Mayoral candidates weigh in on St. John's housing

The lack of affordable housing in St. John's is a hot topic in the mayoral race.
24 affordable housing apartments will be available in this new building, but St. John's mayoral candidates say there is demand for many more apartments like these. (CBC)

A lack of affordable housing in St. John's is becoming a hot topic in the race for mayor.

There will be 24 units in a new building going up in Pleasantville, with six more to be built nearby for youth with disabilities.

St. John's mayor Dennis O'Keefe says his office gets many calls from citizens looking for affordable housing. (CBC)

But most agree the demand far outweighs supply.

Mayor Dennis O'Keefe said there's no denying the need for more housing.

"We have a waiting list for affordable housing that goes back several years," he said.

"It's really painful sometimes when I get phone calls from people who explain their housing situation and the conditions in which they live."

Councillor and mayoral candidate Sheilagh O'Leary said she hears the same concerns from residents.

"We have a lot of economic prosperity but as a result of that, of course, we see the zero vacancy rate with apartments. We see people desperately in need," she said.

There are nearly 5,000 units in St. John's that receive some kind of government help to keep them affordable. And most of them are owned by the province.

More than 400 more units are managed by the city, yet hundreds of people are still on a list waiting for a place to live.

Takes all levels of government

"The solution has to be a tripartite governmental solution. We can't do it alone," O'Keefe said.

Mayoral candidate Sheilagh O'Leary says she would like private developers to get involved with affordable housing. (CBC )

One sure-fire solution would be to build more units.

But the federal goverment is planning to cut $500 million dollars in the next five years from its affordable housing fund, and another billion dollars after that.

"We have to have a very vocal advocacy role in terms of making sure that we have these issues funded," O'Leary said. "We [need] to make sure that our federal government is looking at these programs and continue to assist."

Both candidates hope Ottawa will remain a part of the solution, but they said private developers have to help, too.

"If the feds opt out, then the province and the city are going to have to put more resources into affordable housing. And we have to do it. I mean, the need is there," O'Keefe said.

"Obviously we have a responsibility in terms of social housing, but I think the private sector certainly could be engaged in a much better way than what we've been doing in previous years," O'Leary added.

Geoff Chaulk, another mayoral candidate, declined an interview. He claims CBC's coverage of his campaign is "biased, exclusionary and snide."

Chaulk said voters who want to know his position on the issue can read his blog.

The only thing the candidates said they knew for certain is that the issue of affordable housing is one the next mayor is going to have to grapple with long after the election is forgotten.

With files from Curtis Rumbolt