What happens when your cheap city is still unaffordable?

In planning school, we spent a lot of time grappling with the challenges of housing affordability in expensive cities. Personally, I had an entire grade based on my analysis of how planning regulations did or did not hinder the housing market. Studying in the UK, we examined the impact of greenbelts and inclusionary zoning, for example, on the housing supply and by extension affordability.

Moving to New Brunswick, Canada, that intellectual skill set has not been particularly useful to me. Here, we don't have the luxury of surplus housing demand such that we can negotiate favours from developers. Here, land feels limitless and people are not elbowing each other to get a home in the cities. Instead, we have an almost 50-50 urban-rural population with distressing poverty and health statistics. There is palpable resentment toward our three urban centres that appear to hog all the attention and resources.

To someone as lucky as me, New Brunswick is a cheap place to live. I'm used to paying big city rent and living in student-sized quarters. I have zero desire or need for a big, single-family home with a garage and a yard. So my two-bedroom apartment in an old downtown duplex feels like paradise, and a steal.

But I am lucky, and privileged, and don't deal in the realities of a great many people in this place. Affordability is relative, and having some of the cheapest housing in the country only goes so far when you've got little economic opportunity. So we've still got too many people in substandard housing or in precarious situations. And what do you do?

Repair or replace? Image from Google Streetview

Repair or replace? Image from Google Streetview

Well, last week I was pulled into a task force conversation on affordable housing by a couple local champions to help figure that out. Here is what I gathered from the conversation: our government operating subsidies for affordable housing are drying up. Losing rent subsidies will put many residents at risk, and our social housing assets are so old and inefficient that they can't be repaired without significant government investment. However, replacement cost is pegged at $1B so can we afford not to repair them? (This feels a lot like highway talk to me. Also, our whole province is only 700,000 people so $1B seems unbelievable. What am I missing here?)

In my head, there's another layer to this as well - the question of where to focus your investments. Last year, I was offered a quick tour of affordable housing assets in the city. The places on our drive-about were precisely that - places to drive to. Almost every "affordable" housing unit I know of in the city is not in a walkable area. That means the development had to create expensive parking facilities and the residents are either: a) fierce cyclists; b) spending hours a day on the sparse bus network; c) forced into owning a vehicle or at the very least sharing one. The geography of these existing social housing assets does not help the case that repairing them would be high-return investment. But what happens if you don't repair them?

Overall, this situation feels anti-Strong Town. It is major league Weak Town level stuff. But has anyone figured affordable housing out?

My brain keeps running in circles. This is an intensely fragile system of housing delivery if a single government policy expiration can bring it to its knees. When I think of antifragile ways to support affordable housing, I can't help but wonder if my ideas are still inaccessible to the most vulnerable people (no-to-low income, people with disabilities, people with mental illness, etc).

When I think of chaotic historical models of providing affordable housing, I'm not sure they were so smart... Tenements keep coming to mind.

Personally, I have no problem with paying taxes to make sure people have a roof over their head but that's not my call to make. If the subsidies evaporate, we'd still have to figure something out even if the long term goal is to just vote the subsidies back in.

So while I'm scratching my head, I'd love to crowdsource from the best. Please fill me in on your Strong Towns approach to affordable housing here in the comments. How do you look at this situation and what would you do?

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In other field notes, we had a blizzard! Last year, I wrote about winter walkability on my own blog and made the point that maybe we can ask more of our citizens to help dig out the city. Well, I've been trying to practice what I preach this winter now that I've actually got places to shovel. My awesome neighbour beats me to it half the time at home, but today I got to be helpful at work! Our studio walkway downtown and the sidewalk in front of it needed some serious digging this morning. Sure enough, seeing me chip away at the packed mountain of snow on the public sidewalk led to many friendly exchanges with passersby. It felt very neighbourly. People just bond over work - they relate to it and appreciate the act of pitching in. The best part was that almost as soon as I finished, the mail courier showed up. He was able to drag his cart up to the door and deliver a parcel without trying to wade through 30 inches of snow (or more likely, just saying "NOPE" and leaving it for another day). I had decided to help the City out and clear a chunk the public right-of-way because it's the right thing to do and I'm supposed to be a Strong Citizen, right? And there you have it, within 5 minutes, the city reminded me that accessibility isn't just about wheelchairs and seniors - it keeps the whole town running smoothly.

And we are officially dug out of the New Brunswick blizzard. Small wins for a great morning.

A photo posted by Gracen Johnson (@gracen) on

GRACEN JOHNSON is a communications designer living in The Maritimes. While she finished her MPhil in Planning, Growth, and Regeneration in 2013, she has never stopped studying the city. Gracen thinks of her day-to-day as participatory action research, diving into the question of how Strong Citizenship can transform a city. She wears many hats trying to crack that nut herself, including as the designer and coordinator of an accelerator for small businesses that build community. She also freelances around the vision of "Projects for Places we Love" and has a video blog called Another Place for Me.