Three freshly renovated apartment buildings in Pleasant Hill were officially opened Tuesday as Affordable Housing Week began in Saskatoon.
Renovation of the once-shabby apartment blocks was accomplished through the co-operation of Metis and First Nations programs, the federal and provincial governments and the City of Saskatoon.
The Central Urban Metis Federation Inc. obtained $1.4 million from the Centenary Affordable Housing Program (CAHP) and $357,000 from the Residential Rehabilitation Assistance Program. The City of Saskatoon will provide up to $180,000 toward the CAHP and will provide tax abatements worth about $50,000.
The project also provided work experience for people on employment insurance and social assistance in programs organized by the Gabriel Dumont Institute, Metis Employment and Training Saskatchewan Inc., the Saskatoon Tribal Council and Career and Employment Services.
The Central Urban Metis Federation rents the 36 units to low- and middle-income Metis families, many of which are headed by single parents.
"These good quality homes and the Metis community's excellent work in the renovations are vital to individual and family health and are the starting point to independence and lasting participation in the social and economic life of the province," said Joanne Crofford, minister of community resources and employment, at the opening.
Affordable Housing Week was declared to draw attention to the critical need for safe, stable, appropriate and affordable housing in Saskatoon.
The number of Saskatoon families with incomes that fall below the low-income cutoff has decreased in recent years, but the depth of poverty of the poorest has fallen, said Brenda Wallace, executive director of the Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership.
The number of Saskatoon families whose incomes fall $10,400 short of meeting basic needs is second only to Ottawa, Wallace said.
The problem is worsened by Saskatoon's rental rates, which have risen by 15 per cent in the last year, she said, noting when people must use 70 per cent of their family income for shelter, they have little left for food and other necessities.
Three years after community groups drafted a comprehensive plan to increase the stock of affordable housing and tackle root causes of homelessness, demand for food at local agencies has shot up and shelters are full.
Visible progress on the issues of homelessness and housing has been modest, although some say the city would have slipped back faster and further without the plan.
"Things are probably worse in that we have more people in these circumstances," said Brenda Wallace, executive director of Saskatoon Housing Initiatives Partnership.
Community groups sent an updated plan to city council and the federal co-ordinator on homelessness, Minister Claudette Bradshaw, earlier this month.
Half of all migrants to Saskatoon from rural areas or reserves arrive just looking for an opportunity, Wallace estimates.
Many don't find it, while discovering they can't afford market-rate rent and can't stay with relatives.
Social agencies don't know even the approximate size of Saskatoon's homeless population, although bloated numbers coming through their doors suggest the population is growing.
"We're full. Three years ago, we couldn't get full," said Julie Mackenzie, assistant manager of Capri Place, a downtown home for disadvantaged people in a variety of circumstances.
The demand is due to a combination of better awareness of the six-year-old agency's existence and closure of at least one program that helped people in crisis, she said.
"People are showing up right off the street."
Statistics Canada reported last year that 50 people, from all age groups, were in shelters in Saskatoon on census day, May 15, 2001.
Twenty of those people were under the age of 15.
The Salvation Army, Saskatoon Food Bank and Friendship Inn all report growing demand for food.
The community plan's revised goals for 2003 include expanding the number of rental housing units while improving their quality and increasing housing stock for the disabled, aboriginal people and youth. Some of these goals, however, lack specific steps to achieve them.
"There are some (people) in a holding pattern, waiting for housing units," Wallace said. "That's our main problem right now."
Putting a roof over a person's head isn't enough to improve the neighbourhood, said Pleasant Hill homeowner Leslie Ridden.
"I'm finding there are more and more people renting out to people and not taking care of the house."
The city could help, she said, by cracking down on slum landlords and encouraging home ownership in Pleasant Hill, one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods.
The chief accomplishment of the first three years of the plan has been improving communication among community groups and better awareness of homelessness and housing concerns, Wallace said.
In some cases, benefits of greater co-ordination filters down to homeless and poorly housed people, whom agency workers are now more equipped to refer.
There is reason for hope, despite growing problems on the street. A 12-bed detoxification centre is in the works to house intoxicated persons short-term, although it's unlikely to fully meet demand.
Community groups and government have also began a program of overhauling dilapidated apartments on the west side.
However, the city still sorely lacks affordable housing for students and single adults, in particular, according to the updated plan.
The onus doesn't have to fall entirely on government, although subsidies are often critical to giving developers the flexibility to rent out units at below-market rates.
Wallace said technology, enabling builders to construct homes more cheaply and increasing energy efficiency, also hold promise to lowering housing costs.