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Archive for March 2017

Tackling the Affordable Housing Crisis

Sitting in the comfort of my home office and looking out at the houses around me, it can be hard to put my mind into a place where I can imagine what it’s like for people who are living on the street or struggling to pay their rent. All it takes is a few minutes watching the news, reviewing social media or talking to colleagues in local government to sharpen the focus on these very challenging issues.

In Exchange, we hear from communities that are taking action to end homelessness and create more affordable housing. This is particularly impressive as both issues involve a myriad of complex causes and influencing factors, and cannot easily be resolved. As I spoke to the local and regional government staff who shared their experiences and insights, it was a bit difficult to avoid feeling bogged down by pessimism or overwhelmed by the sheer challenges and barriers they face.

Addiction, mental illness, job loss, disabilities, low vacancy rates, high rental rates…the list of factors affecting homelessness are widely varied and the result is that there’s no such thing as one solution fits all. It’s also important to remember that these types of health and social issues are not typically addressed by local government. As well, when it comes to the lack of affordable housing, local government has little or no control over many of the contributing factors such as escalating real estate costs and low vacancy rates due to increased demand.

Then there is the NIMBY factor – “Not in my backyard!” No one wants people who are homeless camping in their backyard. I sincerely doubt that most people you talk to would feel any differently, and I can certainly understand the fear and, sad to say, distaste. Residents want to distance themselves from people who are homeless. But there is also resistance to having homeless shelters, even in centralized locations or business districts. Rather than NIMBY it’s really NIMC – “Not in my community!”

The question then becomes, if not in your community – where can people go? Where can they get the help they need? I was shocked to learn how many young people are homeless and addicted to drugs. It was also interesting and somewhat reassuring to learn about the proven benefits of “Housing First” to help change people’s lives and get them off the street – permanently. I think perhaps we all need to remember that these are people first – and being homeless is just their current status. Furthermore, if there are viable solutions out there to help get people off the street and into housing so they can get back on their feet or be helped with their mental health problems, addictions and other issues, we all benefit.

It’s also encouraging to hear about success stories like New Westminster, where the changes and incentives introduced at a local government level are prompting new rental housing developments for the first time in decades, and changes in policies are providing for more varieties of housing options, such as secondary suites and laneway homes. These more affordable housing choices are all a positive step forward.

As each story was shared, it became evident that implementing viable solutions is only feasible when community and social service organizations are integrated into the process. It’s also essential that all three levels of government play a role, including providing leadership to guide new initiatives and allocating funding. It may take months, or more likely years, before there is a significant shift towards more affordable housing and an end to homelessness, but that makes it even more important to get started now.