Jessica Wright has spent more than a year and a half on New Brunswick’s waiting list for affordable housing, hoping to be placed in accessible housing in Saint John or receive a supplement to help pay her rent.
The 31-year-old signed up shortly after suffering two aneurysms on the right side of her brain, affecting her balance and mobility, among other challenges.
“I went from being I would say a healthy physical person, normal at 30, to a very disabled person,” Wright said.
With no time to get to the top of the list, Wright finds herself in an apartment that she feels doesn’t meet her accessibility needs and costs more than she can afford.
A punch in the stomach
While Wright waits, NB Housing has about 250 social housing units on average per month in the province vacant, according to data obtained by CBC News through Freedom of Information.
When Wright heard that number, she said she felt like she “got punched in the stomach.”
“I don’t live in safe conditions for my situation and I live beyond my means,” she said.
“I could be in this situation [in a subsidized apartment]. But because the government is failing, I am not.”
While not every available unit would meet the criteria she needs, she thinks the province could do a better job of matching people in need with empty apartments.
“To me, it just doesn’t feel like what they’re trying.”
As of June 2022, the province had 227 vacant social housing units, or about 6% of its total inventory, according to updated data from the province. This includes 96 units in the Saint John area, where Wright lives.
That same month, there were also 133 vacant units under the rent supplement scheme, where private landlords receive money to help reduce a tenant’s rent to 30% of their adjusted household income.
The units are empty despite the growing needs. The province’s waiting list for affordable housing has grown from around 5,000 households at the end of 2019 to around 6,000 households last fall.
Now there are 8,194 households waiting, according to government figures.
“What this suggests is that there is a high need for this type of housing, largely because we know that housing is becoming very unaffordable across the country,” said Nemoy Lewis, assistant professor at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Metropolitan University of Toronto. .
The social housing stock has not increased with the waiting list
As the waiting list grows, the number of social housing units owned and maintained by the province has remained essentially the same, increasing from 3,810 units in January 2020 to 3,808 units currently.
The province also owns and maintains 797 “Rural and Indigenous Rental Units” and funds rent supplements in 4,849 private units.
No one from the Department of Social Development was made available for an interview to explain why the units are empty.
But a look inside a region’s vacant units offers an explanation.
Central Region, which includes Fredericton and Miramichi, provided a chart indicating that some units were empty because major repairs were needed or staff were waiting for estimates on work to be done.
In a few cases, the table indicates that no one had yet accepted the unit.
Wright can’t fathom the idea that a tenant couldn’t be found on a waiting list of thousands of households.
“If there are so many people, it’s not possible,” she said. “It just doesn’t seem possible, that no one on this list would fit.
“How do they screen people? I’d like to find out myself. I’m single, work from home, clean, have a fixed cat and a hermit crab. I don’t have a dogs. How do they do their screening?
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Social Development said a vacant unit is usually occupied by the person “with the greatest need and the highest priority on the waiting list”.
“However, staff in our areas have also recognized the importance of ensuring that rental units meet customer needs in terms of location and accessibility,” spokeswoman Rebecca Howland wrote.
“Staff are focused on placing clients in units where they will have the best chance of successful rental.”
Pandemic affects vacancy rates
When public housing sits empty for months, Lewis said it could indicate a lack of funding to keep public housing in livable condition.
“Since the last budget, the federal government has made funds available to address these particular issues,” Lewis said.
“I think more needs to be done to fix these units, so that we don’t have units that sit empty for a year and we have families, who desperately need housing, who can’t enjoy this accommodation.”
The province says 20% of its total family rental portfolio and 13% of its seniors’ housing turns up annually on average, with a “standard turnaround time of 30 days to fill vacancies.”
“There will always be temporarily vacant units as tenants move in or out, and the department undertakes necessary repairs, upgrades and routine maintenance,” Howland wrote.
Howland also said the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the ability to return empty units, due to “lack of availability of supplies and contractors to complete repairs.”
The percentage of vacancies in social housing has fluctuated over the past eight months, from a high of 7.4% in January 2022 to a low of 6% last month.
By comparison, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation reported a vacancy rate of 2.68% in January 2022.