By Jack Bourassa
The personal is political. This is not just a slogan. This phrase has always inspired me. I asked myself if the need for affordable housing is a personal issue for someone else— an argument often presented. The hunt for affordable housing, sadly, is a personal problem for many. And “the personal is political” as affecting change requires political will.
Why do we need affordable housing in our northern communities and everywhere in Canada? There is no doubt that the need for a decent shelter is a basic human need, and in deed, is a human right. Not having enough affordable housing in our communities is a crisis that has been addressed but remains unresolved. There have been some changes, but the problem is getting even worse.
Let’s remind ourselves of why we urgently need affordable housing in our communities. Individuals with access to decent housing are more capable of finding jobs, getting education, and thus, contributing back to their communities. Having affordable housing means having more resources to spend on other needs— studies have shown that wherever affordable housing is available, reliance on food banks have decreased. Having affordable housing allows people in need to get out from under and to live with dignity.
Affordable housing is important to families. Children in families with no affordable place to call home are more likely to be unable to focus on their education. Moving from one place to another would cause psychological stress on children. Parents who could afford a decent place, can spend more on nutritious food— the food prices are already high in the north. Having affordable housing means spending more time with family and loved ones instead of working two jobs. It means having more time and resources to get involved in social and physical activities that are essential for the wellbeing of individuals, families and communities.
Who is now at risk of being homeless? The Canadian Observatory on Homelessness identified factors that may contribute. They include precarious employment, sudden unemployment, several and persistent mental illness, violence/abuse in current housing situations, and other factors beyond the individual’s control. Lack of stability adds to the vulnerability. More affordable housing might not solve their problems but would, at least, provide the security and stability they need.
Let’s look at what makes housing affordable. According to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), housing is considered affordable if it costs less than 30 per cent of a household’s before-tax income. Recent studies have shown that across Canada 40 per cent of renters spend more than 30 per cent of their household income on rent. Around 20 per cent spend more than 50 per cent. How are individuals and families with parent(s) earning a minimum wage or a wage below Living Wage to find affordable housing? Let’s keep in mind that the current NWT minimum wage ($13.85) is far behind the Living Wage.
As I mentioned earlier, the problem is getting worse. CMHC conducted a study and concluded that the rents in Yellowknife are increasing despite vacancies: “Based on units common to both the 2017 and 2018 surveys, the same-sample apartment rents for two-bedroom units increased by 1.7% in October 2018 on a year-over-year basis, compared to a 1.4% increase between October 2016 and October 2017.” With the current situation, our communities need more affordable housing units and rental subsidies to those in need of them.
Whenever presented a problem, I always ask myself if we could be part of the solution. I believe that we could collectively create a change. Elections (Federal and Territorial) are coming up this Fall —let’s make sure we’re prepared to ask the right questions to candidates and be proactive. Remember: the personal is always political. Those who are affected suffer the most, but we all need to take action for the collective good.
This column originally appeared in Yellowknifer on May 1, 2019.