For many Islanders, the day-to-day cost of living is overwhelming. Most of us know what it feels like to have more month than money - deciding what bills will be paid late this month so we can get caught up on the others; saying no to activities and events because we just can’t afford it and still get groceries or gas. Low and moderate income households are often managing at or near the poverty line, and the lack of affordable housing is at the crisis stage in the current PEI market. It is affecting families who are being evicted from their rented home as it is converted to an AirBnB, and prospective homeowners who cannot find a property in their price range; it is preventing Islanders from coming home and keeping Islanders new and old from staying. But what we mean by affordable isn’t always clear - and if we are going to make major decisions and investments with tax payers money, we should agree on the terms we are using.
Many people think the term affordable housing refers only to rental housing that is subsidized by the government. In reality, it’s a very broad term that can include housing provided by the private, public and non-profit sectors. It also includes all forms of housing options: rental, ownership and co-operative ownership, as well as temporary and permanent housing. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Company (CMHC) housing is considered to be affordable when a household spends less than 30% of its pre-tax income on adequate shelter. For an Islander with a full time minimum wage job, that would mean their affordable rent is $520 / month. I think we can agree that there is no such apartment available!
But what about Islanders who are living in poverty - who do not have an income or are unable to work through illness, disability, age, or other circumstance? For this vulnerable population, social housing is necessary to prevent homelessness.
Social housing is housing subsidized by governments (often developed in collaboration with the private and public not-for-profit sectors) that is made available to those who would otherwise be unable to afford to live in suitable and adequate housing in the private market. This is done through long-term operating or rental subsidies that are provided to assist low-income households and individuals meet the basic physical need of shelter as well a variety of social and psychological needs. In PEI, most of the social housing programs for families, seniors, and at-risk individuals are administered by the Department of Family and Human Services directly or via community partners. While there are hundreds of social housing spaces across the province, there are also hundreds on the waiting lists for family and seniors subsidized housing spaces. Islanders seeking help to find housing for a loved one in crisis is the most common call I get as an MLA, and the one we are least equipped to assist with.
The new Housing Action Plan identifies social housing as a priority, but does not clearly define affordable housing as distinct from social housing, or identify clear actions to invest and support in this critical piece of the puzzle. No one is disputing we need significant investment in expanding our social housing availability. But we also need to recognize the need to invest and support affordable housing - to address the pressure points that we are seeing first hand currently, and to provide long term options for Islanders regardless of their socio-economic status.
So what should we do? We could start by establishing a definition of affordable housing and include it as a priority in the Housing Action Plan. CMHC guidelines indicate:
Affordable housing generally refers to programs where ongoing operating costs are not covered by government and instead tenants pay rents at 80% of the market rent of the area. Affordable housing does not typically service households with very low incomes - instead, it addresses the very real gap in the market for those who are in core housing need*
Affordable housing is a great challenge in PEI - and governments, community organizations, non-profits and the private sector must work together to meet the challenge. Federal funds are available to create new housing supply. Governments can partner with industry to deliver housing at a scale that matches the need; as a province we have land at our disposal, and industry / NGOs have the expertise and resources to make it happen. What is required is political will, innovative ideas and solutions.
* What is core housing need?
A household is said to be in 'core housing need' if its housing falls below at least one of the adequacy, affordability or suitability standards and it would have to spend 30% or more of its total before-tax income to pay the median rent of alternative local housing that is acceptable (meets all three housing standards).
Housing standards are defined as follow:
Adequate housing is reported by their residents as not requiring any major repairs.
Affordable housing has shelter costs equal to less than 30% of total before-tax household income.
Suitable housing has enough bedrooms for the size and composition of resident households according to National Occupancy Standard (NOS) requirements.