Nfld. & Labrador

Despite housing crunch, almost 20 per cent of St. John's units are empty 

As a shortage of affordable rental housing grips the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador, an anti-homelessness group is calling on the City of St. John's to fill its vacant public units.
A stone building with a sign marking St. John's City Hall in the foreground. Flags are in the foreground.
The City of St. John's says more than 50 of its housing units must be repaired before anyone can live there. (Paul Daly/CBC)

As a shortage of affordable rental housing grips the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador, an anti-homelessness group is calling on the City of St. John's to fill its vacant public units.

Doug Pawson, executive director of End Homelessness St. John's, says the 80 units sitting empty as of Tuesday — 51 of which need repairs before they can be rented — could have a big impact in the city of about 212,000 people.

"Fifty units of public housing that are not available could make a significant reduction in chronic homelessness in our community," he said. "That would help alleviate a big burden, especially as we're welcoming refugees from Ukraine and an influx of students, while folks are getting squeezed out of the rental market and having to find other options."

The City of St. John's operates 424 units aimed at low-income individuals and families. City officials said last week that 48 units have been awaiting repair for at least six months and are "not rent-ready." Thirty-eight of those have needed work for over a year.

As of April 29, there were 199 people on the city's waiting list for housing, according to information obtained through an access request. Over 80 per cent on the list are waiting for "rent-geared-to-income" housing, wherein residents pay 25 per cent of their income for rent, with heat included.

Doug Pawson, executive director of End Homelessness St. John's, wants to know the city's plans to get units ready for people to use. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

The numbers show 72 people are on the list for a one-bedroom "rent-geared-to-income" place, and the rest are hoping for larger homes with two, three or four bedrooms.

But two-thirds of the city's housing falls under a typically more expensive category, known as "low end of the market" units. Only 37 people were on the wait-list for those units.

COVID-19, other issues behind backlog

St. John's Coun. Ophelia Ravencroft said in a recent interview it would take a council vote to designate the more expensive units as rent-geared-to-income units to accommodate the higher demand. She said there may be appetite within council to have that discussion.

"We obviously want the units that we have to be as responsive to community needs as possible," she said.

Coun. Ophelia Ravencroft says COVID-19 has contributed to delays in repairing city-owned housing units. (Vote Ophelia for Ward 2/Facebook)

As for the high vacancy rate, Ravencroft said staffing issues beyond the city's control — many related to the COVID-19 pandemic — have caused a backlog, and the city is working hard to get through it.

By comparison, the provincial government housing corporation operates 3,192 units in the St. John's area, and it had a vacancy rate of about six per cent as of April 29.

Pawson said community groups like his can help the city get tenants into its homes faster.

"We need to know what their plan is to get [the units] ready," he said. "And if they're not going to get them ready, what's the plan for the use of the land? And would they be willing to divest those assets to the community to be developed for housing?"

Meanwhile, finding an affordable rental home outside public housing in St. John's is increasingly difficult, says St. John's-based Sherwin Flight, who has run a series of Facebook groups for tenants and landlords in the province for about a decade.

He said Tuesday he's never seen so many posts go unanswered from people looking for a place to live.

"We see posts from people that are very desperate," Flight said.

"In some cases, several thousand people have viewed those posts, and there's not one comment from anyone with anything to offer."

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