CBC News: Lack of affordable housing causing NL woman to leave the province

September 2, 2023
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Source: Mike Moore, CBC News, August 25, 2023

Joanna Murphy has spent a long time looking for a new place to live in St. John's.

Right now, she, her husband and young daughter are staying with a friend in the west end of the city. But in two weeks, that friend is leaving the province, and the family has to search for a new home.

Murphy says she doesn't know what's next.

"It doesn't even matter at this point. Like, we just need a roof over our head," Murphy told CBC News Friday.

"It's just very difficult at the moment that we have nowhere to go.… If we don't have [anywhere] to go in two weeks ... we have to pack up and leave the province."

The family's previous apartment cost over $2,000 a month in rent and utilities, which was too much for the family to manage.

Ever since, they've been constantly searching for properties to rent.

Listings only last a few hours to a day. Having hundreds of people in a similar situation to her own makes connecting with landlords almost impossible.

"It's pretty sad that it has to come to this point, but I mean, it's not only us that's suffering. It's everybody else, too," she said.

Her comments come on the heels of a new report commissioned by the City of St. John's, which says housing will only get increasingly unaffordable if estimated housing shortages continue to get worse.

The report, commissioned by city council to develop an understanding of current and anticipated housing conditions across the city, says housing is getting increasingly unaffordable thanks to prices growing faster than incomes.

"There is a significant portion of the population that is unable to afford the median sale price of a home within the city and a noticeable portion of the population unable to afford the median rent of a dwelling unit within the city," says the report, which was written by Turner Drake & Partners, MCIP David Harrison, and Upland Planning and Design Studio.

Single-detached homes make up the greatest share of dwellings at 42 per cent of the 49,260 total in the city. After a four-year drop in prices between March 2016 and March 2019, prices rose 16 per cent by March 2023, from $266,100 to $307,600 for a benchmark composite of a single-family home, a townhouse and an apartment.

Median rent in the city increased nearly 34 per cent between 2010 and 2022, from $695 — for a benchmark composite of a studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom rental — in 2010 to $930 in 2022.

Coun. Ophelia Ravencroft, who leads the city's affordable housing working group, said it has been three years since the last housing assessment report.

"The picture that this paints very clearly to me is that we are looking at a market growing. Although core unaffordability was down a small amount, a lot of the figures in here are obviously quite alarming," Ravencroft said Thursday.

"This is the kind of thing where clearly we need a pretty substantial systems change in the way that we think and talk about housing in terms of collective collaboration, shifting away from the profit motive toward the fact that we need to start accepting and realizing, as this report does, that housing is a human right."

The report pegs the city's housing shortage as between 1,025 and 1,335 units, based on population estimates, which have been increasing and are expected to continue to do so.

The report projects the housing shortage could grow to between 2,740 and 3,770 units by 2028 and to between 3,610 and  5,310 units by 2033.

"While the demand due to population growth can be considered positive for the city, overall, without proper growth to meet this demand, market pressures can cause prices to inflate beyond current resident capacity to afford dwellings, be they rented or owned," reads the report.

"St. John's boasts a truly impressive inventory of affordable dwelling units provided by a host of organizations, though these units face a shortage as well."

In total, 805 people responded to a survey for the report. Response was high among low-income households, people between 25 and 44 years old and women, and 51 respondents — just over six per cent — were facing varying degrees of homelessness.

Eighty-nine per cent of respondents called for more affordable housing and 51 per cent called for an increase in overall housing supply.

Ravencroft said those aren't surprising figures.

"I'm not shocked in the slightest, unfortunately. We are living in a society that is marked by rapidly worsening economic inequity," Ravencroft said.

"If the province is listening — rent control, rent stabilization, these are necessary tools. I certainly hope these are things we can implement, although the city of course doesn't have jurisdiction over that."

Need for flexible planning

The report estimates 7,205 affordable houses are required to meet residents' needs. About 24 per cent of the city's population falls into either low- or very low-income categories.

One of the key recommendations of the report is that the city create new partnerships and expand existing ones to boost non-market housing, ensuring housing security for the most vulnerable within the city.

"The city of St. John's is projected to grow through 2033 to varying degrees, and if the trend of positive in-migration continues, this is unsurprising," reads the report.

"A growing city requires robust and flexible planning to address the many possibilities its future could hold, and we believe the recommendations of this report provide a solid foundation from which the city can continue its already laudable work ensuring safe and secure housing for its current and future residents."

The report makes 10 recommendations, including advocating for increased support from senior levels of government, supporting non-profits that bear much of the cost of housing service delivery and educating residents on the value of affordable housing.

Although the city is working on housing, Murphy said she doesn't have time to wait — and knows others don't either.

"If you can't get nothing, pack up and leave," she said. "It's as simple as that."

The total cost of the assessment report was $64,515 — 50 per cent cost-shared with the provincial government. The city's portion was $32,257.50.

Completing the study was also an eligibility requirement for the federal government's Housing Accelerator Fund, which could come with cost recovery toward the project.


Mike Moore


Mike Moore is a journalist who works with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's. He can be reached by email at mike.moore@cbc.ca.


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David Harrison

David Harrison is an urban planner and development consultant based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.


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