The number of households on New Brunswick’s affordable housing wait-list has continued to expand even though the province says it exceeded its three-year target for adding new units.
Social Development Minister Bruce Fitch announced on Tuesday that the province has added 172 new affordable units in the last three years, beating the target of 151 set out in 2018’s bilateral housing agreement with the federal government.
The second phase of the agreement covers the next three years, when the government hopes to add another 370 units. Over the entire course of the 10-year agreement, the province wants to add 1,260 units.
But even as units have been added, the wait-list for those units has continued to balloon. On March 31, 2018, the day before the bilateral agreement was signed, there were 5,307 households on the list. According to Fitch, that number now sits at approximately 7,400.
That upward trend is worrying for housing researcher and associate professor at the University of New Brunswick Julia Woodhall-Melnik. She began tracking the wait-list in May of 2020 when it hovered around 4,700 households.
“There’s been a massive jump in a very short period of time,” she said.
“That is extremely concerning.”
With the average household size in New Brunswick being about 2.3 people, Woodhall-Melnik estimates that there could be as many as 20,000 people on the wait-list for affordable housing in the province.
While answering questions on his department’s budget at the Committee of Estimates and Fiscal Policy on Tuesday, Fitch admitted that the number of people on the wait-list dwarfs the number of units that have been created.
“It’s not a direct correlation that we have to create new units to accommodate people on the list, there’s a number of things that occur,” Fitch said.
“There’s a normal turnover within the housing units, probably about 20 per cent in the run of the year, where people decide, ‘I’m going to get out of the government unit and go out on my own.'”
But Woodhall-Melnik says that turnover rate is slowing.
“People don’t move out of affordable housing as fast as they used to, because there’s nowhere to go,” she said.
According to the province’s three-year housing action plan about a quarter of all people living in social housing have been living in the same place for over 10 years, making it more difficult to place people on the waiting list.
“There’s not as many spaces added, there’s not as many people moving on as there used to be because there’s nowhere to go,” Woodhall-Melnik said.
“It’s creating a huge problem. Clearly, there’s a bottleneck there.”
On Tuesday Fitch said about 1,100 people moved out of social housing last year, which is about 7.5 per cent of the province’s social housing stock of just under 15,000. Over the last three years, 3,200 people have been placed from the wait-list.
But others are questioning if the government is actually meeting its targets laid out by the plan. Liberal finance critic Rob McKee says the 172 units is much larger than the number of completed units he was given at a meeting of the Committee on Public Accounts in February.
“I was shocked to see now that they are claiming that they’ve completed 172,” McKee said.
On Feb. 23 the deputy minister of social development told the committee there were 87 newly constructed units either completed or under development. Another 85 rent supplement subsidies had been approved for private-sector and non-profit landlords. In the appendix of the three-year housing action plan, the target is listed as 151 newly constructed units.
A spokesperson for the Department of Social Development confirmed those numbers. Of the 87 new builds, just 41 have been completed. The remaining 46 are still under construction.
McKee says the discrepancy has been an ongoing theme, with the province seemingly unable to keep up with its target.
“We’ve asked these questions year after year at public accounts and they always seem to be behind,” he said.
When the initial agreement was signed by the government of then-premier Brian Gallant, McKee was a Moncton city councillor. He said the agreement was exciting and that he hoped it would make a real difference.
“It’s been underwhelming, I would say, up until now. It hasn’t delivered the results we were expecting when we were getting excited about this taking place,” he said.
However, the bilateral housing agreement with the federal government is backloaded, which is why the next three years will see double the number of units created than in the previous three. With a 10-year goal of creating 1,260 units, there are still more than 1,000 affordable units to be added by the end of the decade.
But those are longer-term strategies for a very real issue that people face now and won’t be enough alone, Woodhall-Melnik says.
“We need to start looking at improving aging housing stock, developing actual buildings,” she said.
“We need a whole bunch of housing before we can start to take some of the pressure off of the folks who need more affordable housing.”