New public housing needs to be as diverse as the people it serves, tenants say

From left: Reham Abazid and her family live in public housing on the north end, Mary LeSage lives in a public housing unit in Saint John's south end, and Juanita Black has lived in public housing in Crescent Valley for more than 40 years. (CBC - image credit)
From left: Reham Abazid and her family live in public housing on the north end, Mary LeSage lives in a public housing unit in Saint John's south end, and Juanita Black has lived in public housing in Crescent Valley for more than 40 years. (CBC - image credit)

For the new public housing units to truly make an impact, they have to be surrounded by community, accessible, and varied in location and size.

The needs of a senior on a fixed income with a disability varies greatly from a newcomer family with four kids and three generations, which further varies from the needs of a young person struggling with homelessness and addiction.

And it's possible to serve them all, according to housing advocates and Saint John public housing residents.

This month the province announced it will be creating 380 new public housing units over the next four years. Some of the $102.2-million project will be used to renovate 110 units that have been sitting empty.

Advocates say New Brunswick needs to be smart in where and how it builds the 40 units promised for Saint John.

Juanita Black has lived in public housing in Crescent Valley area of the city for more than 40 years. Mary LeSage lives in a public housing unit in the south end and Reham Abazid and her family live public housing on the north end.

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

The three women have different life experiences and family compositions, but all agree that just building one apartment complex on the margins of the city to house all 40 units probably won't be as helpful as spreading those units across the city.

"Don't plant them way out there in the middle of the field where they have no support," said Black, who also works for People United in the Lower South End, or PULSE.

Black said there are already well-used and established resources such as PULSE in the south end and  the Crescent Valley Resource Centre in the north end. The centres offer everything from community police officer to a community health nurse, and events for families and community gardens.

"Everybody at one time or another would go to the resource centre, whether it was to get your taxes filed, whether it was for a flu shot," she said.

Staff members can also help with navigating provincial resources and even offer translation help.

Abazid arrived in Canada as a Syrian refugee with her family in 2015. She said living in Crescent Valley was a big adjustment for her large family, especially since there were few units with more than three rooms.

She said it's also important to pay attention to job opportunities, and considering a rent-to-own option for people to establish an easier path out of public housing.

"This next step has to be like, rent to own for people who would love to have a house, and they have problem with their bank because their income is not high to get the mortgage," Abazid said. "That will be a very, very big step for our problem."

LeSage said her south end neighbourhood also benefits from being a mix of people from different socio-economic backgrounds.

"I wanna see mixed housing," she said. "I don't want to see a large population because I think that's what people have the problem with. That's how, that's how our public housing should be. It should be integrated into our neighbourhoods."

An accessibility should also be top priority, Black said, as she works with a lot of single seniors who need extra support. She said she works closely with them at the food pantry and food bank.

"I guess that's where my heart lies … the singles and the seniors. I think we're really lacking in that department,  particularly the singles. So I want to see more help with that."