These days in St. Stephen, N.B., stakeholders find themselves at the drawing board, looking for solutions to the dilemma most other Canadian communities face as well – housing.
The town of approximately 4,500 has experienced the impact of the province’s significant gains in immigration, but suffers from an inventory of aging properties.
Navigating the ongoing housing crisis is front and center for Kendall Kadatz, the President of Future St. Stephen, the economic development agency for the town.
“Investors started seeing the opportunity as well, so they started gobbling up pieces of property and saying, ‘wow, you can make more money off of this,’ and rents have gone up. So, there’s been a lot of pressure on housing,” Kadatz said in a recent interview with Global News.
According to Kadatz, the vacancy rate is somewhere between 0.3 per cent and 0.5 per cent.
A Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) report issued in February stated the national vacancy rate in 2021 was 3.1 per cent.
“It’s the kind of thing that should be making national headlines, but the problem is lots of communities have similar vacancy rates,” Kadatz remarked.
Lack of data
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In the province’s urban centers, where talks of housing challenges are frequent, municipalities benefit from adequate access to data.
However, in rural communities, stakeholders are responsible for gathering their own statistics, including vacancy rates and rental rates.
“If we do the work ourselves, we get access to the information. Nobody, CMHC data doesn’t cover us at all, CMA covers or lumps us into larger regions. The province doesn’t have good data on that,” Kadatz noted.
Kadatz said a lack of information can be a deterrent for local developers.
“If you don’t have that, you can’t attract a developer. There’s no reason for a developer to come to a small town. They got lots of work in the big cities.”
In November, the New Brunswick government and the federal government each contributed $800,000 to establish the Housing Hub of New Brunswick. Its focus is supporting housing and further development in rural areas.
“We tend to hear about the housing challenges in urban centers and less is discussed about the rural housing challenges,” said Alex LeBlanc, the Interim President of the Housing Hub of New Brunswick.
LeBlanc said their scope includes finding financing strategies for projects and creating designs for housing development.
“Developers are tending to gravitate to urban centers because that’s where the greater return on investment is on their developments,” LeBlanc said.
“Rural communities are not seeing the level of development activity that they need to in order to accommodate workforce attraction in those communities.”
Like most complex issues, LeBlanc said there is no quick fix to housing in rural communities.
When asked about whether there has been adequate investment in rural housing, LeBlanc said there is plenty available.
“The housing hub will serve as expert resource and a project manager, if you will, for developments,” LeBlanc added.
In St. Stephen, Kadatz said they spent the pandemic reforming zoning bylaws and incentive policies to be more desirable to landlords.
However, he believes there’s more government can do to address the crisis.
“Rural communities do need more support is my argument. They don’t have the collective momentum, the ball rolling down the hill like the larger municipalities do.”