Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Housing Matters

Housing has been a major interest of mine since becoming part of City Council. A person's home affects so many other aspects of their lives, and we have numerous studies indicating that safe, affordable housing for all income levels is an essential part of a healthy community.

I've been a supporter of the local Habitat for Humanity group for several years, helping out on their housing projects for this very reason - one house at a time, they are providing good, affordable housing to people in this community who otherwise would not be able to afford to own a decent home.

For those who are renters, for whatever reason, I believe that it's important that basic standards be required in all rental accommodations. We have too many horror stories of rental accommodations with broken windows, or without hot water, or where the water has been cut off. The work of the bylaw enforcement unit has helped to identify many of these problems, and close some buildings until problems are corrected, but people should never have to live in homes like these. In my previous term on council I had proposed a system of licensing landlords, to ensure that basic standards are met before problems have a chance to occur, but the current council has done nothing to move this forward.

Even though we know that it's important to have good affordable housing for everyone in the city, and we have studies that show that our population growth is going to be in lower and middle income families, why does our city focus most of its housing planning energy on new, higher income housing? We have willingly put all citizens into future debt ($29 million) through the Land Fund, which allows for infrastructure development and servicing lots on the east side and west hill of the city. If this was happening in Saskatoon, a bylaw would require that a proportion of these sites be reserved for lower income housing, ensuring that future neighbourhoods have a mix of income levels. We have no such requirement here.

I spent two days last week at a housing conference in Saskatoon, where some of these concerns were discussed. As always, it was interesting to see how other communities try to prevent problems, often with common sense solutions that would be easily adapted here, such as the above-mentioned bylaw, if only we had the collective initiative to do so. Saskatoon also sets aside a portion of its budget for affordable housing initiatives, allowing them to take advantage of partnership opportunities with higher levels of government. In our past two budgets, no money has been set aside for such initiatives.

At Executive Committee last night, we had some discussion on condo conversions, which is also a hot issue in Saskatoon. I read in this morning's Star-Phoenix that Saskatoon city council is considering putting a freeze on their condo conversions until they develop a better policy. We could benefit from developing a better policy to avoid some of the problems that Saskatoon has experienced. One thing that could be considered would be to have a requirement that condo conversions retain a proportion of rental units within the buildings being converted. Our administration seemed to think that this conversion wouldn't be a problem, since our stated rental vacancy rate from CMHC is 2%. When I asked them what this means, they couldn't tell me. I think that it probably means that for every 100 rental units on the market, two are vacant, but they couldn't tell me for sure. Even if that is what it means, I'm concerned, because a single working person with a good job will always be able to find an apartment that they can afford - not so the single mom with three kids on a limited income. Those two rental units might be well out of her reach. Before we go ahead with permanent changes to housing options for our citizens, I think that it would be a good thing to go beyond the easily obtained statistics, and figure out what it actually means for our city.

Next week's council meeting will be on Wednesday, March 12, rather than the usual Monday, March 10. Apparently the mayor will be in Ottawa on the Monday to discuss forestry issues with somebody, so the date was changed to accommodate him. One result of this date change is that a library board meeting set for that date (affecting four councillors and six citizen representatives) has been changed to the 19th. I find the logic a bit lop-sided.

"Creative thinking involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in different ways." Edward de Bono

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