Sunday, April 29, 2007

Thinking About the Cost of Housing...

When I woke up this morning I turned on the tv news and caught the end of a special report on housing in Canada. The gist of it was this: as you move west the cost of housing is literally through the roof. That's if you can afford a roof at all! The report looked at how much house you could get in different cities for $350,000. By the time you get to Edmonton, there's not much available at that price. They did show a small home - apparently not all that well kept - for $350,000. It was listed as a "tear down", meaning that for $350,000 plus the price of tearing down the house, you could have a lot for construction of a brand new "dream home". In Vancouver, $350,000 could get you a living space of about 700 square feet. You get the idea.

As I sat there watching, I couldn't help thinking of the 14,000 Canadians who are currently homeless on any given day - living on the street or in charity shelters or in makeshift "tents" under bridges or in back alleys. And I thought of the one billion people in the world who do not have basic decent shelter. Images of the shanty towns I visited in Nairobi flashed through my mind. Then I thought about an ad on tv that I find particularly disturbing - I can't honestly remember what store is being advertised (some sort of direct sale box store) but a young couple is boasting about the $750 faucets they got for just $350 (or something like that). I'm thinking, $350 for a faucet!? Have we totally lost our minds?

In Canada, the poverty level (measured as a Low Income Cut-Off or LICO) is based on the proportion of income spent on food, clothing and shelter. If an individual or family spends 20% more of their income on food, clothing and shelter than the average in that area, they're considered poor. It's a relative measure. In cities like Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, poor people spend half of their income or more on housing alone. So, I think to myself, what's going to happen as more and more people migrate from rural areas to urban centres? Are there creative solutions that might alleviate the pressure and preoccupation people have when it comes to finding adequate shelter?

I spent about 10 days out west last fall and, as you can imagine, everyone was talking about the cost of housing. In East Vancouver, I visited a church that opens its doors a couple of nights a week to the homeless. And I heard about a couple of businessmen from that congregation who had bought hotels in East Vancouver, renovated them and used them as single occupancy rental units for low income housing. I was impressed that they would put people ahead of profits... This winter I met a couple of people that are involved in an organization called the Multi-faith Housing Initiative (MHI)in Ottawa. Their ultimate objective is to encourage churches to find creative ways to meet the housing needs of people in their communities. The organization owns a couple of properties - a home and six units in a condominium complex - which they rent to low income earners. But even more importantly, the MHI is encouraging churches and their congregations to get directly involved by using church property and individual homes for low income housing alternatives.

Oh - one other thing about East Vancouver... because of the cost of housing, people are beginning to live in various kinds of "community" arrangements, sharing space and expenses. And, they're discovering some of the non-fiscal benefits of living in community. To be fair, they've been driven to it out of necessity, but maybe we could learn from their experience. Interestingly, the church has become something of a hub in the neighborhood and has gradually developed innovative responses to other community needs. Hm. I wonder... might this model work in other places? For those of us who are Christians, doesn't it remind you of a few verses in Acts where it seems that the believers in Jerusalem were actually living in community - "selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need..." (Acts 2:45). Hm. I wonder...

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