Rental crunch hits Martensville, Warman

By Jonathan Charlton, The StarPhoenix, March 24, 2014 - For years, the dream of an affordable single-family home has lured thousands of people to Warman and Martensville, the booming bedroom communities minutes from Saskatoon. Those cities were among the fastest-growing in Canada as of the last census, more than doubling in size in the last decade.

That growth didn't include a single apartment building.

There's consequently a growing need for affordable housing to support the workforce of the booming communities, which want staff to be able to live in their respective cities.

"What we see as an employer, and I'm sure we're one of many, the kids graduate from high school and head off to bigger and better things," said Dorothy Ens, manager of the A & W in Martensville. "The rent is way too high for them, whether (they earn) minimum wage or not. Their expectations of what they should be able to get may be a little unrealistic but there's nothing to rent here."

Established franchises are targeting the cities as their populations approach 10,000 people. In Martensville that includes Taco Time, Tim Hortons, Dairy Queen, Little Caesers Pizza, Second Cup, Pharmasave, Canalta Hotels and Saskatoon Co-op. And last fall, construction began on an 8,500-square-foot strip mall.

Mean while , a 250,000-square-foot mall is under construction in Warman.

"With all the influx of new businesses coming to this town, I don't know where they're going to find housing for staffing these places," Ens said.

She said the city risks losing young adults to Saskatoon, and then there's less of a chance they'll commute to Martensville to work.

Dillon Shewchuk, Martensville's economic development manager, has heard those concerns loud and clear, though the city hasn't formally counted the availability of and demand for rental housing.

"You can just tell people are talking about it more. We hear more demands for it and I think our developer community is also cognizant of the opportunity," he said.

Mayor Kent Muench agreed.

"(Commercial developers) were finding it a little bit of a deterrent for setting up ... They're worried about employees finding a place to live," Muench acknowledged.

Since around 2006, Martensville's bread and butter has been what's called entry-level housing - 900-to 1,000-square-foot single-family homes.

"That product was very affordable for first-time home buyers," Shewchuk said.

Many of those homeowners have taken advantage of a second suite program, turning their basements into rentable spaces.

The city's other rental stock consists of condos. But there's not a single apartment building.

"Starting out as a bedroom community, I don't think there was necessarily thought put into affordable housing, because that's what Martensville was - it was affordable. The whole community was affordable, that's what attracted people," Muench said.

That oversight may change with the new subdivision of Lake Vista.

At the moment, Lake Vista is a flat, largely barren field with electrical wires and a pit that will be filled with water.

It's zoned to allow some apartments and condos; though at the moment, the only such structure is a seniors condo.

The city also has 12 openings in the rental construction incentive (RCI) program. Sask Housing provides a $5,000 grant per unit to be used solely for rental purposes, which is then matched by the province. The unit must remain as a rental property for 15 years.

The Chapparel Ridge development in Sunset Ridge also has entry-level housing and 10 units in the RCI program.

"That would be our first entry into affordable housing in Martensville," Muench said.

The mayor pointed out, however, that many people still like owning their own homes.

That's a tradition Brad Toth, Warman's planning and development manager, is also familiar with.

"There's a mindset in the community that we've had to change, because people are used to single family lots with 60-foot frontages, large backyards, those types of things. So when they do see some of these high-density type developments coming in it does raise some red flags."

Warman's business sector began picking up steam around 2009, a couple years behind Martensville.

That has created a lot of retail and service industry jobs, but the city's housing is typically a "little high priced," Toth said.

"Basically we need a wider range of housing to support our commercial development," Toth said.

There are some condos and townhouses available for rent, but no apartment buildings - yet. Warman is working with builders on proposals for high-density, four-storey apartment buildings with underground parking.

"It's probably going to take a couple of years before they'd actually hit the market, by the time we get our rezoning in place, construction and servicing," said Toth.

The goal - over the next five years or so - is to make Warman self-sustaining, with growing business and industrial sectors, rather than just a bedroom community of Saskatoon, he added.

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