Op-ed: Lack of housing security big issue

The Starphoenix June 1, 2015 -

Dyck is executive director of the Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership.

The recent closure of rooms at the Northwoods Inn and Suites has shed light on the lack of housing security for many people in Saskatoon.

As an organization that is working to increase affordable housing and co-ordinate solutions to homelessness, we are seeing the impact of this crisis and know that it will be an uphill battle for many of the affected individuals and families to find a place to call home.

It's no secret that incomes have not kept up with rising housing costs, but the increases in income are particularly slow for those with lower wages, fixed incomes (i.e. seniors) or those who rely on government assistance programs. With 20 per cent of Saskatoon households making between $5,000 and $30,000 per year, shelter is anything but affordable for far too many people in this city. However, the challenges individuals and families face is far deeper than high housing prices.

Discrimination is real; front-line housing support workers document financial and racial discrimination on a daily basis, but are essentially powerless to help. Larger families and people with disabilities have a harder time finding housing because it isn't as profitable to build appropriate housing.

And then there are the people who appear to have "social issues." Whether this is due to stereotyping or real struggles with addiction, criminal activity or mental illness, these folks have a very hard time finding and maintaining housing. However, they deserve the same human right to housing that we all do.

The Northwoods is being forced to close some suites, displacing individuals and families. While we can celebrate that people are not being forced to live in a place that is not fit for habitation, we must be mindful that many of these folks will have a very hard time finding another home.

Substandard housing in our city has filled a gap that we as a community are not

filling. The unfortunate reality is that the majority readily accepts that this is the best we can do. Complacency has created this problem, and we all have a responsibility to solve it or face the consequences on the health of our fellow citizens and our community. The lack of affordable housing is a problem that neither the market, government nor the non-profit sector can fix alone. Everyone in the community must work together to develop a multi-faceted long-term solution.

The majority of new affordable housing in Saskatoon is meant for affordable home ownership and purpose-built market rental units; however, the trickle-down effect of freeing up units is too slow for the majority of people in immediate need of low-cost housing. A broader range of housing solutions is needed in a city with 10,000 new residents per year and a plan to grow to 500,000.

To begin with, expanding investment in truly affordable rental housing for the lowest-income citizens in our community is essential. This includes more subsidized housing, social housing, supported housing and even - dare I suggest it - low-barrier housing for those who don't fit anywhere else.

There is also a desperate need to enforce laws that prevent landlords from discriminating based on receipt of public assistance, claiming that they have a minimum income criterion or charging a viewing fee to rent an apartment. Access to affordable housing is essential to reduce poverty, help newcomers to Saskatoon establish themselves and ensure that programs like Housing First can succeed.

The desperation people feel when searching for affordable housing is heartbreaking. After being turned down over and over for housing, some find it easier to just stay in a shelter or live on the street. The lack of safe, appropriate and affordable housing destabilizes people, creates food insecurity and taxes public systems. Without intervention, this becomes an intergenerational issue, with no end in sight.

We can do better. Demand it, and be the change you wish to see in this world.

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