City & Politics

Regina needs affordable housing plan

Trying to find decent living conditions in Regina’s tight rental market can be a difficult process, but it really doesn’t help when a person’s rent can be raised so extraordinarily high in one shot.

Recently, Regina tenants in an 18-unit apartment building received shocking news: their rent would be going up by 77 per cent by Sept. 1. For some of them, this meant their rent for a two-bedroom unit would be going up to $1,195 from $675. Many of these tenants are either on fixed-income or low-income, so being able to take on such an increase is beyond their means.

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However, a couple days after receiving the letter under their doors – from the new Calgary-based owners – about the massive increase, those same owners withdrew the notice to increase the rent. This provided a much-needed reprieve for the tenants, but a few of the tenants have mentioned they will be looking into subsidized housing regardless.

After all, just because a 77-per-cent rent increase won’t be going into effect Sept. 1 doesn’t mean a lower rent increase won’t be coming in the near future.

Regina currently has a vacancy rate of around one per cent, with that number having dipped to 0.6 per cent vacancy in the past two years. In comparison, rent increases have gone up by roughly five per cent on average. If you move to Regina for a job, good luck finding acceptable living accommodations, because unless you’re making over $75,000 per year, you may be forced to accept sub-standard or very shoddy housing.

One online commenter on a housing story gave a brief explanation of his housing situation in Regina. In September 2011 he rented a one-bedroom apartment for $975 per month, in the ‘hood of all places. It was the only decent place he could find at the time, he said. At the same time, he was also on a waiting list for a new apartment complex in Harbour Landing. He was able to move their by December 2011. The rent of that new apartment? Yep, $975 per month.

“What’s wrong with that scenario?” the online commenter asked.

Yes, indeed, what is wrong with that scenario? A run-down place in the ‘hood costs just as much as a new apartment in one of the new sub-divisions in the city.

Many apartments in Regina haven’t seen much TLC over the decades, as they aren’t seen as major money-making locations. It costs landlords money to ensure the upkeep of the building and pay the various utility bills. Really the only way for them to make money (and hopefully upgrade the buildings) is to boost, boost, boost the rent on a semi-regular basis.

One of the reasons given for the rent increase is this particular apartment building has been “below market value” for a number of years. That may be the case, but everyone deserves to have affordable rental/housing accommodations that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Not everyone in Regina works in an office building or for an oil and gas company. People deserve to have some dignity and not be forced to choose between rent and food.

What some people are calling for rent controls, such as the provincial opposition NDP, others are saying it won’t work, such as a university economist and the governing Sask. Party.

Premier Brad Wall has said the focus needs to be on the supply of rental places, as the party believes rent controls actually hurt long-term supply. He pointed to the Headstart for a Home initiative, a program introduced in last fall’s throne speech designed to address rental supply. This is supposed to see 1,000 affordable homes built over the next five years.

This may be a nice goal of building 1,000 affordable homes over five years (or 200 every year), but that doesn’t mean all 1,000 of those homes will be built in Regina. This is a province-wide program, which means these homes will be parcelled out to various municipalities to help with their housing situation and not all go to Regina. This only addresses the situation in a tiny way in the Queen City. Regina could use all of those affordable accommodations.

Now, the city can’t rely 100 per cent on the province for help. The city, after all, needs to take care of its own, needs using its own resources. New Mayor Michael Fougere has called for a housing summit to take place this May to address the tight housing situation.

This summit will bring together representatives from the provincial and federal governments, housing industry and community organizations. The focus of this gathering will be to assuage Regina’s rental housing issues.

The mayor has said work needs to take place on the city’s low vacancy rate, which has hamstrung many people looking for a place to live. If this city expects to continue to attract new workers and families, it had better have the necessary living accommodations to house these new people.

Saskatchewan has winter for eight months of the year. It would be unrealistic to expect people to live in RVs and fifth-wheel trailers on the outskirts of the city during those cold periods. Don’t laugh; guys working in the oil patch have done that in places such as Weyburn (100 kilometres south), where housing availability is even worse. I should know. I lived there for three years.

In my first apartment, a basement-level suite, I was paying about $675 per month. It was a nice place, but it was easy to take out the aluminum-framed windows to get in. I stayed there for about two months before finding a more affordable apartment. It was a nice one-bedroom place for about $400.

That rental price was very affordable for a guy working for the local weekly newspaper and getting paid peanuts. Unfortunately, the bathroom was the most run-down part of the apartment. It looked as if it hadn’t seen much work since it was first put in. I’m even sure there had to have been mould growing under the floor, what with all the water from the shower that fell there.

So what needs to happen in Regina to address the shortage of affordable rental accommodations? Builders need to be persuaded to build apartment buildings – as opposed to the ubiquitous condos, which are springing up like mushrooms in this town – that are affordable for low-income earners.

The city and/or province needs to offer incentives for apartment buildings to be built in the first place. Offer them a tax break, for example, so that building apartments is made easier. And maybe, just maybe, take a page from Manitoba next door and put rent controls in place. Even if it’s just for a year. If it works, keep it in place. If it doesn’t, remove it. We will never know unless we try whether such a decision can work.

But we must try. The dignity of anyone who needs affordable housing is at stake.


Jason Antonio is the Regina correspondent for Spectator Tribune.

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