New Brunswick

Cities push for affordable housing, but what does 'affordable' really mean?

Questions have been raised about affordable housing units being planned for the New Brunswick Exhibition Grounds in Fredericton. The city has committed to ensuring that 20 per cent of the units in store for the site will have rents capped at 10 per cent below the market rate. 

City councillors in Fredericton struggle with what qualifies as 'affordable'

Developments at the NBEx site could be required to include housing at 10 per cent below market rates. (Gary Moore/CBC)

The term 'affordable housing' is being heard a lot these days, but what it actually means is a little confusing.

The new affordable housing units being planned for the New Brunswick Exhibition Grounds in Fredericton are a good example of the issue.

The city has committed to ensuring that 20 per cent of the units planned for the site will have rents capped at 10 per cent below the market rate. 

But some city councillors have openly questioned whether that qualifies as "affordable" for most people. 

"I have a bit of a concern about the affordable housing being 20 per cent affordable at 10 per cent below market and the multitude of definitions of affordable housing," said Coun. Jocelyn Pike at the Fredericton city council meeting Monday night. 

"And I struggle with that myself. Because when is it affordable?" she said.

In an interview, Coun. Jason LeJeune said the conversation about what's considered affordable often gets muddled. 

"The conversation ends up being a difficult public conversation because the word affordable is used to encapsulate a lot of different meanings to different people in the community around what does the word affordable mean?," he said.

Warren Maddox is executive director of Fredericton Homeless Shelters, Inc. He says using median income of an area to determine affordable housing rates makes rent unaffordable for the people who most need housing. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Warren Maddox, executive director of the Fredericton Homeless Shelters, said rent at 10 per cent below market is  unattainable for many people. 

"That's not the definition of affordable," he said.   

Affordable housing is widely defined as housing that costs less than 30 per cent of a household's income. That's the definition both the province and the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation use.

But when it comes to making policy or providing public funding for affordable building projects, another definition is used: housing that costs less than 30 per cent of the median family income for the area.

In Fredericton, that works out to about $1,500 dollars a month. 

"It's not a standard that can be sustained," said Maddox. "If you're basing it on that median income, then you're losing 20 or 30 per cent of the population… This is a really, really significant problem for me running homeless shelters."

The term "affordable" shouldn't be a catch–all, said Julia Woodhall-Melnik, a professor at UNB Saint John and research director of the Housing, Mobilization, Engagement and Resiliency Lab. 

"It's considered affordable by these funder, policy, developer standards," she said, "But that doesn't translate to the actual household experience of affordability and being at that 30 per cent or below of your income on housing costs."

Woodhall-Melnik said language needs to be used to distinguish between below market housing and affordable housing.

"Those terms aren't synonymous," she said. "So we need to say, we are building 20 units of below-affordable market rent for this neighborhood, or I'm making 12 or 20 units of housing that will be offered… for people that is based on their income." 

LeJeune said the city's upcoming housing strategy will help clear up some of the confusion on a local level. 

"That's going to be a really critical document for not just council, but for the community to galvanize around an idea of what affordability means for our community," he said.

"Because it's personal for people, it's also personal for our community. Communities are very different from each other, they have different socioeconomics, different demographics. So at a community basis, we have, I would say, some work to define what affordability means to our community in a broad sense."

The housing strategy will outline how the city can help tackle the housing crisis. It's expected in the coming months. 


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