When I first moved to Wakefield, Quebec, 20 years ago, I easily found a room in a shared house on quaint Burnside Road for little money. It was late winter, and the other tenant – a quiet, kind man named Donald MacDonald, with his wrinkly faced dog, Muppet – was either unwilling or unable to buy oil to heat the house, and so we shivered in front of electric space heaters in our bedrooms, and prepared meals dressed in winter jackets in the kitchen. Still, it was home, and the warm winds of spring soon blew.
For the next decade, I moved through a local ecosystem of affordable rental properties – often a little run down, usually in shared living situations – amongst a community of mostly young people who toiled in Wakefield’s service economy. We worked, went to school, partied, fell in and out of love, skinny-dipped in the river, volunteered, started new projects, and generally did our part to contribute a youthful vitality to this place we all loved to call home. Although I personally was never involved in its creation, the famous raft that was built by a small army of young hands and sailed down the river each Canada Day for many years is perhaps the highest expression of this gift – although some called it more of a curse. But on the whole, Wakefield benefitted from having a healthy mix of generations – the older ones who made the place desirable in the first place, and the younger cohort who carried the torch of Wakefield’s creative idiosyncrasy forward. We were blessed to be the rare small town whose children didn’t all run to the big cities at their first opportunity – many left for higher education, but a significant proportion returned to call the Gatineau Hills their home once again.
Throughout this period, I never paid more than $500 a month for my rent – and that was only for a year when I lived without roommates in a bachelor apartment built into the second storey of an old barn. Most of the time, I paid about $300 a month – an amount that, even at the going rate of about $8 an hour minimum wage, I could cover with a week’s work. Put another way, I paid less than the 30% of my income towards housing that most experts peg as the upper limit to what’s considered “affordable”. Sure, I had to put up with endless roommate squabbles over dishes, and housing stock that had often been neglected by it owners, but I had adequate shelter for an amount even I could afford.
Times have changed. As Airbnb moved in a few years ago, I watched the “For Rent” section of the local classifieds evaporate. Rent has predictably skyrocketed in the few places still leased long-term as surely as the law of supply and demand, making renting in tiny Wakefield feel more and more like downtown Toronto. Around the same time, the long-awaited highway 5 extension was finally completed all the way to Wakefield’s doorstep, and with it this village nestled in a wide, slow swoop of the Gatineau river was “discovered”, driving demand for housing higher.
In the big city of Ottawa, 30 minutes down highway 5, house prices, already increasing much faster than incomes before the pandemic, received a shot in the arm from the chaos unleashed by Covid. Prices there have increased a staggering 44% in the past two years, topping $700,000 for an average home – an unaffordable amount for more than half of Ottawa residents. It’s the fastest increase that city has ever seen.
Housing prices have a direct influence on rental rates, too; according to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, a quarter of Ottawa residents can no longer afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment.
Ottawa is one of the hottest markets in a country that has the hottest housing market among developed nations right now. Up until the early 2000’s, income and housing prices rose at about the same rate in Canada. But then prices became unhinged from income and began their steady rise. Houses are now 375% more expensive across Canada than they were just 20 years ago.
Economists have long sounded warnings about the extent of Canada’s investment in its housing sector, which is higher than any other OECD country besides New Zealand, and comprises 10% of our GDP. Canadians spend more on where we live than on what we produce.
The market frenzy in Ottawa has bubbled over into Wakefield and the surrounding area, as urbanites able to work remotely, and desirous of a level of social distancing one can only find in the country, flee to the exurbs. Waterfront cottages now sell for what urban houses did not that long ago. You can’t currently buy anything larger than a condo in Wakefield for less than half a million dollars. That’s how much we paid for our 150 acre farm with a 3400 square feet duplex and various outbuildings a mere nine years ago. At the time it seemed like a lot. Now it feels like a steal.
While realtors might be rubbing their hands with glee over their inflating commissions, and banks might be laughing all the way to…themselves…over all the interest they’re going to charge on those massive mortgages, nothing good will come to local communities when increasing numbers of people are priced out of them.
This past summer, I got to know a 26 year old who had recently moved to Wakefield from Ottawa because she loved the community (I was 27 when I moved here). At first she slept in her car and couch surfed while she waited for a new canvas wall tent to be delivered and installed on some friends’ land. Then she lived briefly in the tent, until mold problems drove her from it. She went back to her car and friends’ couches until she found a spare bedroom she could afford to rent in the house of a friend, just in time for the coming of the cold weather. She was lucky to find that. Who knows how long it will last. She says she expects to rent for the rest of her life.
I also got to know another woman recently, this one 49, with two kids, and going through a divorce. She was fortunate enough to be the first one to respond to a rare ad for a rental in Wakefield, and she jumped on the opportunity to sign the lease for the three-bedroom apartment, for $2000 a month. But after thinking about it for a bit, and stressing about how she was going to be able to afford that much money as a single mom, she backed out of the lease. But I doubt the landlords will have much trouble finding an replacement – 40 other applicants were in line behind her.
One final example: the first person I met when I moved to Wakefield was living in a bender at the time (no, she wasn’t constantly drunk – her home was a round structure made of saplings bent into a dome and covered in a tarp). True to this nomadic style of shelter, she has gone on to live the life of a wanderer, with longer stops in Switzerland and Guatemala, and many adventures in between. But she always considered Wakefield to be her true home, and returned here often. Yet on a recent call with her from Guatemala, where she has been living during the pandemic, she confided that she can no longer consider Wakefield to be a base for her, because of the cost of housing. She said she doesn’t have many regrets, but that one big one is not buying a home in Wakefield back when she could still afford it.
These three women are all dynamic, creative, warm-hearted individuals, the kind that Wakefield has attracted for decades, the kind that would have made great contributions to the community, but who will now likely not be living here long-term because of the price of housing.
Then there are those who have been living here, but are finding it difficult to continue to. La Pêche Media has a heartbreaking interview with two single moms struggling as eviction deadlines tick down to zero to find anywhere to live in the community that they love, where they work, where their kids go to school, and where their kids’ dads live. They have deep roots here, but market forces are yanking them out. When our neighbours struggle with something as basic as shelter, they struggle on every level: their health suffers, their kids’ schooling deteriorates, their ability to work and contribute to the community is compromised, and it is a loss for the community as a whole. Diversity is lost, and the flame that made Wakefield special slowly dies out.
WHAT CAN A RURAL MUNICIPALITY like La Pêche (which Wakefield is part of) do about this crisis? I spoke recently with Pamela Ross, my municipal councillor. I wanted to ask her how seriously our municipal government is taking this problem and what, if anything, they are doing about it. She seemed quite seized with this issue, but admitted that, as a government, they are “well behind” on tackling it.
She said that when council rewrote the bylaws around short-term rentals just a short time ago, they didn’t take into consideration their potential effect on affordable housing. They now realize that Airbnb has opened the door to people with deep pockets buying up housing and ultimately destroying community. This, along with an infamous 500 person Airbnb party in October, is why council has now declared a moratorium on additional short-term rental permits.
Besides putting the brakes on the proliferation of short-term rentals, Ms. Ross sees three general ways her government can leverage its powers to help the cause of affordable housing: through land, buildings, and laws. They can help groups, such as the Co-Habitat Wakefield housing co-op, acquire land, and they can designate municipal land for affordable housing. They can also try to help builders lower the costs to building affordable housing.
But changing laws, naturally, offers the most solutions to municipal council. Ms. Ross said that the municipal government should be a partner, not a barrier, to developers wishing to build affordable housing. One way she highlighted her council doing this was a new bylaw in the works that will allow the conversion of existing outbuildings into housing. This actually affects someone I know personally, who years ago renovated a large shed on her property into a living space, which she then moved into while renting out her house long-term. She later found out that her new home was considered illegal, and has been living in legal limbo for some time. This new bylaw will finally legitimize her living situation, and will hopefully spur other landowners to undertake similar renovation projects, boosting the housing stock without creating new developments. I can personally attest to the existence of such housing prior to its legalization, having lived, as already mentioned, in a converted barn myself years ago. It underlines a broader shift in our society from an age when buildings housed the working apparatus of farms to a time when we need those structures more to house people.
Ms. Ross and I also talked about the 10% of land that must currently be set aside for parks by developers, and how that requirement could be repurposed into cash for a housing fund to put towards affordable housing. She said this is something they would probably do. Why choose between parks and affordable housing, though? Can’t we do both?
But a municipal housing fund is an excellent idea, and one use for it could be to simply buy housing as it comes up for sale, for the purpose of renting it out long-term at affordable rates. But does the Municipality of La Pêche really want to become a landlord for residents? It’s not unheard of. In Berlin, the municipal government owns 325,000 units – 17% of all rentals – and has the right of first refusal on residential properties coming up for sale. Considering the depth of the housing affordability crisis, I think it behooves municipalities to think outside the box of their traditional responsibilities. Having spaces where people of different incomes can call home is a form of social infrastructure as important as infrastructure like roads. And municipal governments are in a better position than any other level of government to administer rentals on a local level.
Other ways that a municipality could add to its housing stock – particularly its stock of smaller, more affordable and often rental housing – would be to make it easier for homeowners to add a granny suite to their home, turn single unit houses into duplexes or triplexes, or erect a tiny house on their land.
Intensification – allowing more homes per unit of land – is another strategy, and in this I have concerns over La Pêche’s recent move to a 4.5 acre minimum lot size. While this policy might be good from an environmental point of view in limiting development, it could have negative knock-on effects on housing affordability. A balance needs to be struck between preserving natural habitat and providing sufficient human habitat. To this end, clustering housing has several advantages: multi-unit housing is more efficient in terms of building materials and providing services like water, roads, and electricity, all while minimizing the physical footprint of our built environment on the habitat of other species. If designed well, such neighbourhoods can also facilitate more positive communal interactions, and help create the sort of walkable social cohesion that many people yearn to be part of. One house per 4.5 acres seems to work against many of our shared goals, and may actually be counter-productive to nature conservation if it leads to a low-level sort of sprawl.
Another idea that some may find crazy, but that many waterfront municipalities engage in, is to allow people to live in boats. Wakefield has ample water frontage; perhaps the youth were showing the way with their Canada Day raft, and we should be imagining a river lined with an eclectic array of watercraft, housing an equally eclectic array of Wakefield personalities. Think of the contribution such an innovation could make to the culture and commerce of Wakefield, with little environmental footprint.
In order to assess needs and resources and come up with a plan for action, the municipality should found a committee of stakeholders, who are given a budget and staff resources, and are tasked with developing a Housing Action Plan. Such a committee could sort through all the options and publish a plan tailor made for La Pêche.
SO FAR MOST OF THE SOLUTIONS I have mentioned involve increasing the housing stock, the thinking being: if housing is too expensive, it’s simple supply and demand – too much demand for too little supply. Demand isn’t going anywhere, so we’ve got to increase supply. The market is showing us the way.
But what if the market is the problem? What if this whole crisis of large segments of society being priced out of something as basic as housing is a prime example of market failure. Maybe, like health care, it’s a fundamental mistake to leave something as essential as a roof over your head up to the market. Maybe there’s enough housing already, but it’s unevenly distributed; at the very least, the means to purchase housing, and to engage in ever escalating bidding wars, is unevenly distributed. Owning property has become like a poker game, with more and more people forced to fold as they can’t see the bets made by the game’s flusher players.
James Stockard, a former longtime commissioner of the Cambridge Housing Authority in Massachusetts, and a lecturer on housing studies at Harvard, believes we need to get radical, saying that “If we really want to solve the housing problem in this country, we have to get as much of the private housing stock as we can out of the hands of for-profit owners and turn it over to nonprofit owners and public owners.”
As a signatory to the UN Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, Canada is obligated to ensure adequate housing for its citizens. The UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing has made it clear that national housing strategies are needed that treat housing as a right rather than another marketplace commodity.
After decades of disengagement with social housing, the federal government of Canada did get back in the game to some extent in 2017 with the announcement of a ten year National Housing Strategy. The strategy is basically a suite of loan and grant programs totalling $72 billion, with the stated goals of building up to 160,000 new affordable homes, renovating and modernizing 300,000 homes, removing 530,000 families from housing need, and cutting homelessness in half. According to an update on the progress of the strategy up to last September, $23.8 billion in commitments have been made, supporting the creation of 89,300 new housing units and over 248,300 repaired housing units.
When my grandmother got sick and eventually died in the 1950’s, there was no medicare and the hospital bills forced my grandfather to sell their Ottawa valley farm to pay for them. He never got his farm back. Nowadays, with the price of property, he likely never would have been able to buy it in the first place. Maybe it’s time that housing be seen as a right equal to our right to receive medical care, regardless of our financial ability. Everyone benefits from a healthier society, and the same is true when everyone has a secure roof over their heads.
I hope that Wakefield, along with all the other places in Canada that people call home, can find ways to welcome new people, and hold on to the old, who together can continue to weave the fabric of the robust, diverse communities we’ve grown to love.
 The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation has a guide for this online.
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