ST. JOHN’S, N.L. —
Over the last decade, the annual affordable housing statistics in St. John’s have told the same story — as the number of people looking for smaller units continues to grow, so does the number of vacant larger units.
Over the last decade, the annual affordable housing statistics in St. John’s have told the same story — as the number of people
“How long are we going to continue to hear that?” said Suzanne Blake, the province’s seniors advocate.
“We’ve been hearing that for years. Seriously.”
According to the city’s latest housing report released at a recent city council meeting, as of Dec. 31, 2020, more than 200 people are on the waiting list for one- and two-bedroom affordable housing units in the capital city.
Meanwhile, there’s a 19.7 per-cent vacancy rate for three-and four-bedroom units. That’s a staggering jump from 3.6 per cent vacancy rate for three- and four-bedroom units in 2013.
It’s largely due to changing demographics — where most families include one and two children these days, compared to up to seven and eight decades ago.
According to 2017 city stats, one-person households make up 31 per cent of households and the average household size is just over two people (2.2).
For those with low incomes (those making less than $32,500), who are subsidized and can’t afford larger units, it’s a problem finding suitable housing.
Many of those are seniors.
“There’s a long way we have to go … and we have to find the money… or else we’re all going to have a bigger problem on our hands.” — Suzanne Blake, province’s senior advocate
With 118,000 people in the province over the age of 65 and almost half the population — 241,000 —over 50, Blake said it’s time more focus be put on finding affordable housing for our aging population.
Those 2017 stats indicate the 65-plus population owns more than a quarter (27.5 per cent) of all housing stock in S. John’s, with smaller dwellings needed for those who are downsizing.
“Instead of institutionalizing seniors, they should be given the opportunity to age in their own homes with the supports they need,” Blake said.
She commended all levels of government for recognizing the problem and for taking steps to help, but said it’s not enough — it’s time housing for seniors is made a priority.
“I think everybody in this province, including the City of St. John’s, needs to work a bit harder to try and figure out how to create housing that fits those needs of older adults,” Blake said. “There needs to be a different vision.
“There’s a long way we have to go. We have to find the money… or else we’re all going to have a bigger problem on our hands.”
St. John’s Coun. Shawn Skinner agrees and worries about the housing future for seniors.
“The aging demographic is a ticking time bomb coming at us. We’re going to need to think about that,” said Skinner, who released the city’s annual report on housing.
“Not everybody can afford to go into a Tiffany Tower or Littledale — and that’s not being negative towards (those who live there), but it’s not the people I’m going to be dealing with as a city councillor.”
Of the 475 city-owned units, 156 are rent-geared-to-income units — in which low-income tenants pay a maximum of 25 per cent of their income towards their rent, with heat and light included. Skinner said there was a 98 per-cent occupancy rates on those units in 2020. He said four one-bedroom units recently became available, but were “snapped up immediately.”
“There’s very little turnover and very little opportunity for new tenants,” he said.
Skinner pointed out the city takes the issues seriously and is trying to find creative ways to deal with the problem.
As part of its 10-year affordable housing strategy, the city is identifying lands in the city for affordable housing and is building partnerships with groups like End Homeless NL, as well as the provincial and federal governments. In the last decade, Skinner said, the city has been involved in three affordable housing projects — two units in Pleasantville and one at Convent Square.
“The aging demographic is a ticking time bomb coming at us. We’re going to need to think about that.” — St. John’s Coun. Shawn Skinner
Skinner added the city is looking at creative ideas, such as approving tiny home developments and making the process easier for developers to construct them.
It’s a complex issue, he said, one that requires new tactics.
He suggests setting up a task force, a dedicated committee, one that includes representatives from all levels of government and advocacy agencies who can work together to develop a fixed-target plan.
“Right now, we work with each other, but we’re all separate entities,” said Skinner, who suggested each group have a role to address such topics as land permits, construction funding, development and ongoing operating budgets.
“There’s a lot of people out there doing really good work, but they’re all rowing in their own boat. I’m just wondering, maybe, should we all be in the one boat.”
Rosie Mullaley is a reporter in St. John’s covering municipal affairs