This column is part of a series on poverty in Cape Breton.
One of the critical supports for those living in poverty is affordable housing.
Housing is a known contributor to health, neighbourhood stability, the ability to keep a job and achievement in school.
In the National Housing Strategy Act, passed last summer, housing is also noted to be key to one’s “dignity and well-being” and the right to housing was recognized.
The good news is that if we look around, we can already see commitments to affordable housing in Cape Breton, including public units and rentals sponsored by the non-profit sector including SHIMIs (Supported Housing for Individuals with Mental Illness). We also have a critical Housing First program, whereby support workers assist vulnerable individuals in locating and keeping market rental housing, with rents for some subsidized by government, and a recently expanded shelter offering access to Housing First.
This means we have the groundwork to expand affordable housing provisions here, which is essential given local need.
In our most recent month-long count of those experiencing homelessness, we identified 278 people in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. Data from the last census, available through Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., also show that locally over 5,000 households are in core housing need, with most of these spending more than 30 per cent of their income on shelter. Like elsewhere in the country, most of these households are renters.
What’s more, if you look carefully at these numbers, you see that core housing need is especially experienced by certain kinds of people who rent: namely, those living alone, including seniors and non-seniors, and single parents.
The Affordable Housing and Homelessness Working Group, of which I am part, and which also involves stakeholders including Public Health, Mental Health and Addictions, the Cape Breton Regional Police Service, Cape Breton Community Housing Association and New Dawn, among others, has worked hard to understand affordable housing and homelessness in the municipality and to develop an affordable housing plan based on this community-engaged research as well as community consultation.
To reduce the number of households experiencing core housing need and homelessness, the working group has put forward the following action items:
• Rent subsidies are needed for low-income tenants (regardless of age and household type) who are renting in the private market. We require 600 of these to become available per year over the next five years. The Canada Housing Benefit, part of the National Housing Strategy, provides an opportunity, since it can be designed to bridge the gap between 30 per cent of a household’s income and their market rent.
• We need to invest in the construction of 80 affordable units per year over the next five years, emphasizing bachelor and one-bedroom units which are located near supportive amenities and services.
• Eligibility guidelines for public housing require revisiting and revising, so those who are targeted by this housing (currently seniors and families) matches need (to include one-person, non-senior households).
• Other mechanisms which provide low-income households with the resources they need to pay for living expenses must be bolstered. Currently, the standard household rate for a single person between the ages of 19 and 54 is $586. Its purpose is for basic needs (rent and utilities, plus food, clothes and personal items); meanwhile, the average rent of a one-bedroom unit in Cape Breton County (which, based on our local research, likely doesn’t include utilities) is $675/month. Even the upcoming, increased minimum wage for someone with full-time work will not keep a single individual out of core housing need in our region, and the working group recommends the implementation of a living wage.
The Affordable Housing and Homelessness Working Group is not the only entity arguing for expanded emphasis on affordable housing. The 2019 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in N.S., for example, also recommends investing in housing, including through the Canada Housing Benefit and by building new public units.
There are community groups across the province working hard on this issue, understanding local contexts, creating new units and articulating to government that investments must be greater and match local needs.
In peer-reviewed research I have co-conducted, based on the Cape Breton housing situation and recognized nationally for research excellence, I have found that struggling to pay rent lowers your sense of belonging to community.
I have also found that providing good quality, affordable housing leads people to say they can live normally, feel good about themselves, invite friends or family over to visit, and not have to worry excessively about losing their housing. It seems like it’s these latter experiences we should be aiming for, for all.
Dr. Catherine Leviten-Reid is an associate professor in the MBA in community economic development program at Cape Breton University. She conducts research on housing, community development, the social economy and social care.