Saskatoon's housing market to be probed as U of S researchers join Canada-wide study

The City of Saskatoon's affordable housing situation will be examined in a Canada-wide research project, which includes a University of Saskatchewan research team partnering with researchers across the country.

Mayor says time to rebuild partnerships with province to improve inspection system

A shakeup in management at Saskatoon's Lighthouse has led the management team to ask the province to appoint a mediator. (Albert Couillard/CBC News)

The closure of the City Centre Inn and Suites in Saskatoon due to numerous health and safety violations led to many people losing their home and now it's shining a light on Saskatoon's housing market.

The City of Saskatoon's affordable housing situation will be examined in a Canada-wide research project, including a University of Saskatchewan research team partnering with researchers across the country, to look at just how affordable housing programs affect vulnerable people and their families.

"I think people may have been surprised at their [some of the tenants'] reluctance to leave these conditions," said Isobel Findlay, co-director of the Community-University Institute for Social Research at the U of S.

"That tells us a lot about the importance of stable housing. People want a place to call home. People need a place to call home in order to participate fully in society."

Findlay and her research colleagues will study how different forms of affordable rental housing impact the lives of marginalized people by looking at those in greatest need, and which types of programs — like cash benefits or rent supplements — create the best outcomes for those who need to access them. 

Saskatoon's homelessness problem

The $1.3-million study examines rental housing programs in three regions: Atlantic Canada, Ottawa and the prairies — with Saskatoon as a major focus.

Aside from the closure of the former Northwoods Inn and Suites, Saskatoon has a history and geography which makes the city interesting for the study. 

"We have been leading the Point-In-Time (PiT) Homelessness Counts since 2008," said Findlay. 

According to 2018 PiT Count data, 85.5% of those reporting homelessness in Saskatoon self-identified as Indigenous.

"And so there's a very real need to understand what's going on," said Findlay. 

More than 50 per cent of people reporting homelessness in Saskatoon went through the child welfare system, she added.

"We need to understand the decades of disinvestment in affordable housing that led to mass homelessness as a phenomenon."

Canada's National Housing Strategy, which was announced in 2017, is a more recent attempt to combat homelessness.

According to the government of Canada, the 10-year plan costs $55+ billion and aims to cut chronic homelessness by 50% as well as remove 530,000 families from housing need. 

Province and city in charge of inspections

While the five-year-study can't provide immediate solutions, the need for a change in the inspection system became clear when details of the living conditions at the City Centre Inn and Suites were published. 

"Their [the Saskatoon Fire Department's] job is not to be public health inspectors but to look at fire code issues," said Mayor Charlie Clark in an interview on Tuesday.

"As they went and inspected the site on some of these fire code issues, they also identified many public health concerns." 

The owner of City Centre Inn and Suites has been ordered to close some or all of the business after numerous violations. (Submitted by the City of Saskatoon)

Saskatoon's assistant fire chief Yvonne Raymer said on Monday motels require an annual fire inspection. The last one at the place on Idylwyld Drive North took place in January 2019. 

"At that time the fire department didn't determine that a full closure was necessary," said Clark. "Over time the things didn't get better, they got worse, and we got to the point where a full closure was necessary. And this is not something taken lightly because it means displacing all of the people living there out of their homes."

Regarding public health inspections, motels and hotels are no longer licensed under the Public Accommodation Regulations and, as unlicensed facilities, only get inspected in response to complaints as well as on a follow-up basis, according to the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health.

Motel inspected dozens of times

Saskatchewan public health officials have been attempting to work with management of the motel for several years in order to provide safe housing, the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) wrote in a statement.

It said 27 inspections were made since 2015. The SHA did not say when it last inspected the City Centre Inn and Suites. 

The Ministry of Social Services also provided a statement, saying they don't have the mandate to inspect housing units in the private market, noting that "like every other adult citizen across our province, income assistance clients are free to make their own decisions on where to live and use their shelter benefit to support that choice."

Clark said there needs to be the right level of inspections and accountability measures in place by the provincial government to ensure housing conditions are safe.

"There's an opportunity … when the provincial government is providing social assistance to also make sure that having landlords providing housing to people that's being funded by these provincial supplements to make sure that that housing is safe."

A provincial program used to provide money for the Saskatoon Fire Department to inspect rental accommodations until it was cut in 2016.  

"We had a stronger partnership [with the province] in place up until 2016," said Clark. "This is a sign of what happens when we don't have the proper capacity to do this. I believe it's time where we ... rebuild partnerships like this." 

More affordable housing required

The city is interested in helping support the development of more affordable housing, the mayor said, noting that there is more demand out there right now.

After finding mostly temporary homes for the former tenants of the City Centre Inn and Suites last week, the challenge is now to help people get into long-term homes.

Out of 119 individuals connecting with support teams last Thursday, 74 are currently served through an Income Assistance Program, the Ministry of Social Services said in a written statement.

Findlay hopes the nation-wide study will help bring awareness to the public about the issues of homelessness and affordable housing.

"Unsafe conditions, people living in precarious conditions, this cost us all dearly because they can't participate fully."

With files from Saskatoon Morning