Politics

Nearly 4,500 Canadian Armed Forces members, families waiting for military housing

The Department of National Defence says thousands of Canadian Armed Forces members and their families across the country are waiting for military housing — a situation which is forcing some local commanders to take unusual steps to shelter troops.

Only 132 military housing units built in the past 5 years

A soldier walks home with his groceries in front of the military housing at CFB Borden near Barrie, Ont. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

The Department of National Defence (DND) says thousands of Canadian Armed Forces members and their families across the country are waiting for military housing — a situation which is forcing some local commanders to take unusual steps to shelter troops.

New figures provided to The Canadian Press show nearly 4,500 service members and their families who applied for military housing were sitting on a waiting list administered by the Canadian Forces Housing Agency in July.

The situation underscores what defence chief Gen. Wayne Eyre has identified as a significant shortage of affordable housing for Canada's military. Earlier this year, Eyre said it was one of the top concerns for his troops.

DND has about 12,000 military housing units available to rent on Canadian Forces bases and wings. Eyre has said that between 4,000 and 6,000 more units are needed.

The waiting list runs almost to 700 names at CFB Esquimalt near Victoria, B.C., where the local base commander has started letting new sailors live in their training quarters for months after their initial training is finished.

The waiting list for military housing is close to 700 at CFB Esquimalt near Victoria, B.C. (CBC)

"Something that I have done out of empathy and concern for the position that our junior sailors find themselves in is to absorb those sailors into what are meant to be training and operational accommodations," said navy Capt. Jeffrey Hutchinson.

Other bases and wings with large waiting lists include Halifax, Comox, B.C., and Ottawa, Borden, Petawawa, Kingston and Trenton, all in Ontario.

At 19 Wing Comox, Armed Forces members were told earlier this year that they could contact Habitat for Humanity if they needed help finding housing.

Little progress in past 5 years

DND said five years ago the Canadian Forces Housing Agency was proposing to build 1,300 new units over 10 years. It was going to consider "alternate delivery options," such as leases and public-private partnerships, for other housing units.

But in the five years since that proposal was raised, only 132 units have been built across the country.

Real estate consultant Ben Myers said rental prices in most markets haven't followed the drop in housing prices spurred by recent hikes to interest rates. He said the national average rent in August was $1,959, higher than the previous record of $1,954 in September 2019.

Myers said some renters are opting to stay put instead of buying a home.

"So some of those prospective buyers are staying in the rental market, if they were already renters, and kind of reducing the supply of listings that are out there," he said in an interview.

Myers said the pendulum will swing back when rents become so high and home prices so low that it makes more sense to buy than to rent — but exactly when that will happen remains a mystery.

The search for affordable housing isn't unique to members of the Canadian Armed Forces — but those serving in uniform are often forced to live in certain communities and relocate often as a condition of employment.

An internal report by the military's morale and welfare unit in 2018 found one in four Armed Forces members are required to relocate every year due to training or operational needs.

Royal Canadian Navy commander Vice-Admiral Angus Topshee acknowledged the housing problem as his force struggles to to bring in new recruits amid a shortfall of 1,300 sailors.

"The challenge for the navy is that we recruit people from across Canada, and then we move them to two places in Canada that have among the highest housing cost rises and lowest vacancy rates," he said.

"Victoria has always been more expensive than Halifax. But over the past couple years, we have seen vacancy rates plummet in Halifax and prices go through the roof."

Topshee said the problem also affects more experienced sailors who previously moved out of their rental properties while deployed on six-month tours at sea.

He said in addition to building more military housing, the navy is looking to work with local communities to find some solutions.

"This is something where we're hoping that the provinces and the federal government and municipalities get together and figure out — how do we create enough housing for all Canadians," he said. "Because we will benefit from that ultimately."

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