Eliminating the housing gap in rural Alberta will mean recognizing housing as interconnected with other issues, and closing the margin between government announcements and action, panellists said during the REenvision Housing Symposium in Edmonton on Nov. 2.
Hosted by the Edmonton Metropolitan Regional Board, the theme of the symposium was Housing For all. A panel featuring Linda Bernicki of the Rural Development Network, Patrick Shaver, president of Avillia Developments, and Paul McLaughlin, president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta, discussed strategies and solutions for thriving rural communities.
“All levels of government need to address the housing crisis together and to address it not only as a social issue, but recognize how responding to it creates community investment,” Bernicki said.
The Rural Development Network has conducted housing needs and demands assessments, information that is often missing in rural areas and is needed to make informed decisions around housing development in a community, she said.
“Housing affects everyone, and housing choice is key to a thriving community. Municipalities benefit from housing choice since everyone can afford their taxes. They pay them on time. And so, tax streams are consistent, and this allows for long-term planning and more effective plans,” she said.
Both federal and provincial governments have signalled they intend to build their way out of the housing crisis, but McLaughlin said this alone won’t cut to the root of social issues entangled with housing insecurity.
“I'm hearing announcements of housing starts and it's more than housing starts. What we've done is we’ve 'stovepiped' all the issues in our community, and we've had one department take care of one thing, and it's more than that,” McLaughlin said.
RDN’s housing and needs survey of 45 rural, remote, and Indigenous communities found 7,320 people who were considered homeless or housing insecure.
“We've also found the rates of employment among the housing secure and housing insecure were almost exactly the same,” Bernicki said.
McLaughlin shared a story of an employee from a local feedlot who would leave work at night, only to backtrack once everyone had gone home so he could sleep in the bales in the feedlot. Because services that could have helped the man have been centralized and access moved online or to larger centres, they were out of reach in the rural community.
While he was on the board of the local housing authority, McLaughlin said a woman in need of housing was quickly placed in a room in a seniors facility, without assessing the full scope of her needs.
“This poor woman had mental health issues and ultimately cost about $15,000 damage to that suite. Someone gave her a roof and didn't give her the wraparounds, didn't really provide her that support. And I guess my message from a rural standpoint is that this is part of the conversation,” he said.”
Similar challenges are faced by every community in the region, and Bernicki stressed the importance of working together and taking a more holistic approach to housing.
“You really must address social issues if you want to be able to adequately address housing in our economy. And the only way that we can do that is really build things together in a holistic approach,” Bernicki said.
“Housing is more than just about housing. It's more about community. It's more about safety.”
Despite the myriad interconnected problems discussed during the housing panel, the good news is that it’s easily solvable, “by shrinking the gap from announcements to action,” McLaughlin said.
“I'm constantly hearing about $2 billion (in funding), or we heard another $9 billion today," McLaughlin said. "The gap between that 'the announcement' and the 'getting stuff done' is so big that it doesn't even make any sense anymore. If you start looking at your (key performance indicators) on announcement to action, I think we can do it,” he said.