By Pauline Kerr
A housing boom can also be a housing crisis. It all depends on which side of the “for sale” sign you are on.
The pandemic provided the impetus for many high-income city-dwellers to get out of Dodge. It took about 10 minutes for people to figure out that working from home meant working from anywhere. And 10 minutes more to determine the profit from selling their city home would buy them something really nice here, with enough left over to subsidize semi-retirement. Waiting out the lockdown in a scenic, friendly community has its attractions, compared to living in a COVID-infested hothouse of a city.
Along with the buyers came weekend visitors. We got discovered, with a vengeance. All of a sudden, any kind of property to buy or rent became a hot commodity – houses, cottages, cabins, trailers and hobby farms.
The local people who are selling usually end up moving elsewhere, of course – buying or renting a smaller place is out of the question, since the price is far beyond what they can afford. The fact is, when house prices go sky-high, so do rents.
While the local housing boom delights developers, buyers from the city and people with Sunshine List level salaries, it creates desperation among both business owners in retail and service sectors – restaurants, hotels, campgrounds, grocery stores and the like – and those they employ.
People who cannot afford to live in a community or travel back and forth to it, cannot take jobs there. Recent news stories have described how some employers are providing housing or transportation for staff.
The situation is remarkably similar to what happened in Alberta a few years ago during the oil boom. Yes, jobs in fast-food restaurants were paying $20 an hour, but it meant sleeping in your car or sharing a tent trailer – at a hefty rental price. A good many people from around here went west to take advantage of the high wages, and returned home months later because there was no place to live.
This might raise the question of whether employers should be expected to provide housing for workers on a regular basis. A quick look back in history at the feudal system will answer that question with a resounding “no!”
There was a time when only the wealthy owned land. The farmers rented it from the feudal lord. In a way, the lord owned the workers as well. They were not slaves, but they could not leave without the lord’s permission.
It took the Black Death of the mid-1300s to end the abuses of the feudal system. So many people died that workers were able to demand and get better wages along with a different way of life. They were no longer tied to the land they rented.
It is ironic that another plague is creating a situation where a lot of workers could end up depending on employers for both jobs and housing – in most cases, not a good plan.
It is time all levels of government worked together to protect the future and dignity of low-wage workers by ensuring decent, affordable housing is available.
While they are at it, they might want to take a closer look at the future of this area. Do our elected officials envision midwestern Ontario as a massive retirement community for wealthy city folk – a community that is desperately short of people to work in home care, retail, restaurants and retirement homes? Or do they see this as a vibrant area with a varied and sustainable agricultural and industrial economy and everything that makes it a wonderful place to live, work and raise families?
We have some of the most productive farmland and spectacular scenery on the planet – covering it with row upon row of houses and strip malls seems short-sighted to the extreme.
Municipal and county planning officials are already taking steps to protect our local resources – human and natural. They and our province need to go much further, something to think about while preparing for upcoming provincial and municipal elections.