The operation was quickly executed with military efficiency: a large but empty block of apartments stood beside a grassy field on 5 Wing Goose Bay, but as autumn arrived (before any snow fell) men and equipment spent a little over a week tearing it down and cleaning up the site until almost every sign of the well-built structure was erased from the bulldozed ground.
The demolition took place so fast it was hardly noticed, even though it happened beside one of the base’s busiest streets. Now, the building is hardly missed — having been only one of a large collection of residences that stand empty on the Department of National Defence’s (DND) Goose Bay property.
Over the years of the base’s decline, and despite a high local need, many useful structures have been torn down and most townspeople, even those who have nowhere to live, have grown numb to the wasteful practice and to the federal government’s apparent attitude that it has no responsibility to help alleviate a chronic shortage of homes.
That shortage has been growing throughout Labrador for decades and it now threatens to overwhelm the few services available to people who are trying to survive on low incomes.
While federal tax money is spent on maintaining and heating hundreds of empty flats and private married quarters on 5 Wing Goose Bay, elsewhere in town an unknown but large number of men, women and children are often being forced into overcrowded and unsafe conditions.
The most vulnerable — the poor, the sick and the addicted — face horrendous choices, if they are actually able to choose. They must either pass the most bitterly cold weeks of the year by camping in woods on the skirts of subdivisions, or by begging for lodging night-to-night from friends and acquaintances, or by surrendering their dignity and most (if not all) of their money to often-abusive provincially supported slumlords. Or, in what is perhaps the safest and most secure option, they can commit a crime that will see them locked up snug and warm in the Labrador Correctional Centre.
New housing units are going up in central Labrador, but nowhere near as many as are needed, or in the right price range. The few numbers do little to alleviate any measure of the current shortage, a shortage growing steadily worse because of a recent influx of badly required service workers, a shortage that will become explosive if any new megaproject is actually started in Labrador.
The mayor — Leo Abbass of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, that is — says it himself:
“I’d hate to think that businesses in our community are not able to get workers simply because of a shortage of housing … whether they be teachers, nurses, construction workers. Right now we’re experiencing a shortage and, as I say that, we’ve seen record numbers of new houses going up in the area. It’s almost like there’s a contradiction there: all these new units going up, but the supply is not meeting the demand.”
As a significant aside — and to add yet another “contradiction” to the situation — much of Labrador’s building industry is being supported by house construction in Sheshatshiu. Despite that, many in that community point to numerous boarded-up homes to illustrate that their community, at least, is not really suffering from a shortage and that the pressure to build comes more from politics and profits than from need.
In the meantime, while the municipal council of Happy Valley-Goose Bay tries to figure out what to do, the province continues only to dribble funds that seem to benefit shady landlords more than disadvantaged citizens, while keeping some of the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corp.’s own low-income housing stock locked and empty.
As the only agencies capable of instantly and close to permanently solving the problem, the federal government and DND have offered no good reasons why many perfectly adequate rooms, apartments and houses have to stay uselessly empty.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador