It’s easy to assume homelessness is a big-city issue. While not as visible, the shortage of adequate, affordable housing is also a very real challenge faced by many rural communities.
“I’m a strong believer that everyone deserves a place to call home,” said Joshua Benard, the passionate project manager for a Sustainable Housing Initiative at the Alberta Rural Development Network.
Considering a large number of homeless people in urban centres actually comes from rural areas, the network put out a call in 2015 to get a handle on the situation. While expecting maybe a dozen expressions of interest, instead a whopping 40 communities responded.
“One-third of Alberta’s population lives in rural Alberta, but the lack of resources these communities have is mind blowing,” said Benard. “Lack of funding towards addressing these challenges is also disappointing. When it comes to rural homelessness, there is zero funding from the province that goes to homelessness outside of the seven major cities.”
The irony is without any funding to measure the scope of the problem, there’s no data to show the need for funds. So the Rural Development Network, a not-for-profit partnership of nine Alberta colleges and universities focused on enhancing rural life, tackled a strategy on affordable housing for low-income and homeless citizens in rural Alberta.
“From the original 40, we looked at the communities that were furthest along, and we identified 17. We helped them apply for funding through CMHC (Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation).”
The Crown corporation awarded grants to five communities, with the Alberta Real Estate Foundation also providing support.
One of the five successful applicants is Fort Macleod, a community of 3,000 with very few affordable options for renters. The vacancy rate is low and most rental properties aren’t suitable for families, said Angie O’Connor, a co-ordinator with Fort Macleod Family & Community Support Services.
“‘Homeless’ in a rural community is defined differently than in the city,” said O’Connor. “We look at it more as individuals ‘at risk’ of being homeless. They could be couch surfing, in an overcrowded place, or staying with friends.”
Fort Macleod used part of its funding for a housing liaison person to help connect people to housing resources, and is also updating a needs assessment study as a first step in building a social housing complex.
“The vision and mission of our town is to be a family-friendly community and yet, we have no social housing for families,” said O’Connor. “We have an active group of stakeholders on a committee trying to raise awareness. They believe it’s important to everyone to have stable homes people can afford.”
Affordable housing is not only good for the renters, but also the town, she added. She pointed to numerous agricultural-related businesses — such as dairies, Crop Production Services, and Bouvry Exports — that need employees who will stay for the long term. But it can be difficult for people to stay with a company if there’s no suitable, long-term housing in the area.
“If you want a rural community to stay vibrant, you need people to live in it,” said O’Connor.
Another of the initial five communities working on housing is Sexsmith, just outside Grande Prairie. (The others are Banff, Lac La Biche, and Boyle.) Private developer Brian Molendyk built a seniors’ apartment there and is interested in other affordable housing opportunities. He put in a proposal after a needs assessment study identified a lack of housing for younger families.
“The study came back with a need for 30 more units in Sexsmith. Right now, there’s no program to help with that,” he said.
Molendyk is ready to build a project offering affordable housing if funding assistance can be found.
“Usually lower rent means old and rundown — so if you could have something new and nice, and yet affordable, I think there’d be a good demand for that,” he said. “I think it would keep some people who want to be in Sexsmith. A lot of people like to be in a smaller town versus a bigger city.”
Pincher Creek is another community committed to tackling the affordable housing challenge in its midst, beginning with updating a 2010 housing needs assessment.
“Current statistics are very important for raising money for housing initiatives,” said David Green, a spokesperson for Family & Community Support Services. “One thing we provided was an online survey and paper copies so people could respond anonymously.”
Green describes the homeless issue in Pincher Creek as people unable to afford adequate accommodations, ranging from single parents to single adults. It’s also workers commuting from other towns.
“They tell us they’d love to live here and be part of the community but can’t afford it,” he said. “We have lots of houses for sale on the market, but a very limited number of rental accommodations. So there are some big gaps in the housing continuum.”
The town’s council is examining ways to address that gap. But there’s a dilemma that comes with getting into social housing, said Green.
“One of the key issues if we create perpetually affordable housing is: Who owns the land, and who operates or manages such housing?”
Another factor is the cost of construction, but that’s where the Alberta Rural Development Network can help, said Benard.
“Modular construction is probably the way to build, to standardize some of the costs, and minimize the processes to deliver affordable housing to communities.”
Other priorities are for the developments to be sustainable as well as affordable. Making the units energy efficient and culturally relevant are also considerations, as part of a well-rounded approach being outlined in a funding proposal to take to the province.
Addressing housing shortfalls in rural areas is worth the effort but it is also a first step in rural revitalization, said Benard.
“It’s as much about economic development as it is about doing the right thing. I’ve been to community consultations where businesses say they have to bus people into town because there’s nowhere for them to live in the local community. That’s not sustainable, and that’s not going to attract business.”
Any rural community interested in developing affordable housing can contact the network at www.ardn.ca.