COLIN CORNEAU/THE BRANDON SUN
Fiona St. Paul shows her sub-standard housing conditions in Brandon recently.
Fiona St. Paul moved her family to the Wheat City to seek a better life.
Fiona St. Paul shows her sub-standard housing conditions in Brandon recently. The housing shortage in the Wheat City is having different effects on different people. St. Paul is moving to Sandy Bay First Nation, where she will live in a three-bedroom house already occupied by three other families, until she can find another place to live in Brandon. (COLIN CORNEAU/THE BRANDON SUN)
Fiona St. Paul looks under her sink at her home last month. She says even though she’s having problems finding a place to live in Brandon, she’d rather live in the city than on a reserve because it doesn’t offer her children opportunity and hope. (COLIN CORNEAU/THE BRANDON SUN)
But instead of finding a new life in Brandon, the recently married St. Paul will move to Sandy Bay First Nation. Following an eviction notice in the residence where she was living, she has since been unable to find affordable housing in the city.
At Sandy Bay, she will live in a three-bedroom house already occupied by three other families until she can find another place to live in Brandon.
"I want to come back to Brandon and I hope to find a house before the school year starts because I want my kids to be educated in the city," said St. Paul, who is also taking classes through the Brandon Friendship Centre’s Adult Upgrading Centre to achieve a Grade 12 standing.
St. Paul’s story is far from rare in a city where housing shortages are becoming more acute. Growing industrial sectors such as pork processing and an oilpatch that edges closer to the Wheat City every day has attracted people from all over the world.
Their search for a better job and future has increased Brandon’s population, but that in turn has driven up the value of housing units.
St. Paul’s housing saga began in 2006 when she first came to the city only to find a lack of affordable housing in Brandon that forced her family, as well as two nephews and two nieces, to live in her car for six months. Then they lived in a women’s shelter and couch surfed at the homes of several friends.
"We even pitched tents outside of people’s houses," St. Paul said. "I’d buy whatever food I could afford. Say, a week, I’d buy canned stuff or put food in somebody’s freezer so we could use it later. It was pretty difficult with seven kids."
When she finally found a shelter she could afford, at a monthly rent of $550, it was in a run-down house of horrors where taped plastic replaced windows and mice infestations scared her children. The province’s Residential Tenancies’ Branch was called in an attempt to force the landlord to make repairs, but she was given an eviction notice before those repairs were done.
While she has been looking for a new place to live, the search has been difficult, even for subsidized housing blocks and Manitoba Housing.
"The waiting lists are three years long," St. Paul said of several buildings where she has sought a new home. "We are applying for housing at Sandy Bay and maybe we can get housing there, but I don’t know when, or if we will get housing there. When we go walking around here, I keep my eyes open for places to rent but there is nothing there."
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St. Paul, who isn’t the only one looking for accommodation, is competing against corporations who are trying to house their growing workforces. Brandon’s population grew 11 per cent in five years, rising to 46,000 in 2011, leading some businesses, such as Maple Leaf Foods, to advertise a need for rental accommodations for workers immigrating from abroad to work here.
"When you look at mortgages and if average family home prices are $189,000, and if you had $800 per month of debt payments on top of a house, you’d need $60,000 in family income," Brandon Neighbourhood Renewal Corporation general manager Marty Snelling said.
"The bigger problem is in rental accommodations. The three-bedroom rents are so high and there’s such a low availability. There’s a zero per cent vacancy rate and if there is a place, it will cost you $1,200 to $1,400 to rent it."
Snelling added overall family incomes in Brandon may also be a factor. While the cost of living in Brandon can be cheaper than some other areas of the country, its average family income is $86,000, about $16,000 less than the Canadian average of $102,000. Those combinations make it very difficult to save for the required down payment to buy a home.
For some low-income residents unable to come up with a down payment to buy accommodations, renting is often the only option short of homelessness and they don’t have a lot of options.
According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., Brandon’s vacancy rate of 0.7 per cent in April 2012 dropped from 1.3 per cent in 2011, even with the addition of 37 new units. That rental vacancy rate lies well below the three per cent considered the optimal balance for renters seeking reasonable rent and housing choices and landlords trying to turn a profit.
Low vacancy rates give landlords an upper hand in an open market, and even with rent controls that in 2012 restricted increases to one per cent, Brandon’s average apartment rent rose to $683 in April 2012 from $658 the year before.
"For those coming to Brandon that don’t have first and last month’s rent, it’s extremely difficult for them to find a place," Snelling said.
For those lucky enough to have bought years ago, Brandon’s housing market is a boom. The Manitoba Real Estate Association reports that the average price for a house in Brandon is $210,050, an increase of 54.1 per cent from 2007, when the average housing price was $136,330. Since last year, Brandon’s housing buyers have paid 8.6 per cent more than the 2011 average price of $193,350.
While Brandon’s average housing price is $60,000 less than Winnipeg’s, the Wheat City’s five-year average price growth exceeds Winnipeg’s average housing price increase of 35.6 per cent over the same time frame.
That can make it difficult on first-time homebuyers trying to move up into the marketplace from rental accommodations.
"One of the reasons you may see four people living in a house when they move here to work is they will need to save up for the downpayment," Snelling said. "Then they bring their families into Brandon."
Another sector affected are graduating post-secondary students, with diplomas, degrees and student debt payments in their hands as they hit the job market.
"First off, they are paying high rent, and with that university debt, it’s very difficult for them to save for a down payment," Snelling said. "And we need to get them into houses as quickly as possible. If they are paying off a mortgage, that’s better for them because rents go up. Mortgages can be arranged so the payments stay the same."
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St. Paul’s welfare housing allowance, currently $400 per month, does not leave her with a lot of options unless she tops up the difference from her welfare payment. That means the food budget pays for a roof over her head.
"If the rent is $600, that comes off of my welfare," St. Paul said.
"Rent is going higher, so why can’t they raise that so we can have affordable housing? It’s very hard to find housing when welfare only pays so much. Ever since I’ve moved here in 2006, it’s been like this."
Even with her troubles finding a place to live, St. Paul, originally from Ebb and Flow First Nation, does not want to go back to living on a reserve because it doesn’t offer her children, aged 14 and eight, opportunity and hope.
"Right now, back on Ebb and Flow, there’s lots of suicide," St. Paul said. "I heard there were 10 children that tried to commit suicide last week there, who were teenagers. There’s not as many suicides in Sandy Bay, but my children don’t know anyone there. It’s going to be a real fresh start for them there. My son was starting to skip school and was getting mad because we have to move."
While the lack of affordable housing has impacted the St. Paul family, the matriarch has been relatively philosophical about her move to Sandy Bay, which was scheduled to take place at the end of June.
"We have to take the things that come our way and try to go through them. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t like to succeed in life. I hate moving, but I have to."
» Next week, the Brandon Sun will look at Regina’s solutions to rapid growth.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 7, 2012