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Why Affordable Housing Matters

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Almost one year ago exactly, New Brunswick's Auditor General released a report which presented a dire picture of social housing in the province. The report cited problems of aging housing stock and lack of funding for needed maintenance and upkeep.

The report also cited concerns about decreased funding to the New Brunswick Housing Corporation from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, with federal funding declining and set to expire in 2034 with no commitment to renewal by the federal government.

The average waiting list for social housing in New Brunswick, since 2007, as per the report, was 4,200 people -- the waiting list being especially high in the three largest cities -- Fredericton, Moncton, and Saint John.

The Auditor Genera's report raised serious concerns about the funding gap -- between needs and actual funds -- for social housing in New Brunswick, a gap set to reach almost $50 million by 2019, raising serious questions about the viability of social housing in the province. This brings up the issue of the lack of a national housing strategy in Canada, with the Chretien-Martin government having retreated from this in the 1990s as part of deficit cutting measures, making Canada the only western country without a national housing program.

Proper housing for those in need is important, morally and fiscally. Tim Richter, a leading Housing First advocate from Calgary, highlighted this in a talk he gave in Fredericton, stating that healthcare and law enforcement costs associated with homelessness are greater than the costs of providing proper housing.

In November 2012, Fredericton City Hall held a public presentation on affordable housing, with speakers including anti-poverty activist and social entrepreneur Tim Ross, city councillor and chair of the affordable housing committee Mike O'Brien, Fredericton Mayor Brad Woodside, MLA Pam Lynch, and others.

O'Brien highlighted the problems of people being "vulnerably housed" stating "I don't think people quite grasp how significant it is. We're a prosperous city. A lot of it is hidden." He stated that, in addition to those who were homeless, there were those who were "couch surfing" at the homes of friends and relatives, without a place of their own, as well as those housed in inadequate or unsafe conditions.

Many of the vulnerably housed, stated O'Brien, were employed in lower and even middle-income jobs, but the costs of rent consumed an inordinate amount of their income, or they were faced with crisis such as mental health issues. O'Brien made it clear that building more affordable housing was a priority of the City of Fredericton.

At the affordable housing presentation, accomplishments in the building of new affordable housing units were highlighted, including the building of mixed-income units -- apartment buildings and townhouses where some of the units were subsidized for social housing purposes.

Mixed-income housing is essential in avoiding the ghettoization of the poor. It represents a needed move away from earlier practices of building monolithic and isolated apartment blocks which isolated the poor and were unpleasant places to live.

In larger cities especially, one can see these massive and freestanding apartment blocks -- inspired by the ill-thought out social engineering views of architect Le Corbusier, who had once proposed razing Paris and replacing it with massive apartment blocks.

His designs of massive apartment blocks were eventually deemed unacceptable by most people, though these dehumanizing structures became a common design for social housing units and were associated with post-WWII "urban renewal" projects.

In many cities, these massive apartment blocks are now being demolished.

At the Fredericton presentation, myths about affordable housing were debunked, including multiple studies showing that crime does not increase in neighbourhoods with affordable housing, that property values are not negatively affected if the buildings are well-designed, and that social housing is not "incompatible" with neighbourhoods. It is worth noting that the target for affordable housing are those for whom rent surpasses 30 per cent of household income, something that affects a wide range of people.

A great example of a successful mixed-income development is the Abbey in the city centre of Saint John. In an interview -- posted on youtube by the Saint John Human Development Council's Mark Leger, one of the low income tenants happily praised the high quality of the building, saying it made her feel "special" and "worthy" and that her children loved the new place. She talked about the contrast between previous places she had lived which were infested with mold and rats, and where rent was disproportionately high to the quality of the property.

The interview respondent also stated that she found living in the city-centre an advantage -- with amenities such as the city market being in walking distance and bus routes being easily accessible -- important for those on low incomes who often do not have a car (or for whom gas costs are prohibitive) and an important quality of life advantage for people as a whole. This is an important reminder too, that for all the talk of density, walkability is important. This raises the benefits of mixed-use developments -- apartment buildings where there are stores and shops on the first floor -- as well as the benefits of downtown-like neighbourhoods.

Social housing must be a priority -- it is a moral duty and for the homeless, it is a fiscally responsible move to prevent the increased costs for healthcare and law enforcement associated with homelessness. Mixed-income -- where the poor are not isolated -- is essential to prevent ghettoization, as is the promotion of walkability which is essential for those without cars, and an important quality of life advantage for everyone else.

Social housing is a priority, where municipal, provincial, and federal governments must be actively engaged.