Affordable housing in Nelson

Part two of SPAN’s examination of top social issues in the community.

Last spring, the Social Planning Action Network (SPAN) put out a survey to the community called, “Ideas Into Action” which asked four questions on community strengths, priority social issues and recommended actions.

As a follow up to this survey, SPAN decided to conduct three interviews with community members who have a direct link to one of the top social issues that were identified by the community results of the survey.

The Nelson Star will run a portion of each of these interviews in print and the full interview online at

To leave feedback on these interviews or to get more information, visit

This week’s interview is with Nelson Councillor Donna MacDonald to discuss affordable housing in the area.


How do you define affordable housing?


We use the CHMC’s definition of affordable housing: that a household isn’t spending more than 30 per cent of their income on housing. Affordablility comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes, we look at a housing continuum from homeless shelters thru to below-market ownership and all the variations in between. Variations such as secondary suites in houses or supported housing, or larger projects.

Gone are the days where we create ghettos of affordable housing and put all of the poor people in one big block and wish them luck. We look much more at integration to having all kinds of housing mixed together.

An affordable and safe place to live is a basic human right. Food, water, shelter — the three basics. I think it’s quite shameful that in a country as rich as Canada that there are people who don’t have decent housing that they can afford.


What changes have you seen here in Nelson?


There’s been some good changes recently, particularly for seniors, such as the opening of  Lakeview Village and then more recently Anderson Gardens down by Safeway. I think those have really addressed one of our priority needs which is seniors’ housing. Ward St. Place, which provides really affordable housing, is being upgraded to make it a more safe and comfortable place to live for residents. More is planned.

The city has been quite progressive in allowing secondary suites compared to many other communities, including on small lots. We are also finding ways to encourage and permit laneway housing, so we are starting to see uptake in both those areas which are really good ways to address affordable housing problems.


What is still lacking?


There are two main gaps right now, affordable rental housing and supported housing. Those are the two areas of concern, not just here, but in general across the country.

Rental housing is just not being built these days and that is really a problem for people who cannot afford to buy. The federal government made  tax changes that really discouraged construction of rental housing, so maybe that’s something we need to start lobbying to have changed again.  Affordable, decent, safe rental housing is really a gap.

In regards to supported housing, we have many people in the community who are difficult to house, or need support in order to be successfully housed. I recently learned about a model called “Housing First” which is just brilliant and very cost effective.

For every dollar that you spend now, you will save $3 down the road in emergency services, and incarceration. The Mental Health Commission of Canada did a pilot in five different cities and I had a chance to learn more about the one in Vancouver.

The model puts someone in a good place to live, in an area where they choose to live, and then provides the supports both to the landlord or property owner and to the individual. The support worker makes sure they are on their meds, getting out to important appointments and that they are looking after the place they are renting.

From what I heard, many landlords were delighted because they don’t have to worry about dealing with vacancies, as the rent is still paid if the unit becomes vacant, furniture is provided, and they’re just supported to be good landlords.

Another need to mention is Cicada Place. They have a waiting list for their apartments and they also need more emergency housing for young people because young people under 18-years-old can’t go to Stepping Stones shelter. Cicada Place is a very successful program because it’s supported and there are rules — if you are going to live here, you have to be working or engaged in work training, or at school and we will support you to succeed.


How does a need for more affordable housing impact our community?


I think it impacts our community in many different ways. We use the three-legged stool these days:­ social, economic and environmental.

In terms of the social impacts we have homeless people with all kinds of mental health issues or addiction issues wandering the streets. We’re paying the police to pick them up throughout the week when problems arise. It’s disturbing to downtown businesses and community members and clearly it’s not good for safety — in particular women and children need a safe place to live.

On the economic side, we’re hearing from small businesses in town who cannot pay enough for their employees to live in town. So it’s difficult sometimes for them to find employees that can stick with them.

On the environmental side, if you’ve got substandard rental housing, (which we apparently have a fair bit of in town), it’s environmentally wasteful. It wastes energy and it sends off greenhouse gases unnecessarily; so there are environmental impacts too in not having good, secure, safe, affordable housing.


Why do you think it takes so long to see the changes in housing that would improve things/provide a roof for all?


I think it really started with the Federal government pulling back from housing in their campaign to fight the deficit back in the 90’s. They really walked away from any substantial investment in affordable housing. And there’s some concern that that may continue. So I think that we aren’t going to solve this problem with one level of government. We need all three levels of government involved in it. Municipalities don’t necessarily have the resources to be building, (unless we are Toronto or Vancouver), and so we need the other levels of government as our partners.

There’s no federal or provincial strategy to deal with this homeless issue which is affecting so many people across the country. I just think it’s shameful that with such a great need there isn’t that longer-term view. If we can invest now in housing, people can have a place to live and work and then pay taxes and support the local economy. You have to have that longer-term payback view that money spent now actually avoids costs later and enables contributions to society going forward. With the government pulling back, now their line is “partnerships, partnerships, partnerships.” I’ve heard reports on projects that have taken 5-10 years because you’ve got to get this club and that club and this society and that society and then maybe the government will chip in some money. It’s just a huge amount of work that’s being dropped on local governments and non-profit organizations who are over-stretched and not well paid, They have to make all this happen and then maybe the others will come on board with some money. I just find it really frustrating. I think people’s talents and energy could be better used. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be partnerships, but I think the extent they are expected these days is unreasonable.


How do we get people to care about others that they may not know?


That’s a tough one because I think the general climate right now is individual accomplishment, it’s me me me and I think we are getting that message from the Conservative government and the business community.  There isn’t that liberal value of the importance of everybody doing ok in a community.  It’s much more about , well I’m doing ok, what’s wrong with you? And blaming the other who is not doing so well.  Instead of reaching out a hand to understand what’s happening with that person.

There was a wonderful CBC interview recently with a homeless advocate who worked in the city of Vancouver.

She talked about seeing people begging on the street and she’d stop and talk to them and ask them their stories and then she would make a decision whether to give to them or not. So it’s that openness and caring that I think is not as evident as it might be.  So I don’t know what I’d say to someone…you ought to care more?!  But fundamentally, a community is an eco-system and if there is a part of it that isn’t working well, that’s failing, then we all will suffer in some way. If we are a business person and we have a lot of vandalism, or a senior and we are afraid to go downtown because we are scared of ‘those people’, there’s multiple ramifications. As a community we have to look at ourselves as a whole and realize that if we’re not all doing well then we’re all going to hurt.

Changing attitudes and beliefs is a difficult task and often takes a long time.  What would you suggest the community/people of Nelson could do in order to improve the current housing issues?

A really easy thing that the people of Nelson could do is elect provincial and federal governments that care about housing and poverty and have a plan to address it. Just a simple “x” on the ballot every four years can make a huge difference.

There’s certainly a need to breakdown the stereotypes, barriers and stigmas and that’s an ongoing forever process that we all just need to do. We need to step outside our comfort zones and stop and talk to the person who is begging on the street and not just walk by with the little judgments ringing in our heads.


What about some of the hidden homelessness or those at risk of homelessness?


In my experience, I think people relate to stories about other people. I think it’s really about story telling and introducing you to “Joanne and her three kids” who are going hand to mouth, month to month and it’s going to fall apart one of these months. That can help people to go, “oh…and that could’ve been me.” Helping people identify with the “other” is very important.


If you could whisper one thing about affordable housing into the ear of every community member, what would you say?


Remember that it’s a basic human right to have a good place to live. No one is asking for anything luxurious or super duper different, or weird. It’s just a pretty basic human need to have a safe place to live.


­Donna Macdonald has been actively involved with affordable housing for the past eight years.


Next week, SPAN examines the issue of  “Poverty in Nelson” with Andy Leathwood, director of Innovative Learning Services, for School District 8.

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