For many on P.E.I., affordable housing is unaffordable

The P.E.I. vacancy rate was 1.1 per cent in 2023, tied with Nova Scotia for the lowest in the country. (Josh Crabb/CBC - image credit)
The P.E.I. vacancy rate was 1.1 per cent in 2023, tied with Nova Scotia for the lowest in the country. (Josh Crabb/CBC - image credit)

This story is from this week's episode of the new CBC podcast Good Question, P.E.I. 

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If your household income is $60,000 a year, you can afford to pay $1,500 a month in rent.

Says who?

The people who define "affordable housing" — which can include government officials and developers. They often use the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation's guideline of 30 per cent of your monthly gross income. Others say affordable rents are those going at 30 per cent below market value.

So that's the simple answer to retiree Katie McInnis's question for episode 14 of our CBC podcast: "How is this affordability determined and who determines it?"

But, of course, there's much more to it. P.E.I.'s vacancy rate was 1.1 per cent in 2023, tied for lowest in the country. It's difficult to find any housing, let alone housing that's affordable.

We asked many people in Charlottetown what they considered to be an affordable rent for a two-bedroom unit, and the majority of responses ranged from about $1,000 to $1,200. Good luck with that, says anyone who's looked on Kijiji lately.

Corey Pater of P.E.I. Fight for Affordable Housing says 25 per cent of gross income would be a more reasonable benchmark for what is considered an affordable rent.

According to the 2021 census, the average household income on P.E.I. that year was $60,000. But not everyone making $60K is in the same financial situation. Some have student loan debt. Some have multiple kids who want to play soccer.

Corey Pater of P.E.I. Fight for Affordable Housing would like to see more co-op housing in the province. (Nicola MacLeod/CBC)

McInnis is on a fixed income that doesn't rise along with inflation. She and her fellow tenants were fearful when their Charlottetown apartment building recently changed hands, unsure what effect the sale would have on their rents.

Thankfully, she said, they went up only three per cent.

It's like, 'Oh God, I hope the cat doesn't get sick' or 'Oh God, I hope the car doesn't break down.' — Katie McInnis

"I'm being very honest here... You can pay your bills, but there's no leeway for an emergency. So it's like, 'Oh God, I hope the cat doesn't get sick' or 'Oh God, I hope the car doesn't break down.'"

The provincial government is trying to do something about the issue. It froze rent increases after the COVID-19 pandemic began, and later passed legislation to cap yearly increases at three per cent, though the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission can approve as much as six per cent if the landlord makes a case for it.

If you're not getting a corresponding six per cent raise in pay when that happens to you, you're already in the hole.

Of course, if your income is low enough, you may qualify for one of the 1,700 social housing units owned by the province. And if your income is high enough, you can probably afford the market rate and still eat well.

It's the group in the middle that really feels the squeeze. And the government is aware of it.

"I think that's a very valid point," said Jason Doyle, the director of housing operations with the province.

"What we can say on the government side is that we are investing some money within the non-profit sector to try and provide those more lower-than-market rental rates. So that hopefully will meet that middle income, kind of that middle class, that may have been missing from our kind of existing programs."

Did someone say non-profit?

Because to Pater, "the privileging of housing as a financial investment over housing as a human right" is part of the problem.

"Currently, most of the rental housing on P.E.I. is owned for financial purposes, and this creates a conflict where the owner of it wants to get as much financial gain out of that as possible," he said.

Pater would like to see more co-op housing that is initially funded by the government, but will be owned by the tenants going forward.

"The province isn't their landlord; they're their own landlord. So fostering a co-operative sector will create this housing that's simultaneously affordable and also independent of the control of the province."

It also could allow him and other 20somethings the ability to move out of their parents' home, eventually.

"I'm lucky enough to live on a farm so we might be able to work some weird thing out with the land where I can get a chunk and build a house," he said, as the talk turned to the affordability of buying a house.

"But it's just such a hostile market for the buyers... if you don't have that hereditary wealth."

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