Need a home? 1 in 5 City of St. John's affordable housing units sitting vacant

The City of St. John's is dealing with a housing problem, but not one you might expect — too many of its affordable housing units are sitting empty.

"Some of the public probably may not be aware of their existence," said Councillor Sheilagh O'Leary as she toured through an empty three-bedroom townhouse on the west end of the city's downtown.

The vacancy rate is currently 19 per cent, and most of those are larger three or four-bedroom homes.

"When we set up our non-profit housing, oftentimes the demographics have shifted," said O'Leary.

Instead of big families needing several bedrooms, today more single people or couples are searching for affordable housing.

O'Leary said the city will renovate to turn one large unit into several smaller ones, where possible, but many times that's not practical.

Houses only work for a narrow group

She said the units are ideal for a household that makes $40,000 to $50,000 a year. Rent costs 25 per cent of your income or $780 a month, whichever is more, and you pay your own utilities.

That puts the units out of reach for people on income support, who couldn't afford the base amount.

Peter Cowan/CBC

That formula also doesn't work if your income gets too high, the rent ends up being above what the private market charges for a similar unit — but that's by design.

O'Leary said the idea is to help people save some money, and hopefully they can make enough so that they can move out and buy a house or afford market rental rates.

"That's exactly what we want to see happen, but we want to make sure that we're always providing something for people who really, truly need access," she said.

Demand exists for affordable housing

MHA Jim Dinn toured through the house so he understands what's available to help the constituents who call his office for help.

He was impressed with the freshly painted beige walls and laminate floors, in better condition than many private apartments.

"Considering some of the places I've visited, these houses are very clean, well kept, a beautiful neighbourhood for a family," he said.

Dinn sees the vacancies as good news, before even leaving the tour he had already sent out message to people who would be a good fit.

O'Leary hopes people who could benefit will get in touch with the city and the empty houses will be filled.

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