Loss of affordable rents forces growing number onto waitlist for subsidized housing
New Brunswick losing nearly 1,000 'affordable' apartments every year, while province refuses rent caps
New Brunswick has seen its supply of affordable apartments shrink rapidly in the past 10 years, forcing a growing number of families and individuals out of their homes and onto a waitlist for subsidized housing.
Roy has lived in her apartment for more than a decade, and she expected to be there for the rest of her life.
With a pension of $1,600 per month, her $580 rent was slightly more than 30 per cent of her income, but she still considered it affordable.
Then, at the end of August, the new owner of her building announced that her rent would almost double — to $1,150 per month.
"I was on the phone with N.B. Housing," Roy said through tears. "I have no idea what I'm going to do, no idea. It's cruel."
According to Steve Pomeroy, a senior research fellow with the Centre for Urban Research and Education at Carleton University in Ottawa, census numbers between 2011 and 2016 show New Brunswick lost 4,700 affordable rental units overall.
For the purpose of his research, Pomeroy used $750 per month, or 30 per cent of a household income of $30,000, as the benchmark.
But those rental units are disappearing in New Brunswick.
"Moncton had a loss of 1,400, Fredericton was 1,300 and Saint John was 870," Pomeroy said.
While the 2021 census numbers aren't yet available, he said the loss of affordable market rentals has only accelerated since 2016.
Earlier this year, Statistics Canada reported that rents paid in New Brunswick had risen by 4.8 per cent between March, 2020 and March, 2021.
That's the largest increase in the country.
As rents double, still no rent caps in sight
Pomeroy explains that nearly 1,000 units each year are moving "out of the affordable levels" as a result of market demand and a lack of government regulation in the form of rental caps or controls. It means landlords have "the opportunity to put the rents up in very, very significant jumps."
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the $299.2 million National Housing Strategy agreement that New Brunswick signed with Ottawa in 2018 aims to create just 151 new affordable rental units by 2022.
Rebecca Train of Saint John is a single mother who has lived in her four-bedroom apartment for five years, paying $850 per month.
She considered her place "a fantastic deal," and said she could understand a modest increase based on inflation and the cost of living.
She was shocked however, when her building was sold in March and the new landlord posted a letter on her door advising the rent would more than double to $1,800 as of Dec. 1.
"I will not be able to manage the increase," Train told CBC. "I work a full-time job and and part-time job and still could not swing $1,800 a month."
A review of rentals in the province completed by the Higgs government in May includes 12 recommendations, but none of them includes a rent cap.
Pomeroy points to Ontario's regulations as an example of how government can help preserve affordable market rents. An annual cap limits rent increases to the rate of inflation or approximately 2 per cent, and a "vacancy decontrol" allows landlords to make substantial increases only after a tenant has moved out.
New Brunswick's review recommends limiting rent increases to once a year, but it doesn't limit the amount of the increase. It recommends "better protections against unreasonable rent increases," although it does not define what would be considered unreasonable, or how that would be enforced.
Pomeroy said with no limits on rent increases, the erosion of affordable market rents will continue.
Nearly 6,000 households in need for affordable housing
The erosion of affordable rents on the open market is forcing citizens like Roy backwards on the so-called "housing-continuum." Rather than paying a market rent, she is now turning to government-subsidized units.
At the end of 2019, there were approximately 5,000 households on the waitlist for an N.B. Housing unit.
According to the latest figures from the Department of Social Development, that waitlist is now close to 6,000 households, with 2,021 families, 1,120 seniors and 2,800 single adults on the list.
Minister Bruce Fitch said he feels for people like Roy and Train.
"My heart goes out to those people who are in difficult situations," Fitch said when asked how concerned he is to see people unable to find affordable rental units on the open market.
"We try to help where we can, providing funds for private enterprises to build units and then add the rent [supplements] to that so there's a number of different initiatives that we're doing."
Between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, 1,098 households on the waitlist "were recorded as having been housed," according to the Department of Social Development.
Under the rent supplement program, the province enters into an agreement with a private landlord in which the tenant pays 30 per cent of their income in rent, and the government pays the balance.
Growing election issue
Housing advocates worry the erosion of an entire category of affordable housing that isn't dependent on government support is a huge loss, and will only lead to deeper poverty.
Saint John resident Sarah Lunney, a member of ACORN New Brunswick and a graduate student, advocates for low- and moderate-income people.
She has taken a close look at the election platforms of the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives and believes the NDP has the best plan to address affordable housing.
Lunney likes the NDP's focus on co-op, social and non-profit housing as opposed to trusting private developers to create affordable housing.
"Real estate investment trusts and big investors are truly there to maximize their profits more so than actually provide housing as a social good," she said.
"Renters are oftentimes some of the most socioeconomically marginalized groups, and ensuring that housing is a human right first should be the main priority of the political parties going forward."
Lunney rates the Liberal platform behind that of the NDP, but ahead of the Conservatives. She finds both the Liberals and Conservatives are too dependent on private developers to offer affordable housing.
Randy Hatfield, executive director of the not-for-profit Human Development Council in Saint John, works in Ward 3, which has an overall poverty rate of 34 per cent and a child poverty rate of 45 per cent.
He is encouraging people to vote in the upcoming election. Although he understands that for people who are in "survival mode," voting is not a priority, he believes it's the only way to convince Canada's major political parties to include poverty reduction in their platforms.
"It does matter who votes," Hatfield said. "Politicians and political parties — they focus on getting elected, and they tend to target their platforms to the people who vote in large numbers."
with files from Mia Urquhart, Maritime Noon & Information Morning Saint John