Affordable Housing: Why It Matters

I’ve been living in a bubble, and I know it. I’m lucky to have a roof over my head and have not given it a second thought in over a decade. Last year though, my eyes were rudely awakened to the fact that Ottawa is facing an affordable housing crisis when I searched for several months to find my mother an apartment. I was astounded to see that a one-bedroom apartment was expensive at over one thousand dollars per month and only increased from there. To my horror, a bachelor apartment began at nearly nine hundred dollars.

I found my mother an apartment after several months of searching.  Nicely settled, this is where I should no longer care.  Something continued to bother me though about the affordable housing crisis in Ottawa because I already knew both Vancouver and Toronto struggled with the same issue over the last several years. I pondered if the issue wasn’t only in a few cities, or if it had ballooned to a national epidemic. A few months ago, my worries were confirmed, when I read multiple articles in the CBC, The National Post, and in The Toronto Star that outlined multiple Canadian cities grappled to contain the housing shortage and included the small maritime town of Charlottetown, PEI. (https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/charlottetowns-housing-crisis).

I grew up in a family where my parents struggled financially. I know what happens when you live from paycheque to paycheque and “get by”.  A time comes, when you no longer have a paycheque, and there’s nothing in savings.

Then what? 

Then you borrow as much as you can and hope things will get better before you reach your borrowing limit.  Lucky for my family, I never experienced what comes after that. We managed (barely) to keep the roof over our heads, the heat and lights on, and some food in the fridge.

My father told me, you can always find work. I believed it. I also naively, believed, I could never be homeless.

Canada is not the only country attempting to address the affordable housing crisis.  Both the United States and the United Kingdom are attempting to tackle and correct the same issue. (I know about London, because I saw a Tube station sign there last year, stating the Mayor was working to address the issue.)

Recently, we planned a vacation to visit Portland, Oregon. We were aware affordable housing was a problem there too, and they now also tackled a homeless issue. (https://www.oregonlive.com/portland/2019/08/38000-in-portland-area-were-homeless-at-some-point-in-2017-study-finds.html )

I wasn’t prepared for what I saw there though. Along the interstate and under bridges, tents were pitched. Garbage littered the side of the highway and included a crumpled umbrella. In the city, we saw discarded socks on the paved sidewalks. In the city of Portland, during the day, homeless people sat on the curbs and stretched out and slept on the streets.

One day when we were on the train, I noticed a woman standing on the side of the road with a sign around her neck that read, “Houseless”. Below the word, was a simple request for a little money, whatever could be spared. The woman never looked up but focused her eyes on the sidewalk. She only raised her head, when a woman in a truck called to her and gave her some money.  The woman smiled at her gratefully and looked a little relieved.

I was mistakenly under the impression, homelessness occurred under particular circumstances such as drug addiction and youth fleeing an abusive home.  These were not excuses to ignore the problem but provided some context in order to explain how a person ended up on the streets. However, the reasons also conveniently and falsely reassured me, I might never be homeless.

If affordable housing continues to be a problem, I now know I could be. Examples of circumstances that may reduce my ability to earn an income include: if I’m unable to find work; if I suffer a serious health illness where I’m unable to work, or not able to work for a long period of time; or, when I’m a senior and need to find a rental apartment on a fixed income. As well, even if it doesn’t affect me directly, there’s a greater possibility it could affect family and friends.

Homelessness isn’t a risk for a small minority of the population if it ever was. There’s a risk it could or already is a national problem.  I know the time has passed where I can protectively fold my arms and say: It can’t happen to me. The point is passed too where I can shrug my shoulders and mumble: Someone else will take care of it. It’s not my problem.

Truth is I know affordable and low-income housing are problems in this city and in this country. Based on a December 2018 article in the CBC, it stated that homelessness in Ottawa had “risen by 21 percent.” (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/shepherds-good-hope-ottawa-homelessness-1.4946896) Somehow, I failed to notice it.

I have lots of reasons to step back on this topic: the politicians are addressing the issue; Canada has a large social system that might be able to manage and take care of those who are close to becoming homeless; and finally, who am I to make suggestions and try to help? I don’t have the experience and should leave it to the experts.

Portland’s changed me though. Now, I know I need to absolutely help if I can. Assuming, it’s not already too late.

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