Housing is a basic human necessity, and housing quality is considered by many as an important indicator of individual and community well-being. Because housing is an expensive commodity to purchase (costing roughly four years of a typical household’s earnings), it can be a challenge to ensure that all citizens have adequate and affordable housing. The vast majority of housing in Saskatchewan is produced and distributed through private markets, with government involvement limited to general regulations to maintain quality standards and protect consumers and communities. The private housing market adequately meets the needs of most Saskatchewan households and the people of this province are, on average, at least as well housed as other Canadians. Over 70% of Saskatchewan households own their own dwelling, and most of these households are considered adequately housed. However, at any given time some Saskatchewan households experience housing problems. There may be an insufficient supply of adequate housing in specific communities or in reasonable proximity to work opportunities. An adequate supply of housing may be available, but at a cost that consumes a disproportionate share of the household’s income, making it difficult to meet other basic needs like food and clothing. Some households experience both an accessibility and affordability issue.
For individual households, poor housing may result in unacceptable living conditions for adults and children. Poor housing can affect adults’ employability and credibility in the community, and housing instability can negatively affect children’s school achievement. Poor housing also affects the overall quality of life in neighbourhoods and cities; extreme housing problems like overcrowding or homelessness can in fact be life-threatening. Because inadequate housing is a detriment both to individual households and the community as a whole, the public expects governments to develop policies and programs to reduce the incidence and impact of housing problems.
Governments have two basic ways to influence housing outcomes. The first is through measures that increase the supply of adequate housing in particular regions or communities. This may involve construction of publicly owned housing, or various forms of subsidy to private or non-profit builders to stimulate construction of new housing units or rehabilitation of existing homes. In some cases these supply programs are accompanied by on-going subsidization of operating costs to ensure that these housing units remain affordable to lower-income households. The second means to influence housing outcomes is by increasing households’ income resources so that they can afford to rent or purchase better housing. Since most households get their income for housing and other needs from employment or self-employment, government supports and incentives to labour market attachment can be an important element of housing income support. Governments may also make cash benefits available to lower-income families to help with the cost of housing.
While the emphasis on either supply or demand measures may change over time, governments generally rely on a balance of both approaches. Supply measures alone can rarely make a significant impact on widespread housing problems. Large-scale public housing programs are very costly, can cause secondary social problems, sometimes distort private housing markets, and can create inequities between people who do or do not receive subsidized housing. Demand measures alone, on the other hand, are not likely to be effective if adequate housing is in short supply; and carelessly designed income support programs may trigger housing cost increases in private markets, without necessarily improving housing outcomes. Views on the appropriate role for governments in housing policy are changing. As in other Canadian provinces and territories, the government in Saskatchewan has historically concentrated on expanding the province’s stock of publicly owned or non-profit “social housing” units. While social housing has benefited some people in housing need, this approach is costly to the public and is not effective for households who already have physically adequate housing but have inadequate income to pay the market price for it. In recent years, housing social policy has begun to be seen as a broader set of measures that incorporates, in addition to social housing, a number of more market-sensitive policy instruments that help citizens address their housing needs.
In the Saskatchewan government, housing policy is the responsibility of the Department of Community Resources and Employment, which also has provincial jurisdiction for employment, income support, and other social programs. The department’s strategy is to encourage self-reliance, independence, and strong connections to communities in housing and in other aspects of everyday life. Where an individual or a family requires government assistance to achieve self-sufficiency, the department addresses these issues through a partnership approach involving government, individual citizens, communities, and businesses. The department and the community agencies it supports own and manage the province’s public and non-profit housing stock through the Saskatchewan Housing Corporation, a provincial Crown corporation. These relatively high-cost public assets are a housing resource for high-needs individuals, a transitional resource for families moving towards greater housing self-sufficiency, and a resource to help lower-income seniors maintain their independence.
In addition to social housing, programs are available to help lower-income households buy and maintain affordable housing. Support is available to homeowners, and in some cases landlords, to repair and maintain housing that is at risk of deterioration. Programs are also in place to help low-income families and people with disabilities achieve better housing outcomes in private rental markets. Programs and services that support employment of low-income people also
help households acquire enough income for adequate housing and other necessities. As governments shift towards more active social policies, housing programs in Saskatchewan have become more closely integrated with other public policies that support economic and social inclusion. Public housing policy is one of the tools governments may use to improve the lives of individual adults and children, and to create stronger neighbourhoods and communities.
Rupen Pandya, Alicia McGregor