“Hot enough for ya?” That’s the greeting of the day (week…month) as I write this in mid-July. It’s as common a salutation as “how ya doing?” or “how’s it going?” during southern Ontario heatwaves. As the weather roasts us, I count myself lucky. My home is at least partially air conditioned. And I can afford the hydro bill that will come at the end of the month. Not so for many other people who live in this region and this province. I think about that as, sweat rolling off the end of my nose, I take my daily walk through my mixed-income residential neighbourhood. I think about how, 20-some years ago I accepted a job, moved to St. Catharines, and attempted to find an apartment I could afford on my income. It was a hard search. Back then, the vacancy rate was hovering around one percent. It was slim pickings for any apartment, let alone an affordable one. I found decent digs in an older converted building. It was oddly early to mid-century in set up and accoutrements. The refrigerator was vintage, much like the rounded corner International Harvester one that was a fixture of my parents’ kitchen when I was a child. There was no shower (just a tub). The bathroom was clearly an afterthought. But it was clean, with no bugs. It was also safe, warm enough in the winter, and not quite roasting in the summer. The landlord was decent as well and didn’t treat his tenants like necessary coal mining cogs in his Freedom 55 retirement plan. It was the first of five St. Catharines apartments (some better than others) I lived in before my partner and I were lucky enough to buy a house.
When we left our last, beloved apartment (converted servant’s quarters), rent had inched its way into “it’s better to own” territory and some dignified houses could be found well below the $100,000 mark. This was less than 15 years ago. Now, houses on my street are becoming out of reach for first-time buyers. I know, I know…I should think of that as a good thing. I mean, my “investment” is growing, right? Or so the rhetoric goes. But I can’t think of a home, a place to live, as just a financial investment.
Housing as a Right
I’m a naturally happy person, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t look at things with a critical eye. Housing is one of those things we should all look at critically. I happen to think housing is a right. Decent, affordable housing should be much like water—it shouldn’t be owned by only a few, and it shouldn’t be controlled by the free market alone. That’s why I’m skeptical about all the hype surrounding the 416’s (and outlying 905) interest in Niagara real estate. It’s great for property values and real estate agents, property management companies, and people who want to sell their houses and get out of Dodge or shift to the nursing home. But what about everyone else? Who else benefits? Having invested my life in Niagara for a quarter century, I don’t want to see it turned into a bedroom community for commuters with good jobs in the Big Smoke and retirees from Oakville eager to sell their family homes and spend their golden years on much more affordable golf links. Because that will mean we have given up on having a truly thriving community and we’ve given over to strict market interest. We already rely on the lower paid service industry for too many of our jobs. In the post-manufacturing economy, too many people here juggle two and three part-time jobs just to put a roof over their heads. You need a master’s degree to get a toe-hold on a $15 an hour, no benefits temporary contract position. I joke, but I don’t joke.
How About an Employment Boom?
I would prefer if the real estate boom was an employment and living wage jobs boom, so that the people already living here in substandard housing—you know, those languishing on subsidized housing wait lists, could have a chance at good jobs that allowed them to afford good market rental housing, or even perhaps owning their own homes someday. The problem with a high rent to income ratio community (which is much of St. Catharines/Niagara and has been for many years) experiencing a housing boom is that the people on the margins— to be blunt, the folks living in overpriced holes—never benefit. That’s right…never benefit. Yes, there is shelter and transitional housing (clearly, the YWCA is a leader here), and the Region and the city of St. Catharines are putting our money and their mouths into supporting social housing and affordable housing. It’s about time. I can’t swing a cat without hitting a new “student housing” venture. Fantastic! Make some money on Brock’s strategic foreign student education futures plan! And the market is blossoming with downtown area condos. Good. We need more mixed housing to enliven the heart. But still, a pleasant one-bedroom apartment in a building that does not need major repairs for $750-800 is considered a deal in St. Catharines. A deal. Really? Do you know how long it takes a minimum-wage earner to make $750?
Yay! We’re on a Top Ten List?
Just last week, Niagara This Week carried a story on St. Catharines claiming 10th spot on the most expensive rental markets in Canada list (compiled by PadMapper, a national apartment search platform). We finally made a top ten list and it’s for high rents! Not for stable, well-paying jobs. Not for pretty trees and gardens (although that’s one of our official selling points). Not for outstanding achievement in the field of excellence (to quote The Simpsons). But for the 10th most expensive rental market. Apparently, the median rent for a one bedroom in St. Catharines is $910, and $1,130 for a two bedroom. I imagine that doesn’t come as a shock to renters. I also imagine some landlords (I said some, not all) might look at that and think “hmm…looks like I’ve got room to move up.”
So, What’s Changed?
The thing is, a high rental market in St. Catharines really isn’t news. It’s more like a confirmation of a fact (anecdotal at the time) that I learned many, many years ago. This place, this beautiful place with lovely people and stunning geography, is hard to earn a living in, but expensive to live in. And, I hate to sound like a Debbie Downer here, but the much lusted after Go Service to Niagara is not likely to change that situation. It may ease the congestion on the QEW, make things all nicey nicey for Burlington and Brampton peeps who want to buy pretty homes in lovely ‘ole still-small-town-like Grimsby. (I’m practically wiping the snot on my sleeve as I write that.) It may even raise my property value in St. Catharines. But it is not likely to up my income. And therein lies part of the rub. One of these things is not like the others. Riddle me this: why oh why is St. Catharines squashing high rental market shoulders with Toronto, Victoria, Calgary, and Ottawa? And how can we fix this?