Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 11, 2006
Alta.'s good times drive poor towards housing crisis
Advocates fear impending jump in homelessness
By RAMON GONZALEZ
"This is insane; nobody at the low end will ever have a chance to afford a house."
- Jim Gurnett
It is estimated that a person making $20 an hour would not qualify for a mortgage on an average priced home or condominium in Edmonton.
"There is a dramatic (housing) shortage," said Susan McGee, executive director of the Edmonton Joint Planning Committee on Housing.
"We have a lot of growth in the province and this is attracting a lot of people, some with resources and some without resources when they get here. Those without resources are having a very difficult time finding housing and that has put a lot of upward pressure on the market.
"Rents have increased, the cost of living overall has increased dramatically in a very short time in Edmonton and the poor and those on the margin, at the risk of homelessness, have been hit hardest."
Housing is very expensive where it can be found, noted Bob McKeon, a social activist and theology professor who lives in an inner city housing co-op.
"For low-income people it is very hard to find," he lamented. "There is some affordable housing but it is very limited."
Gurnett said the shortage didn't happen overnight. "In the last 10 years the Alberta government and the federal government never put any money into affordable housing," he said. "The population was growing but we were not building."
"The economy is so strong, developers don't want to build low-income housing."
- Jim Gurnett
Glen Craig, president of the Alberta Housing Coalition, blames the province for the lack of a strategy. "Historically housing was a federal responsibility. Now it is a provincial responsibility but they are not accepting the responsibility."
Gurnett added that another reason for the shortage is that "the economy is so strong, developers don't want to build low-income housing - there isn't enough money in it for them."
Rents average $700 a month for one-bedroom apartment while a single person on social assistance receives a little over $400 per month. "Some low-income people are spending 70 per cent of their income in rent," Gurnett noted. "Very large numbers are spending 50 per cent of their income (in rent)."
As a result, many low-income people in the city now live in shelters and the chronically homeless have no place to go. In 2004, Edmonton had about 2,200 homeless people, a figure expected to jump sharply when the next count is taken in October.
"People without resources who have come from other provinces have exacerbated the problem but a lot of the people that are chronically homeless are not from away," said McGee.
The single best remedy to the housing shortage is to devote more money to build affordable housing in partnership with non-profit groups, Gurnett said. He also spoke of the need for a provincial rent supplement for low-income families and said it is time to change the rules for renting basement suites.
In a recent position paper the Alberta Housing Coalition calls on Ottawa to develop a plan that commits $2 billion annually for 10 years for new social housing. For its part, the Alberta government should match federal funding for affordable housing.
Municipalities should also develop plans to address current and future affordable housing needs, the position paper says.
The AHC also calls on developers to incorporate a minimum percentage of social housing in all new developments.
Craig said the AHC position paper was "well received" by the province, which might use some of its proposals as part of a provincial housing strategy.
The Edmonton mayor's task force has identified an immediate need for 5,000 housing units in the city with an additional 700 units required per year to keep pace with the growing need in Edmonton.
The 5,000-unit goal is a "nice goal" but the need is a lot higher if you include those who need supportive housing, McGee said.
McKeon said churches have long taken an active role in addressing the housing needs of the needy and must continue to do so. As an example, he cited St. Andrew's Parish, which 25 years ago developed a seniors housing project in partnership with community groups.
"Housing co-ops are a good model," he said. "Cooperation and solidarity are important Catholic principles."
The federal government cut its housing co-op program in the late 1980s.
Gurnett said churches show the way when they raise funds for the homeless through the No Room in the Inn program at Christmas. But he said now is a good time to pressure politicians.
"The politicians act when they know the voters want them to act," he said. "We must ask them to put more money into low-income housing. A $2 billion a year commitment would be tremendous. It would start to turn things around almost immediately."
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