Everyone deserves a place to live

We have a housing crisis and we can’t wait any longer for solutions

On my street in Halifax there are home-made posters in a couple of windows — including at our house — that say, “Everyone deserves a place to live” and “Affordable Housing Now.” 

My 25-year-old daughter, and our nine-year-old neighbour Alta, got together to make those colourful placards before going to one of last summer’s housing protests. To me, they are a stark reminder that housing has become something people of all ages and backgrounds worry about in Halifax.

Alta’s mom told me her daughter can see a small park nearby which over the last year became home to people in a Mutual Aid shelter and some tents. When it was cold, snowy, or rainy, Alta would look across to those emergency shelters and worry about the people living there without any of the usual comforts of home: heat, plumbing or electricity, family. Alta’s poster-making and activism grew from empathy. 

But both our daughters, and many other young people, must also be wondering how they’ll ever afford homes, to own or rent.

In my lifetime, and those of my parents and grandparents, home ownership was the dream and its fulfilment an indicator of a successful life. Halifax housing prices mean for many the dream will have to be different, or at least deferred. And our red-hot real estate and rental market means many more of us could be on the precipice of homelessness. If renovations push you out of an affordable apartment, good luck finding something similarly priced. 

Recent rental ads in Halifax included a single room with kitchen, tub, and toilet jumbled together, no separating walls, for more than $1,300 a month. (Um, do you mind stepping into the hall while I use the loo?) 

There is a lot of construction underway that we’re told will ease the housing crisis. But if you look at the “coming soon” signs at development sites around the city, it appears there’s nothing but luxury apartments and condos on the way. And this is exacerbating the problem because of what they’re replacing. 

Old Victorian homes with five and six bedrooms have been the go-to affordable housing option for students and young people. They get a room for maybe $700 a month, all in, and share the bathroom and kitchen. That’s a type of affordable housing option that’s disappearing as those houses are bought up by developers in land assemblies for large condo or apartment buildings. 

Yes, there will be more housing per square metre on those sites, but nothing as affordable as what they’re supplanting. Witness the block of big old houses that will be gone with the redevelopment between Robie, Spring Garden, Carlton, and College streets. The Promenade, as the project is called, will have two towers, 28 and 29 storeys. It won’t be those with limited incomes living there when they’re complete. 

Halifax council has taken some steps to address the crisis. Modular housing, a converted motel, and new affordable housing units are on the way. And zoning changes are allowing back-yard or garage-top suites for “gentle densification” in former single-family neighbourhoods.

But that will all take time, and for people still in tents as winter begins, it’s not soon enough. 

What we really need is an understanding at all levels of government that housing is a human right and homelessness is intolerable. Finland is the first country to implement a so-called housing-first policy. It no longer has shelters and temporary housing. It provides housing with social supports to anyone who needs it.

And here’s the thing: every person they house saves the country 15,000 euros in other services, according to a study that evaluated and compared costs. That’s well over $20,000 Cdn. Per person housed. 

Finland also mandates that 25 per cent of all new housing developments are affordable. It’s not alone. Other communities in the U.S. and U.K. are placing similar requirements on developers.

It takes a lot of courage and fortitude to try something different, to adopt a new philosophy. But as Alta, my daughter, and other housing advocates would say, making sure everyone has a place to live is just the right thing to do. 

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