There is a housing crisis in New Brunswick. Just ask the mayors of its towns and cities.
Earlier this year, the Times & Transcript reported that more than 40 per cent of people in Moncton were spending more than what is considered affordable on housing costs. In addition, some 290 people experiencing homelessness were counted in that city this summer.
In response to this crisis, community leaders proposed a significant project – A $12 million non-profit initiative called Rising Tide that would buy and operate 125 housing units by 2023. The city of Moncton agreed to foot $6 million for the project months ago, challenging the province to step up for the rest of the money. But the province has yet to commit.
The situation is not that much different in Saint John. The city, home to some of the country’s wealthiest families, has a child poverty rate higher than the Canadian average of 18.6% with nearly a third of the city’s children living in poverty. In 2018, there were over 1500 people on the waitlist for affordable housing. Even with the innovative community-funded $2 million Victoria Commons project that would create 14 new affordable units, there remains a serious gap between housing need and housing supply.
Fredericton, too, is struggling. It was reported in August of this year that some 30 people in a Fredericton rooming house were facing evictions, some of whom had lived in that building for nearly two decades. Active cases on the “by-name” list in Fredericton – the list used by the Fredericton Homeless Shelters to allocate spaces to those who are the most vulnerable – is currently at about 80 people.
With the proposed redevelopment of the 31-acre city-owned New Brunswick Exhibition Grounds in Fredericton, community groups have mobilized to make their voice heard against what they fear might become a giveaway to for-profit developers. Activists organized a rally this week demanding public investment in not-for-profit affordable housing, and supported calls from Indigenous leaders who have demanded that their free, prior and informed consent be obtained before any plans take shape.
Mayor Mike O’Brien is no doubt paying close attention. But is Premier Blaine Higgs?
As of November of last year, there were over 5,200 people on the wait list for public housing in the province, but the provincial housing strategy aims to build only 1262 new units over ten years. In addition, apartment vacancy rates are at historic lows across New Brunswick. In cities and towns all over the province, the vacancy rates are at or below one percent. Still, the province announced last year that while it would spend $12 million on upgrading existing housing stock, it would only spend $629,000 on building new housing this year.
The thing is, with low vacancy rates, the power imbalance between tenants and landlords is stark. New Brunswick being one of the only jurisdictions in Canada without rent controls, it is a landlord’s market when tenants have nowhere else to go. New Brunswickers are faced with rising rents in the order of hundreds of dollars a year as a result, with the province apparently turning a blind eye.
Housing precarity is made even worse by the fact that tenants in New Brunswick have fewer rights than those in most other parts of Canada.
Tenants have no right to maintain occupancy of their unit at the end of a lease agreement in New Brunswick. Stories of discrimination against tenants who have children are not uncommon, and renovictions, the practice of evicting tenants in order to ostensibly renovate or repair a rental unit, occur often.
Moreover, the province continues to permit evictions despite the pandemic.
While cities and towns across New Brunswick are at the frontlines of the housing crisis, the province is dragging its feet.
The provincial election may be over but the pandemic is not. Housing is a social determinant of public health. Simply put, people cannot stay home without a home to stay in.
Tackling this crisis requires immediate investments in public housing and not-for-profit housing, including a targeted expansion of cooperative housing. There are hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money waiting to be allocated for this purpose, much of which must flow through the province.
This is a question not of money, but of priorities. And if housing is not near the top of this government’s to-do list during the pandemic, the health and safety of those experiencing homelessness and housing precarity, as well as that of New Brunswickers as a whole, is at risk.
The good news is that communities are ready to lead. But is the Premier?
Aditya Rao is a human rights lawyer and tenant in Fredericton. He tweets at @aditrao.
A version of this commentary was published by the Brunswick News newspapers.