When voters in Fredericton’s Ward 11 (East Downtown and Plat/University of New Brunswick) head to the polls on May 10, they will either elect a landlord and developer, a business owner known for his housing advocacy, or a frontline worker.
The three candidates, Louie Youssef, Jason LeJeune and David Wells, all say they want to address the housing affordability crisis in the capital city.
Housing has become a 2021 municipal election issue as falling vacancy rates and soaring rents and renovictions displace people from their homes in New Brunswick’s cities, a situation made worse and more visible during COVID-19.
Louie Youssef is the owner of Cedar Valley Investments Ltd. and perhaps the most visible candidate in Ward 11 with signs on the lawns of many of his properties. He owns more than 400 apartments in the city. His latest developments include new luxury apartment buildings at 264 Rookwood Avenue, 230 Regent Street (available rental units start at $1,600), and 55 Greenfields Drive (available rental units start at $1,500).
According to Youssef’s website, “Louie wants to address the fact that renters pay a higher property tax rate than homeowners. He has been partnering with the New Brunswick government for the past several years to create new affordable and subsidized housing for the people and families on the long waiting list. Louie wants all Frederictonians to be able to live affordably.”
When he claims that renters pay more property tax, Youssef is actually drawing attention to how big rental company owners like himself pay more in property tax than homeowners and landlords living in the building they rent.
That has some raising questions about whether landlords and developers can be effective advocates for affordable housing in Fredericton.
Youssef disagrees and says landlords and developers should sit on city council: “Why shouldn’t they?”
Youssef argues that developers have specific expertise that make them good city councilors: “Could a developer be considered a valuable asset on council because they have expertise in capital projects, spending, management and business in general? Isn’t the perspective of someone who is self employed and struggled through hardships an important view to have?”
Jacob David Poulin-Litvak was evicted from a downtown Fredericton property Youssef initially bought to extend a parking lot. He thinks developers like Youssef already have too much clout in City Hall.
“If Youssef gets elected as Councillor, he’ll be in conflict of interest on residential tax issues, on development issues and on rental issues in Fredericton. He’ll also be in conflict of interest when it comes to naming Planning Advisory Committee members. His personal interest as a developer and a rental company’s owner will affect his capacity to take decisions that are in the interests of the people at large,” said Poulin-Litvak.
Youssef disagreed: “I’m not sure when being a capitalist in a capitalist society became a crime. I am not just an evil apartment owner, as so many in the media would have us perceived. I am a father of five. I am a husband. I am a caring member of our community who has always given back. I hope our society hasn’t become so cynical that they think an elected citizen can’t abstain from conflicts. I guess in today’s world you’re guilty until proven innocent.”
The controversy around developers on council was in the spotlight recently when city council approved a project on the city’s Northside owned by Ward 4 councillor Eric Price. The three-story housing development will add some welcomed affordable housing units. Price abstained from the city council vote on the project, but some felt the decision demonstrated the outsized influence of property developers in a city that in recent decades has been run to maximize construction numbers.
“A city is about more than just a collection of property developments,” says sociologist and former mayoral candidate Matthew Hayes.
“It is not a question of whether developers are good or bad people, it is about whether city council is able to get them to work together to build projects that are inclusive and that add value to the city as a whole. That takes more public engagement and more willingness to work together, instead of at cross-purposes, than has been the case of late,” Hayes said.
“If you build a building with a brick streetscape, you are stripping value off the street for the life of that building. So you need a council willing to push people to work together,” he added.
Jason LeJeune also wants to represent the people of Ward 11.
LeJeune owns the Abbey Café and recently owned Isaac’s Way before turning over ownership of the restaurant to its workers. Known in the city for his housing advocacy with the John Howard Society and other housing first initiatives, LeJeune is calling for rent control legislation and more inclusionary zoning for different kinds of dwellings—measures that are also being advocated by tenant organizations, the New Brunswick Coalition for Tenants Rights and ACORN NB.
“I believe we need to advocate for some rent control legislation and a balancing of tenant/landlord rights,” Lejeune said. “We need to incentivize non-profit and co-operative housing developments, we must modernize our zoning by-laws to be more inclusionary of smaller typologies, and we need to complete our municipal Housing Needs Assessment and hire a Housing officer to adopt and implement.”
LeJeune says he decided to run after seeing “a real disconnect between community priorities and municipal priorities. I thought with my strong fiscal background and vast community service, I could bring the organizations together to better our city.”
LeJeune is working with the John Howard Society to manage the Fredericton City Motel Project.
After the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation denied a funding application to convert the Fredericton City Motel into 20 affordable housing units, 12 peer-supported living units and a 24-bed emergency shelter, current Ward 11 councillor and mayoral candidate Kate Rogers unsuccessfully moved a motion to provide $900,000 in emergency funding for the project at a city council meeting in March.
Rogers has represented Ward 11 for two terms and is also the chair of Fredericton’s Affordable Housing Committee.
Six councillors running for re-election voted against Rogers’ motion, effectively stopping it: Steven Hicks in Ward 5 (Marysville), Kevin Darrah in Ward 7 (Southwood Park/Lincoln), Stephen Chase in Ward 9 (Bishop Drive/Odell Park), and Henri Mallet in Ward 12 (Silverwood/Garden Creek). Several of these councillors argued that the city needed to “stay in our lane” during council deliberations, noting that housing is a provincial matter.
As in other recent council decisions that proved out of step with the public, a special meeting was held only days later to reverse the decision.
David Wells, a frontline worker, basketball coach and local musician, is also running in Ward 11.
If elected, Wells said he “would investigate going beyond incentivizing affordable housing and instead mandate a percentage of new housing projects be affordable by way of inclusionary zoning.”
Wells wants action on existing projects and initiatives like Fredericton’s Affordable Housing Committee and the Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness, as well as attempting to better leverage funding from the National Housing Strategy.
“There has been so much heavy-lifting mentally and organizationally, we need sustained action now to avoid these efforts being squandered,” said Wells.
“I made the decision to run because I want to help my city and its citizens. As a frontline worker dealing with the public on a daily basis, I get to understand issues directly from our citizens, and also how poorly they feel those needs are being addressed, and so I realized there was a need for better representation,” said Wells.
Wells said his decision to run was made easier because he has two children: “I want to help Fredericton be an even better city for them to live in.”
On April 23, the New Brunswick Coalition for Tenants Rights released a platform on what municipalities can do to address the housing crisis. The platform includes recommendations and examples of municipal leadership on housing, including stronger municipal bylaws to enforce better standards in rental units, new economic structures such as housing corporations and rent banks, and a licensing regime for corporate landlords.
To further the public conversation on housing in New Brunswick’s cities, the NB Media Coop is co-organizing an online panel, Social Justice and the City in New Brunswick, on May 5. Panelists Rachel Bryant and Julia Woodhall-Melnik, researchers based at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, and Valerya Edelman, a Fredericton-based social worker and community organizer, will speak on how social exclusion has shaped our cities and what is being done to give all people access to what a city has to offer.
Fredericton’s three Ward 11 candidates, with their diverse experiences and perspectives on housing, make the election race one to follow.