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Housing costs high on East Coast

In Halifax and throughout Atlantic Canada, the costs associated with housing and living are putting more and more strain on household budgets.
In Halifax and throughout Atlantic Canada, the costs associated with housing and living are putting more and more strain on household budgets. - The Chronicle Herald

Housecats Bear and Teddy, pet rats Jasper, Tanner and Dimitri, hamsters Lola and Rover, and a guinea pig affectionately dubbed Whiney all share Evan Folland’s tiny bachelor apartment in Summerside.

Her two dogs? Well, there’s just not enough room for them. The border collies, Hank and Martha, are staying with a friend, at least for now.

The 35-year-old dreams of getting a bigger place, maybe a trailer or, ideally, an opportunity to buy the house on the almost 166 acres where she was raised by her grandparents. It’s up for sale.

Certainly it would give her dogs a lot of room to run around. But that house needs a lot of work — so much work that the property is listed by ReMax as vacant land — and the asking price is $289,900, far beyond Folland’s current housing budget.

Earlier this year, the Prince Edward Islander went through a stint where she was unemployed and desperately looking for an affordable place to live. Then things picked up a bit. She landed two part-time, temporary jobs, one as a mussel grower and the other doing maintenance for the City of Summerside. Still it was a struggle for her to get by and pay the bills, including her $600 monthly rent.

As those jobs were coming to an end in December, Folland wasn’t sure she would have enough insurable hours to qualify for employment insurance — or keep a roof over her head. That struggle to pay the rent or mortgage is all to common in Atlantic Canada.

According to the Financial Health Index released in November by Vancouver-based Seymour Management Consulting, 15 per cent of Atlantic Canadians worry about being able to pay their rent or mortgage. That’s more than one person in six in the region who’s worried about how to manage to keep a roof over their head every month.

It’s a hidden thing, though, something people keep hushhush. The results of the Financial Health Index also reveal that Atlantic Canadians are the least likely of anyone living in this country to discuss their financial troubles — even with their wives or husbands or other relatives.

Bluenosers, Islanders, Newfoundlanders and New Brunswickers, it seems, just don’t want to burden anyone else with their money woes. And yet, Atlantic Canadians — with the notable exception of Newfoundlanders — are among the hardest hit of all Canadians when it comes to housing affordability, according to the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis.

“It’s not just the price of houses,” said Paul Smetanin, president of that Toronto-based think tank. “It’s also your income quality and the cost of living and debt levels. In Nova Scotia, the housing prices are lower but the distribution of incomes . . . puts pressure on your households. After taxes and deductions, there’s often not much left from the paycheques of many Atlantic Canadians to pay for food, clothing and prescription drugs as well as the rent, the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis’ research shows.

But even Atlantic Canadians in the most dire circumstances shy away from talking about their finances.

In The Upper Room Hospitality Ministry’s soup kitchen in downtown Charlottetown in early December, a group of middleaged men and women sit at a long table. There’s music.

Tonight, the soup kitchen’s regulars will enjoy a supper of barbecue chicken, mashed potatoes and doughnuts for dessert. They’ll eat. They’ll enjoy the camaraderie. But they won’t talk to a reporter about their struggles in keeping a roof over their heads.

They’re on social assistance, they’ve got rooms and a steady life — and they’re not going to rock the boat or put themselves under a microscope by commenting in the press.

“They’re not putting their financial issues out there,” said Tammy MacKinnon, the soup kitchen’s manager, in an interview.

There’s definitely a stigma. That cultural bias is so great that it’s usually only those who are young and homeless, and in some cases also struggling with addiction or mental health issues, who are willing to talk to reporters.

Among these homeless youth, some beg to get enough money to pay to crash at others’ places for a night. It’s called couch-surfing but often there’s no couch, just a place on the floor. It can be a high-risk practice, leaving young people vulnerable to abuse.

According to MacKinnon, though, there’s nowhere near enough truly affordable housing on Prince Edward Island for the most disenfranchised.

Ottawa agrees.

Charlottetown MP Sean Casey has reportedly said the lack of affordable housing in Prince Edward Island’s capital city is disturbing. He regularly meets people in dire straits, people who have to choose between buying groceries or medicine, and paying the rent.

The daily battle many Atlantic Canadians face just to get by and pay the rent isn’t limited to those on the streets, the poorest of the poor. There are many more Atlantic Canadians coughing up far too much of their limited incomes to live in housing that barely meets their needs.

“In Halifax, there are tens of thousands of households living in core need and I think the same applies in the rest of the province,” said Jim Graham, executive director of the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, in an interview.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national housing strategy, unveiled in late November and expected to take effect in two to three years, is the Liberal government’s proposed solution to many of Canada’s housing woes.

With a total of $40 billion in joint investments between Ottawa, the provinces and the territories, that housing program’s goals are to create 100,000 new housing units, repair and renew 300,000 existing homes, protect 385,000families from losing their affordable homes, andsupport 300,000 households with a rental supplement called the Canada HousingBenefit. The national

housing strategy is targeting a 50-per-cent reduction in chronic homelessness and saving 530,000 households from being in need of housing.

“Every year, some 135,000 Canadians rely on shelters,” states the website for the housing strategy.

“Developed and delivered alongside persons with a lived experience of homelessness, the strategy will make a historic investment of $2.2 billion to reduce chronic homelessness in Canada by 50 per cent within the next 10 years.”

Ottawa is planning to pump in $4.3 billion, which it hopes will be matched by the provinces and territories, to repair the existing stock of affordable housing.

Across the country, the federal government estimates that 1.7 million Canadians don’t have a home that meets even their basic needs. Worse yet is that housing in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island is becoming even less affordable.

In all Atlantic Canadian provinces, housing became less affordable than the national average starting in the mid-1990s and has since gotten steadily worse throughout the region, except in Newfoundland. Housing is now much more affordable in Newfoundland than in the rest of Canada, according to the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis.

Throw more money at tenants to help them pay their rents, though, and landlords can simply decide to raise those rents — unless there are laws to stop them from doing that.

“We do see that landlords are the biggest beneficiaries of rental assistance subsidies,” said Smetanin. “In Ontario, they brought in legislation to prevent that from happening.”

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