Originally published on Sherwood Park News
Another report presented to Strathcona County council has outlined the plight of the lack of affordable housing within the municipality.
Commissioned by the Alberta Rural Development Network (ARDN) in 2019, a Housing Needs and Demand Assessment report found that more than 14 per cent of residents are spending 30 per cent or more of their income on housing costs (3,535 homeowners and 1,335 tenants).
The report’s findings, which were filed in August 2020, were presented to council during the Oct. 20 Priorities Committee meeting.
“Many one-person households and lone-parent families are currently at risk of foregoing essentials or unable to pay rent due to shelter costs exceeding 30 per cent of their before-tax income. Non-affordability projections show between 4,619 and 5,939 households will be overpaying for shelter by 2021,” the report highlighted.
In addition, about 2,000 households are in core housing need, which means they’re experiencing either unaffordability or unsuitability (overcrowded houses, not enough bedrooms, or home is in need of major repairs (plumbing, electrical, or structural)), and these households are unable to move to a better house or pay for the repairs.
There are 35,565 households in the county, of which 31,695 are homeowners and 3,870 are renters (11 per cent). Based on population trends studied in the report, it’s projected the county’s seniors will represent 20 per cent of total population (up from 14.5 per cent in 2018). Population projections also anticipate continued growth in the number of couples without children and lone-parent families, with a minor increase in the number of couples with children. In 2016, lone-parent families were the fastest growing family type in the county.
The report also found that those most impacted by the lack of affordable housing are single-parent families or those living alone (working individuals). According to census data between 2006 and 2016, single-person households in the county grew by 50 per cent, which was the single largest increase in demographics.
As defined by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, affordable housing is considered to be less than 30 per cent of a household’s income.
The report also stated there are few purpose-built rentals (studio, one or two-bedroom options) and low availability of affordable rental options. Single-detach homes vastly outnumber all other housing types, accounting for 85 per cent of housing types in the county, which eclipses the provincial average of 75 per cent. Detached homes also make up the majority of the rental-housing market locally, representing 40 percent (compared to 24.3 per cent provincially).
The average home resale price in the county was calculated to be $449,703 (compared to $380,235 provincially) and the average monthly rental rate is $1,550.
ARDN provided four recommendations based on the report; 1) review best practice strategies to mitigate housing gaps, 2) prioritize the Land Use Bylaw amendments for the Urban Service Area, 3) conduct a homeless estimation to better understand housing needs, and 4) continue to build local and regional partnerships to respond to housing and homeless needs.
Affordable housing has already been highlighted as a gap in the community by both youth and seniors advisory committees who report to council, as well as council’s own three COVID-19 response task forces.
Just last year, the Youth Needs and Assets Report to council outlined that youth and young adults want more services and supports regarding affordable housing within the county. Strathcona County was ranked “severely unaffordable” according to a 2019 Canadian Rental Housing Index report, in which the county was cited to be $300 more expensive for rental rates compared to the provincial average.
Frustrated, Ward 4 Coun. Bill Tonita outlined this issue has been talked about for years, but there’s yet to be much progress. When meeting at the annual Housing Symposium, he said all involved “shrug their shoulders and hope for the best” upon its conclusion, and that concerns him because no concrete solutions are being put forward.
“It looks like there is a lot of work to be done here and, yet again, I don’t want to walk away without having a strategy,” Tonita said.
In regards to potential Land Use Bylaw changes, Infrastructure Planning Services Division’s association commissioner, Stacey Fedechko advised council there will be push back from neighbours, but council will have to have the “guts” to do it.
“We do know where we have to go from here — we have to have some tough conversations and make some tough decisions, and our community needs to change, otherwise, we’re not going to change,” she said.
Ward 1 Robert Parks noted he hopes council has “enough will” to make decisions about that in the future.
In response to the ARDN report, the first-ever housing estimate, as well as a homelessness count, are currently underway in the county in order to lay the foundation to address affordable housing issues.
Ward 2 Coun. Dave Anderson noted local unaffordability in housing is driving residents away to live in Edmonton, but then they’ll still commute here to work. On top of that, he worries for residents who can’t make ends meet, which could lead to another host of social issues.
“This is a problem that I want to put my full backing into tackling,” Anderson stated. “It’s such an important issue that we need to put it at the forefront of our minds and deal with this in the next few years and into the future.”
The housing estimate will be completed this month, which FCS director Bree Claude said will be key in pointing the county in the right direction of what’s needed locally. She added all three levels of government are required to solve affordable housing, and no one body can solve it on its own.
Of course, the pandemic has amplified economic pressures as 24 per cent of Albertans signed up for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, and September’s unemployment rate sat at 11.8 per cent (the second highest in the county) — that equates to 257,000 Albertans. According to MNP LLP, a national accounting company, one in four Albertans are insolvent or are unable to cover their monthly bills and debt repayments. In addition, four in 10 Albertans say they’re $200 or less away from insolvency or unable to pay their debt.
“The need for strategic and decisive action is now,” Nancy Simmonds, Heartland Housing Foundation (HHF) CEO told council at the Oct. 20 Priorities Committee meeting.
“Without a sustainable housing model, the community is vulnerable to the failures that we’ve seen in the larger urban centres. We need to be proactive in developing a sustainable housing model that allows for individuals in this community to strive, build, and give back to the community,” she added.
HHF is considered the primary provider for social and supportive housing as it has 179 dedicated affordable housing units (not including seniors housing). The more affordable publicly run seniors lodges operated by Heartland Housing Foundation have waitlists totaling more than 300.
Municipalities could tap into $1 billion in funding to support such housing as the federal government recently launched a Rapid Housing Initiative in late September.
Repurposing the old Clover Bar Lodge site could be one solution on this file.
“The need for more affordable homes in our community is much greater than the current supply and we need to be poised to take advantage of any investments that the federal government is prepared to make. One such opportunity could be the redevelopment of the Clover Bar Lodge lands for affordable housing. That land is perfectly located to address the needs of vulnerable county residents and could be designed by the county when federal funds are made available, we’re ready to meet the opportunity with a strategic solution,” noted Simmonds.
Ward 7 Coun. Glen Lawrence would also like to see housing options provided in the rural areas as well as thinking outside of the box to rezone non-residential as mixed-used areas. He agreed with Tonita that this has been an issue that council has been “skirting” for a new number of years.
“We owe it to everyone that we all have a good quality of life,” Lawrence stated.