New Brunswick

Saint John wants to focus on non-profit housing sector

Councillors vote to use the city's resources to create an umbrella organization to co-ordinate work being done by the city's five non-profit housing groups. The goal is to make housing more affordable.

2 councillors say maximizing profit from housing is making the city unaffordable

The new affordable-housing organization would work with existing housing non-profit groups. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

Saint John municipal councillors took the first step in helping non-profit landlords and making housing more affordable by creating a new initiative to oversee those efforts.

At Monday night's meeting, councillors voted on a motion for a municipal housing entity.

"There are more jobs on the market from our expanding industries, and yet more people are at risk of losing an affordable home," said the motion, approved by council Monday.

Co-sponsored by Ward 1 Coun. Joanna Killen and at-large Coun.Brent Harris, the motion ask the city manager to find the best organizational structure for the new entity. 

Once created, it will use the city's resources to co-ordinate work already being done by the city's five non-profit housing groups.

Taking the bureaucratic burden off the shoulders of those organizations will allow them to make progress faster, Harris said.

"We want that to really focus on scaling up the non-profit sector first and foremost," he said.

"Making things streamlined for them, co-ordinating funding, finding new funding and to have that horsepower that the city currently doesn't have."

The goal is to increase housing affordability in order to attract more people to Saint John, and to counteract the rising in prices in the last two years. 

Killen said she feels like "a canary in the coal mine " with her own housing experience. She said she's had to move three times and had a rent increase of 50 per cent  — all while having privileges like connections and renting experience that others might not.

Ward 1 Coun. Joanna Killen says in the last two years, she's had to move three times and had a 50 per cent rent increase. (Joanna Killen/Facebook)

"It has never been like this before. So from my own personal lens, I see a lot of issues and red flags," she said.

To Killen, the housing landscape right now is heavy on private developers and large luxury projects.

"We need density. We need non-profit landlords who cannot go for profiteering of real estate," she said. 

"You know, it's great that there's growth here, but right now there's not enough affordable places for people to live."

Killen said there are some funding resources the city can't access, but an arms-length organization such as this entity could.

"We found funding opportunities through the federal and provincial governments that are only available to [municipal housing entity]," the motion said.

'It has to be solved by the rest of us'

Saint John saw the highest rise in housing costs in all of Canada in 2021, and vacancy rates have been hovering between one and two per cent. More people continue to struggle with homelessness in Saint John, and the government is finding fewer landlords willing to agree to below-market rent prices for people living in precarious situations.

In researching this proposal, Harris and Killen said they spoke to economists who said the "market balancing" that was expected to stabilize prices once they reached a certain point is not happening.

"If it can't be solved by the market, it's has to be solved by the rest of us," Harris said. 

"And that means, like, looking at what we did with health care, we brought it in-house, we have a single payer system. I'm a radical. I'll go on the record and say I think that's a better system to look at for housing."

Saint John councillor-at-large Brent Harris says non-profit housing is essential to keeping the city affordable. (City of Saint John)

On Monday night, city manager John Collin said he recognizes the housing crisis in Saint John and the sense of urgency required to deal with it. However, creating a municipal housing agency will take time.

He said the organization has to be in place if the province delegates certain social responsibilities to cities or regions in 2024.

"We have to be ready for that eventuality if it happens. This entity will have to be up and running in time for that."

Collin said the housing project will take six to eight months.

"If I was to hazard a guess this evening. … I would hazard that this is done and ready to be implemented in the first half of 2023."

He said this organization would have a place in the city even if the province doesn't choose to delegate housing to municipalities.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hadeel Ibrahim is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick based in Saint John. She reports in English and Arabic. Email: hadeel.ibrahim@cbc.ca.

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