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PORTRAIT OF A HOMELESS MAN MEANT TO HIGHLIGHT THE VOICE OF THE MARGINALIZED COMMUNITY. THIS WAS PAINTED BY CANADIAN ARTIST KEVIN LEDO FOR FESTIVAL INSPIRE 2015. IMAGE: INDA INTIAR/HUDDLE

The long and costly road to fixing Moncton’s housing crisis

By News Jun 21, 2023 | 8:17 AM

Billions of provincial tax dollars must be invested in affordable and social housing in New Brunswick so everyone can live within their means, according to a UNB researcher.

“We would need between $3.3 and $4.5 billion to build or invest in social and affordable housing. Right now, we have only $100 million spread out over four years,” says Dr. Julia Woodhall-Melnik. Woodhall-Melnik is the Canadian research chair in resilient communities at the University of New Brunswick, as well as an associate professor of social sciences.

That level of financial commitment to provide affordable and social housing in New Brunswick would be roughly a third more money than the almost $2.9 billion collected by the province through all its taxes on goods and services in 2021.

But Woodhall-Melnik isn’t proposing yet another consumption-based tax. She says that would only hit the poor hardest.

Instead, she suggests both a wealth tax that would see the richest New Brunswickers taxed on their capital assets and new tax brackets created so people earning the most would pay more income tax.

She also suggests homeowners’ capital gains on the resale of their homes be capped to curb inflation in the housing market.

“People are using their housing as a retirement plan and it’s not a good idea because housing is also a human right and those two things are at odds with one another,” says Woodhall-Melnik.

“Some form of system that caps the amount you can make on your house would be a good thing.”

Despite the work done by staff at emergency shelters in Moncton and the rest of the province, many unhoused New Brunswickers are still living in makeshift tents. The rental vacancy rate in Moncton was 1.9 percent last year, far below what economists consider a healthy rate of three-to-five percent.

“There are very few options for low-income households, and even moderate incomes have some challenges when it comes to affordability [in Moncton],” says Vincent Merola, the community development officer for social inclusion at the City of Moncton.

People having trouble finding apartments in Moncton can’t exactly just pack up and leave that higher-priced rental market to live in smaller, less-expensive communities either.

“Some of our rural areas have close to a zero percent rental vacancy rate,” says Woodhall-Melnik.

As an example, she notes Campbellton’s vacancy rate for bachelor apartments is zero and there is a lack of reliable data for the community’s vacancy rate for one-, two-, and three-bedroom units.

Bathurst’s vacancy rate for two-bedroom apartments is a paltry 0.9 percent.

“There is absolutely an affordable housing crisis in Moncton and across the province,” says Woodhall-Melnik.

In the neighbourhood of Central Moncton, 68-year-old Janet McKenelley is living with the fall-out of that paucity of affordable and social housing.

The senior says she’s seen ambulances and police called to the emergency shelter on Mark Avenue as many as three times in a single day.

Earlier this spring, a man pulled down his pants revealing his rear end in broad daylight beside an apartment building near that emergency homeless shelter. Clothes and garbage bags were strewn on the ground beside him, along with a shopping cart filled with his belongings.

“There’s a big tree on Norman Street and, when they get kicked out of the shelter, they pitch their tents there and they stay there for a few days until they’re allowed back in,” says McKenelley.

Distraught by the situation in her neighbourhood, she’s started a Facebook group, Moncton Concerned Neighbors Near Homeless Shelter, to bring attention to it and demand better care for people sleeping rough.

“They need help that they’re not getting,” says McKenelley. “It’s not their fault.”

Throughout Moncton, the number of homeless people is rising as a lack of affordable and social housing pushes many out of their homes. Those who work with unhoused people are all too aware of the growing problem.

“There is a lack of affordable housing in our community here in Moncton and, unfortunately, there are few affordable housing options available for the vulnerable population,” says Zineb Elouad, the executive director of another Moncton emergency shelter, the House of Nazareth.

“Some of them have to use the emergency shelter because they can no longer afford to pay the ever-increasing prices for housing.”

The average rent for apartments in Moncton last year ranged from $765 for a bachelor to $1,136 for an apartment with at least three bedrooms. A one-bedroom is rented for an average of $929 per month and a two-bedroom for $1,107 per month.

All those average rents are beyond the level of affordability, defined as 30 percent of a household’s monthly income for housing, for anyone earning $27,600 annually or less, based on data from the latest Housing Needs Assessment Update report presented to Moncton city council in June.

Woodhall-Melnik is working on her own research into affordable and social housing which will be unveiled at the end of June. But she gave Huddle an advance peek at her findings. It reveals long-standing, chronic underfunding of social and affordable housing in New Brunswick.

As rents rose in the decade that ended in 2021, Statistics Canada data shows New Brunswick lost 45 percent of apartments for which landlords charged rents of $750 or less per month. In 2011, there were 7,240 apartments throughout the province that were rented out for $750 or less per month. By 2021, there were only 3,280.

The increasing number of unhoused people in Moncton and the rest of New Brunswick are only the tip of the iceberg.

Last year, Statistics Canada’s portrait of homelessness in the country revealed that while only three percent of those who make housing decisions for their households had ever been out on the streets, five times as many had at one time been part of the “hidden homeless.”

Think couch-surfing at a friend’s place, moving back in with family, or just finding another temporary place to live.

In Moncton, Mayor Dawn Arnold already knows about the need for more affordable housing.

“There is no bigger topic for communities everywhere from coast to coast to coast,” said Arnold at the last council meeting. “It is the issue for communities everywhere.”

The Housing Needs Assessment Update report has already recommended Moncton diversify its housing stock with more small homes for seniors, bigger ones for larger households, and more rental apartments.

The report has also identified a need to up the supply of accessible and supportive housing by working with the province and local stakeholders so people with disabilities or mental health struggles have more options.

Moncton is taking action by helping fund affordable housing in the community.

Rising Tide Community Initiatives, a non-profit dedicated to affordable housing in Moncton, revealed in an update to the city council that it has created 59 housing units in the city out of a planned 125.

“We have properties where we’ve already purchased the land. We have seven pieces of land across the city in different wards,” said Rising Tide President Dale Hicks.

Habitat for Humanity New Brunswick, which offers a hand up for those who want to own their own homes and has so far provided homes for 82 families in the province, is also putting the finishing touches on a home in the greater Moncton area scheduled for completion this autumn.

“Next year, we have bigger plans for a multiple-housing project in Moncton,” says Perry Kendall, chief executive officer for Habitat for Humanity New Brunswick.

“We’re looking for land to build two duplexes. So, four units. We started talking to the mayor and city staff about this two months ago.”

The three-bedroom, two-story, townhouse-style homes will each have full basements, creating the potential for homeowners to add two more bedrooms as their families grow, said Kendall.

Despite those plans, Habitat for Humanity simply cannot build homes fast enough.

“It’s about money,” says Kendall. “Building in today’s environment is very expensive.”

Buying a home is also simply out of reach for many New Brunswickers.

“When an entry-level home is costing $250,000 to $300,000, those are big payments, especially for someone who is renting and unable to save for home ownership because of those payments,” says Kendall. “Those are some scary numbers.”

The Covid-19 pandemic put a further strain on housing affordability in New Brunswick over the past three years as Canadians from other provinces began moving here in droves at the same time Ottawa encouraged record-breaking levels of immigration.

Statistics Canada’s analysts reveal that, from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic to the end of last year, 51,501 people moved to New Brunswick from other provinces. Even after allowing for the 32,343 people who left New Brunswick during those three years, that’s a net gain of 19,158 people.

In only three years, the population of Greater Moncton, which also includes Dieppe and Riverview, grew by 10.1 percent, or 5,226 people, to hit 171,608 by Canada Day last year, reveals Statistics Canada.

While the City of Moncton touts its standing as one of the fastest-growing cities in Canada, it also recognizes that this growth creates challenges, including for housing affordability and availability.

Dalton Wudrich, a senior consultant with SHS Consulting, presented the latest Housing Needs Assessment Update report to Moncton city council and suggested the municipality work with both non-profits and developers to find innovative solutions.

You’ll need to look at your not-for-profit sector and cooperative housing,” said Wudrich. “Trying to get the development industry to provide this lower-level affordability or a higher-accessibility and supportive housing is hard to do because their bottom line is affected.

“What I’m seeing other communities doing is encouraging partnerships between the non-profit sector and co-op sector and the development industry, holding workshops where they get together … Once they have that dialogue, opportunities that wouldn’t have been found otherwise come forward.”

But Woodhall-Melnik says housing-insecure people need much more help and more quickly than what is being offered through the housing projects currently under development. Unhoused people need to be placed in housing immediately, no matter the struggles they might be facing, she says.

“The solution is to provide people with housing without the need for them to get sober or address their psychiatric needs,” says Woodhall-Melnik. “Most people don’t want to be living that way and so, once they get that housing, they have the room and impetus to get help.”

Those struggling to pay their rents or find affordable apartments but who are not – at least, not yet – homeless need to be helped with major government investments in social and affordable housing, she says.

“These would be government-created and managed units,” says Woodhall-Melnik. “We’re sitting on a lot of land in New Brunswick. There’s a ton of crown land and not everything has to be built new. There are spaces that could be repurposed.”

James Risdon is a Huddle Today contributor, a content-sharing partner of Acadia Broadcasting Corporation

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