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The only solution that actually might work is to get both province and Ottawa back into municipal housing.
As candidates for mayor of Charlottetown debated housing issues last Thursday, scores of people directly impacted by the current crisis gathered across town. There, they told personal stories to illustrate the harsh realities of looking for a decent, affordable place to live in the city.
The five mayoralty candidates were inside Memorial Hall at Confederation Centre, speaking mostly to an audience of business people in a debate sponsored by the local chamber of commerce.
They all recognized that affordable housing is a key issue. All five said it was their most important campaign priority, as people grapple with the almost zero vacancy rate for apartments, the high costs for those apartments when available, skyrocketing prices for houses, and the questions arising from the growing popularity of Airbnbs. For young people, students and retirees, the issues are daunting.
While candidates were all on-side about housing, few have to worry about putting a roof over their heads. That wasn’t the case at the P.E.I. Farm Centre where more than 50 people gathered. A common issue discussed was being evicted from apartments so the landlord could carry out renovations; and then charge substantially higher rents to wealthier tenants, or rent to short-term Airbnb guests. Landlords are looking for ways to increase their income; for example, renting to students for the eight-month school year at UPEI or Holland College, and then cashing in on the four-month summer tourist season with short-term, higher rentals.
As for evictions, some are within the law and others are not. And there is little protection under current legislation, or it’s difficult to get justice. The city may have adopted a housing strategy this year and candidates are paying close attention to the clamour on the doorstep, but actual solutions are difficult to implement.
A night earlier, during the first mayors’ debate at UPEI, candidates heard the university’s International Student Association describe the current situation as a crisis. UPEI recruits heavily to attract international students, who pay much higher tuition rates. The housing crisis poses an extra hardship for them.
Each of the candidates offered solutions both nights, some more than others. One comment hit the proverbial nail on the head. There is no quick fix. Suggestions were like Christmas wish lists. Outgoing Mayor Clifford Lee battled the problem for 15 years but had limited resources available.
Candidates noted that the city is cash-strapped, operating on a shoe-string budget. Legislation requires it is balanced. The only solution that actually might work is to get both province and Ottawa back into municipal housing. The city can lay the groundwork by changing zoning bylaws, designating properties, freeing up additional land for affordable housing and reducing red tape for developers. But the critical cash must come from provincial and federal coffers.
There was a clear divide on display last week. If the two groups discussing housing had been in the same room at the same time, both would have benefitted. There were issues raised that the mayoralty winner needed to hear.