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The Myth Of Affordable Housing

Everybody knows what an oxy-moron is right? The deliberate formation of one word out of two contradictory words for effect: bittersweet or something similar along those lines. Than there are those oxy morons that we'd have to call accidentally ironic: Military Intelligence is an old favourite.

Those words aren't normally polar opposites, but through their associations, or through our experiences of them, they have come to gain a meaning that is unintentionally sarcastic. In most cases their commentary is tinged with bitterness and have a certain amount of cynicism invested in them.

One of my new favourites in that category has to be the phrase affordable housing. There's such promise in those two words; the implications being that there is a house or place of residence out there that's within everyone's means. I know for myself the first time I heard that phrase I had high hopes that it meant housing units within my price range.

I wasn't silly enough to believe that it referred to anything other than rental properties when it came to my financial situation. People on fixed incomes have to be realistic about their means and what is possible. It wasn't until I began perusing apartment for rent advertisements that alarm bells started to go off.

95% of the listings that I looked at were well beyond the amount that the government considers sufficient to cover the shelter costs of two disabled people. What were most galling were the display ads proclaiming Kingston's (Kingston Ontario, Canada where I live) best affordable housing. Checking the advertised rents showed that they were a minimum of around 100 dollars more a month than our shelter allowance.

In fact, I wondered who would actually consider some of those prices affordable. Not someone who is on minimum wage or even slightly higher is for certain. Was this title of affordable anything to do with what people could actually afford, or was it a means for a large company to prove they are deserving of building more rental units.

I decided to do some checking into what the definition of affordable housing is as used in this context, According to what I've been able to ascertain, in Ontario affordable housing refers to the average price of a unit within it's category. So if the average price of a one bedroom apartment in Kingston is $750.00 per month plus utilities, it is considered affordable

At one point in time Ontario was home to some of the better tenant protection legislation in Canada. Each year a fixed amount would be set, usually in line with any cost of living increase, that landlords were allowed to ask for as a rent increase. They weren't allowed to raise rents when an apartment came vacant, unless it was time for the annual increase.

If a landlord had done extensive renovations that upgraded the quality of the facility they could apply for an additional amount in the form of a one-time increase. Of course rent control only applied to units that were below a certain dollar amount per month, recognising the need to put a ceiling on rents for the poor, while letting the landlords still rent out luxury residences that cost an arm and a leg. There was probably some sort of allowable ratio between the two, to ensure that a landlord supplied both types of units.

But all of that became history in 1995 when a very right wing version of the Conservative party took power. Aside from gutting social services and programs they also scraped the whole rent control system, allowing landlords incredible carte blanche in the setting of rents.

While annual increase were still limited, any time a unit came available it was now possible to raise the rent as much as you felt like. When this new feature was combined with easier means for landlords to evict tenants; (including the excuse of needing to do any renovations that might require tenants to vacate), and easier access to over the limit rent increases, rents in Ontario cities quickly sky-rocketed.

According to the theory behind this loosening of regulations, landlords would be encouraged to build more rental units, and supply and demand would keep rents down to acceptable levels. The problem was that landlords decided to work the other side of the street of supply and demand. By not building more units they were able to charge high rents knowing people would be desperate enough for somewhere to live they would pay what was demanded.

In smaller cities like Kingston another scenario developed. One developer is able to decide the average cost of an apartment in the city by owning a huge chunk of the units available for rent. As the majority of the apartments they own have been built in the years since the gutting of our rent control system, they have been able charge what ever rent they want for new apartments.

Each time a vacancy came up in an older building the rent would be elevated to match that of an equivalent unit in a new building. The implications of this go far beyond just what rents people in Kingston are paying now. When levelsof government meet to talk about creating more housing units they look at the average price per unit, the affordable rent, and use that as the benchmark for new units.

Instead of finding out what people can really afford to pay in rent, and establishing a base in that manner; they are looking at what people are forced to pay in order to live with a semblance of dignity. It used to be a rule of thumb that one should never pay more than thirty percent of your wages on shelter; it would cost that other 70% to live properly.

Now people are fortunate if the balance has not shifted to the extent that they pay 70% of their income on shelter and are forced to scramble to try and feed themselves and have a semblance of a life. There is no such thing as affordable housing anymore; it is a myth perpetuated by governments more interested in appearances than actually doing anything.

Kingston Ontario has a population of 161,000 according to the welcome signs on the highway. We have the lowest vacancy rate of any city in Canada and the average price for a two bedroom apartment, the affordable cost, is somewhere over $800 a month plus utilities. Once you move to the larger cities, that's the price of a single roomed apartment with a bathroom and kitchen attached.

While recent headlines have trumpeted money being made available for building geared to income housing (housing where rents are not allowed to exceed 30% of the tenants income and whose occupancy is restricted to those below a certain level of earnings or on fixed incomes) nothing is made mention of the fact there is no budget to maintain the ones in existence.

At present the waiting list for a one bedroom geared to income apartment is five years in Kingston Ontario, and drops to one year for a two bedroom. The majority of this housing has been allowed to degenerate to slum due to insufficient funds to both maintain and secure the premises.

They also have fast become welfare ghettos where people without hope are piled one on top of each other and quickly stop caring about their existence. The majority of the units are placed in isolated, out of the way areas of town, further increasing the ghetto mentality and prevents occupants from having easy access to the rest of the city.

Even if you are eligible to live in one of these units you are somehow expected to survive in the open market for whatever period the waiting list demands, and than be forced to live in unsafe and unpleasant conditions. None of this is conducive to providing individuals with much hope that conditions are actually going to get any better when it comes to the issue of safe, accessible and affordable housing.

I'm sure that compared to conditions in other countries there's very little to complain about, and that there would be people in the world who would be grateful to have what little that's available here. The thing is we are supposedly one of the wealthiest nations in the world and this shouldn't be an issue at all.

I know there are plenty who would disagree with me, that's obvious because of the state of things, but I would think that a government's priorities should be focused on the health and well being of its citizens, not how they can save a few bucks at the expense of the least fortunate.

I suppose until that time comes we will have too live in a world where terms like affordable housing and military intelligence are the verbal equivalent of slipping on a banana peel: funny to watch but lousy to experience.


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