoods. She says neighbourhoods such as Pleasant Hill, Riversdale and Meadowgreen are bearing the burden of social agencies, affordable housing and, consequently, poverty.

But for many involved in affordable housing, the idea of “diluting” social housing is flawed.

“There has to be an understanding of people’s comfort level,” said Shirley Isbister, president of the Central Urban Metis Federation (CUMFI). “We know a lot of these people would not be going across town or downtown to get services. They won’t.”

CUMFI operates nine refurbished apartment buildings in the city’s core neighbourhood that act as shelters and affordable housing for at-risk women and children.

The committee was told operations such as CUMFI would likely be exempt from the new rules because they are able to demonstrate “positive impact on the neighbourhood.” 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.

Isbister was not at Tuesday’s meeting, but one city councillor echoed her sentiments. “I can’t understand the logic of this,” Coun. Charlie Clark said. “I can’t think of any of (affordable housing projects) that have contributed to the problems you are taking about.”

I am going to side with Shirley Isbister (and organizations like QUINT) on this one while disagreeing with Pat Lorje and the Planning and Operations Committee.  This is a terrible idea and a tragic misunderstanding of the impact of affordable housing.

Affordable, sustainable housing in Houston

Fast Company has a feature on a great sustainable housing project in Houston. Row on 25th is a re-invention of the American Row house.

The Fords’ new company, Shade House Development, builds sustainable townhomes in downtown Houston. Shade’s flagship project, Row on 25th, was profiled in the February issue of Dwell. The row of townhomes in Houston Heights, a hip-ish downtown neighborhood, is a study in careful compromises–both economically and environmentally. “We feel there is a real desire for this kind of living,” Matthew told me recently over email. “We, as a firm, try to look beyond spread sheets and historical data to offer solutions for problems people may not even know they have.”

Back in 2011, the Fords (working with an investor friend, the airport developer Holden Shannon) bought a plot of land in the Heights and built a single town home on it. Shannon stayed in the unit whenever he was in town, making suggestions about the design that ultimately led to the final, revised layouts for the other eight homes they planned to build on the site. The two-story, 1,900-square foot homes are simple and light, with silhouettes inspired by Hugh Newell Jacobsen, a champion amongst vernacular American architecture fans. “The simplicity and privacy offered by Row is in direct response to the complexity and loss of privacy we are all experiencing due to being interconnected and ‘on’ all the time,” Ford adds.

Affordable Rental Suites in Winnipeg

For all of the news about affordable housing in Saskatoon, most of the affordable housing units are still over $200,000.  There is still a huge need for low rent units.  A company in Winnipeg is solving both the problem of creating low rent apartments and finding a solution for how to build on narrow abandoned lots called Pocket Houses.

Pocket Houses

Pocket Houses

At 210 and 243 square feet these aren’t exactly built for families and all of the suites have had to make sacrifices for space.  They are however a unique and cutting-edge alternative to conventional rooming houses. These narrow buildings on infill lots fit well with the City of Winnipeg’s inventory of vacant lots in residential neighbourhoods.  Each building is two storeys high and has 8 units each with separate entrances, private washrooms, and separate ventilation systems. Each Pocket House features three barrier-free suites and one fully accessible suite on the main floor, with four other suites on the second level accessible by two outside staircases.

Each suite has a built-in cooking area complete with mini-fridge, microwave, sink, hot plate, dishes and cooking utensils. Suites also feature a single bed, a built-in table and a chair. The fully accessible main floor suite has modified doorways and a large roll-in shower for wheelchairs.

McNab Park

A couple of weekends ago I took these photos of McNab Park in Saskatoon.  It was initially military housing during World War II that later morphed into low income housing after the RCAF shut down the base in Saskatoon.  What started as low income housing later turned into slum housing by the time it was shut down.

I have always had a weird fascination with military housing, probably going back to how the Canadian Forces base in Calgary stood out from it’s surroundings.  McNab Park was nothing like CFB Calgary and was left isolated and surrounded by the John G. Diefenbaker airport on one side and light industrial and warehouse space on other sides.  There was no school, no businesses serving the community, and no bus service after 6:30 p.m. at night which means that if you are living there and working, you are walking home (it’s at least a mile walk from the closest bus stop), or are paying a cab.  If you are like a lot of retail workers, you are walking home a lot of evenings.  If you need something, the closest convenience store is the overpriced shop at the airport which makes your average 7-11 look like a Wal-Mart in terms of stock.

McNab Park was just left up there to deteriorate which is too bad.  The barracks are quite nice.  The three that I have been in over the years were well built despite not being that well maintained.  I remember them being cool but most houses (including ours) built during the war needed an insulation upgrade.  A conversation this week told me that they only have one thermostat for three units which would be an annoyance but not something that made those places uninhabitable.

As they were, they provided  affordable housing for low income families in the city and now they are gone.  Sure they were remade and many were moved to Fairhaven and sold as $250,000 affordable housing units although I doubt any of their former inhabitants were able to afford them.  There are other subsidized housing units in the city, such as those provided by the Saskatoon Housing Authority but with the SHA, you have waiting lists and when you have no where else to go, McNab Park was a decent option for a large family.

I have always wondered what McNab Park would have been like with a small store, decent landscaping, and some of amenities that we take for granted in Mayfair (like two large parks, playgrounds and late night transit service).  In other words the stuff that every other neighborhood has in Saskatoon.  Even growing up in Deer Ridge in Calgary as it was being built where community infrastructure is lacking compared to what it is today, we had a pocket park and great areas to play in.

For years the discussion about McNab Park is that it was a problem to be eliminated (and replaced) rather than a community that needed to be stabilized and invested in.  Not too many communities anywhere do well in that context.  The end result is that Saskatoon lost a part of it’s history and in the end gained some moderately affordable housing units that could have been built for that price anyways.  I think Saskatoon came out behind on this deal.