MuniPoli 101: Home, Sweet Affordable Home

St. John’s will never thrive if people can’t afford to live here. Real progress on affordable housing requires a city council with courage.

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It’s no secret that this topic is close to my heart. It’s fairly common to hear in discussions around the City’s budget that affordable housing is the responsibility of other levels of government, and that the city should focus on core services. Those core services are not very useful, nor can the economy or life of the City function, if no one can afford to live here. In brief: cities need people, and people need homes, which is why more and more municipalities across the country are recognizing that they must take on a role in increasing the availability of affordable housing.

An Affordable Housing Strategy for the 21st Century

St. John’s is well regarded on the national stage for its level of participation in the affordable housing space. That takes several forms. Most obviously, the city is a landlord for 472 units of affordable housing: a mix of rent-geared-to-income units where residents pay 25% of their net monthly income in rent, and “low end of market” units, where tenants pay a set rate based on—you guessed it—the lower end of the rental market. Many of these units were built at a time when the federal government was investing in affordable housing in a major way, as a partner with provinces and municipalities. Federal funding for the construction of new social housing was more or less eliminated in the 1990s and the development of new affordable housing stock has largely flatlined since then. You may have heard of the City’s substantial vacancy rate in its affordable housing stock; this timeline has a bearing on that too, because the units were built for larger families. These days the majority of demand for affordable housing is for one bedroom units, and construction of those hasn’t kept up with demand in either the market-rate nor the affordable rental spheres.

Since the introduction of the National Housing Strategy in 2019, there have been some new initiatives at the Federal level that fund construction of subsidized rental housing, but it’s mere drops in the ocean compared to the amount of investment that we saw in the mid-to-late 20th century. The City’s Housing Needs Assessment from 2019 identified 12000 households in the city living in some level of unaffordable housing—meaning that they spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs. A further 2,000 households were in inadequate housing, meaning their housing was in need of repair, the wrong size for the number of people living in the home, or otherwise not meeting the needs of those residing there. Of a total population of 108,000 people this amounts to almost 13% of the population living in unaffordable or inadequate housing, and those numbers come from before the pandemic and attendant drop in incomes and spike in housing costs. It’s safe to say today’s statistic likely tracks higher.

Throughout the country, given the historic lack of investment over the last 30 years, those working in the housing arena have come to rely on partnerships to get things done. The City focuses a great deal on this element in its 2019-2028 Affordable Housing Strategy. The City gives operating and capital grants to many community groups through its programs and has a fund dedicated specifically to housing solutions known as the Affordable Housing Catalyst Fund. The City plays a convenor role with the Affordable Housing Working Group—a committee of community housing providers, government representatives, and private industry—and by hosting events and conferences.

Density is Not a Four-Letter Word

One often-overlooked contribution that cities can make to affordable housing is deciding land use. Where things are located and what types of housing are allowed to be built impacts on affordability greatly. The ripple effects of what goes in the development regulations are many. Allowing for the construction of more dense housing means greater numbers of properties paying property taxes. In areas that cost less to service because things like sidewalks, transit, and sewer lines are already in place, this keeps the tax burden on all properties in the City lower. 

For example, when a certain new subdivision welcomed its first residents in 2017 and the City became responsible for servicing, the snow clearing budget grew by about $400,000. A similar number of houses built within the existing city footprint wouldn’t have added this level of expense. And since such a significant portion of the City’s revenues (66% in 2021) come from property taxes, we know increases in expenditures are paid for out of our collective pocket; a greater density of taxpayers and a lower cost of servicing means fewer dollars coming out of those pockets. So all kinds of infill housing, and especially those which increase density to a greater degree, have a positive impact on your tax bill and affordability for everyone.

Building dense housing has affordability benefits beyond simply decreasing the tax burden on all residents. By decreasing the cost of building each individual unit on a plot of land, it’s possible to provide housing at a lower cost to renters or buyers. The aforementioned unmet demand for smaller units can be met by constructing more homes to house more people on a given lot than would be possible building a single-family home, while the sunk cost of buying the lot remains the same.

After Confederation, when Newfoundland and Labrador became eligible for intervention from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, CMHC’s policy was to only approve mortgages for the construction of a single-family home on vacant land. Decades of this created the cultural perception of single family homes as the ideal housing type, with all others being populated by ne’er-do-wells. Read the submissions on any discretionary use application to insert density into a neighbourhood with mostly SFHs and you’ll see what I mean. 

Concerns about parking and traffic are always paramount—if usually unfounded. But there’s also a darker element which is always couched in, “this is not NIMBY but…” and then ends in a deluge of classist (and sometimes racist) vitriol. The stigma around dense housing in St. John’s sometimes verges on delirium: guns and drugs on our street because of a triplex being constructed, homeowners threatening to sue the City because of a basement apartment going in that will destroy their property values. There is no evidence to support either claim, but the statements get repeated so often that, like so many myths perpetuated by repetition, they become true in the eyes of the public. We need to turn against the legacy of the single family home and the personal vehicle ruling all to have an affordable (and sustainable, and also enjoyable) place to live.

Wanted: A Council With Courage

In order to address the housing crisis, council has to exercise the courage to push back against the myths that people shout whenever they’re engaged about the development of dense or affordable housing. Many of the recommendations in the City’s housing strategy came to fruition with the approval of the new Envision St. John’s Development Regulations, but still more require the fortitude of council to implement. The Eric Street development is an excellent example of a situation where a significant amount of stigma fuelled a NIMBY response, which the majority of councillors were brave enough to push back against. It’s jarring, though, that the two votes against were council’s lead on housing, Deputy Mayor O’Leary, and the former board chair of End Homelessness St. John’s, Cllr Skinner.

The DM cited the neighbours’ objection about drainage issues—which had been repeatedly debunked as an issue by City staff. Cllr Skinner parrotted the line that residents weren’t engaged despite a detailed record of public and direct engagement with them. With market development, council often votes in favor of applications in spite of some less-than-ideal elements; affordable housing developments tend to be held to a higher standard. “I’m all for affordable housing, but…” is always the line. The subtext we should read is “but not anywhere near me,” “but not if I have to pay for it,” “but not if it inconveniences me in any way.” Since a perfect development—affordable or not—doesn’t exist anywhere, there will always be a reason to object. The crux of the matter is whether the greater good of building an affordable, livable city is ever fully contemplated and stacked against the fervour of the NIMBY response that leads with emotion and makes up rationalizations—which are then repeated by council members when voting against—after the fact.

The issue with the perpetual suggestion that we push affordable housing to the margins of our city is that we know that socially mixed neighbourhoods are healthier for all. Moreover, if affordable housing developments aren’t located near services, transit, schools, and jobs, they cease to benefit the community, meaning that residents have to pass up educational or work opportunities or take on the additional expense of owning a car in order to have an affordable place to live. The benefits to the community of building affordable housing decrease drastically if that housing isn’t positioned near the places people need to go to conduct daily activities. This paired with the cost savings to all residents as a result of infill development means that if we move new affordable housing outside the urban core it costs everybody more, not just those who live there.

I’ve mentioned before when discussing development matters that the timing of engagement matters a lot. The City is currently conducting engagement about the development of affordable housing on several pieces of land that it owns. But the vague premise is leading to NIMBY pushback and whataboutism: why can’t the City buy vacant buildings and turn them into housing? What about that dilapidated building owned by the province currently falling down in the City centre?

The City has limited powers of expropriation—it must pay market price for properties it wishes to acquire. Leveraging the assets it already owns increases the tax base and doesn’t cost any additional money; in fact, it might generate revenue in the long run. Buying properties to redevelop makes little financial sense when there are unused plots of land all over the City. As for the Province’s assets, the City can’t compel the Province to do anything, and at least the last three Ward 2 councillors (present company included) have tried to discuss the future of the aforementioned site with the Province to no avail. 

At the end of the day, this is an exercise in determining whether what the City says it will do when it comes to its commitment to affordable housing aligns with what the City really does when it’s time to bring its affordable housing plans to life.

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