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Issues of rats, vacancies at Sask. Housing raised at Leg

Daily Leg Update - A rat infestation at a Saskatoon Housing Authority unit, and larger issues about Sask. Housing units in general, were raised this week.
Opposition critic Meara Conway spoke to reporters on conditions at Sask Housing units on Thursday, Nov. 10.

REGINA - Issues of living conditions at Saskatchewan Housing Corporation units in the province came under the microscope at the Legislature this past week.

On Thursday in Question Period, Opposition Social Services Critic Meara Conway raised the issue of unfilled housing units at housing authorities throughout the province including in Saskatoon, where she noted there had been a rat infestation at a unit of Saskatoon Housing Authority. 

The exchange with Social Services Minister Gene Makowsky is recorded in Hansard.

Ms. Conway: — … Mr. Speaker, from top to bottom this government has no housing plan, and that includes management of their Sask Housing stock. People are dying on the streets while thousands of units sit empty. And they’re empty because people can’t qualify to live in them or they aren’t able to live in them due to the conditions. 

Like Dominika Kosowska, the woman in Saskatoon who is sounding the alarm on a rat infestation in her housing unit. And that is not an isolated incident, Mr. Speaker. Does the minister think it’s acceptable for provincially owned housing to be full of rats? What is his plan to fix this?

The Speaker: — I recognize the Minister of Social Services.

Hon. Mr. Makowsky: — Mr. Speaker, in terms of unfilled units, there’s roughly 18,000 units right across the province, sometimes in locations where they’re not needed, other locations where they may not be appropriate for what a client or a potential tenant is looking for — maybe not enough bedrooms, certain location, elevator, etc.

But in terms of any sort of pests in SHC [Saskatchewan Housing Corporation] buildings, Mr. Speaker, no, it’s not acceptable. And that’s why we work very hard. The local housing authority works with tenants on inspection when somebody enters an agreement. But also upon report, and that is taken care of by the local housing authority, Mr. Speaker. And that is worked on until the situation is resolved, or it should be, yeah, Mr. Speaker. And so the provincial housing authority works with local housing authorities on the maintenance and repair of units every day.

The Speaker: — I recognize the member from Regina Elphinstone-Centre.

Ms. Conway: — Mr. Speaker, I’m sorry. These issues are not being addressed. Dominika had to go to media after pounding down the door of Saskatoon Housing Authority to have this issue addressed, and it wasn’t over time, Mr. Speaker. And she is not alone, and many are not in her position to go to media to speak openly about their issues.

Speaking of Dominika, Mr. Speaker, she came here from Poland where she was a teacher, where she was a business owner. And since coming to Saskatchewan she’s become the survivor of domestic violence and has this to say about her experience with Saskatchewan housing:

‘I am trying my hardest to stand on my feet by applying for jobs, volunteering in the community, and training myself as a trauma counsellor. I never imagined my child watching me live like this, fighting for a right to a normal home. This is not the Canada that was advertised in Europe, not the Canada I imagined my son growing up in.’

The Minister of Justice just yesterday said that Sask Housing is being looked at for victims of domestic violence. Is this what survivors of domestic violence can expect?

The Speaker: — I recognize the Minister of Social Services.

Hon. Mr. Makowsky: — Mr. Speaker, every year we budget about $35 million for the upkeep and repair of Sask Housing units right across the province. We’ll continue to do that. If there is a report of pests or whatever it may be, Mr. Speaker, any repairs that are needed, the local housing authority should be looking at that. And we will ask them to continue to do that, Mr. Speaker.

When I heard about this, I asked the housing authority to look into this situation, and officials are. And, Mr. Speaker, we will apply treatments by the local authority. If there is a professional restorer or pest remediation required to come in, we will do that and find temporary locations for people to move to, either a hotel or another unit, while that work is being done.

In speaking to reporters following Question Period, Conway noted that Kosowska had issues with her apartment for months. 

“I believe there was coverage in the media that prompted a better response and offer of another unit as of yesterday I believe,” said Conway.

“Of course that unit is across town, it would mean pulling her son from school. I understand she’s working with them to address other options. But this is a building that houses many other people I am told — newcomers from Ukraine, from other parts of the world, individuals who live with disabilities. So it’s not so easy as just to relocate Dominika — this is not a one off. It’s an issue across the board.”

As for the general state of Sask Housing, Conway noted the issues Dominika faced were not an outlier. She pointed to high vacancy rates in particular. 

“It is an absolute shame that we have thousands of units sitting empty in this province, either because people can’t qualify for them or because people can’t live in them because many of them are unliveable because they have been neglected for decades by this government  — they have not maintained this housing, they have not kept the stock up, and I’m very concerned that this is the age old story of neglecting a public service to the point where no one has interest in maintaining this service, because the quality has been so degraded by the neglect.”

Conway noted in her own constituency of Regina Elphinstone-Centre, she had seen “absolutely inappropriate living conditions, I’ve seen pests, I’ve seen unsafe situations, I’ve seen people with disabilities unable to access accessible housing. It’s not a good situation.” She also noted she had seen good Sask. Housing units sitting empty.

When asked in the media scrum if the province was becoming a “slum landlord” in some neighbourhoods, Conway responded “absolutely, they are.”

There have been issues raised in recent years about other housing authority units in other parts of the province. Among those was a concerted letter-writing campaign about conditions at Valleyview Towers in North Battleford, run by Battlefords Housing Authority. A number of tenants there raised concerns about safety, noise, disorderly conduct, as well as second-hand smoke at the seniors’ highrise.

Battlefords Housing Authority has reported they have worked to address the concerns, including taking on new security. However, they have also reported high vacancy rates in Valleyview Towers in recent years. 

Communities across the province have seen issues, according to Conway.

“Our office gets concerns from all over the province all of the time,” said Conway. “This is certainly an issue that impacted communities across the province, communities with Saskatchewan Housing units.”

Conway also noted that at many housing authorities in the province, staffing has been greatly reduced and they did not have the manpower and resources to respond.

In speaking to reporters, Minister Makowsky reiterated that any reports of pests in Sask Housing buildings were something they take seriously.

“Anytime that is reported to the local Housing Authority, they maintain the property on behalf of Saskatchewan Housing corporation and so they do regular repairs. Part of being a landlord is looking after those type of things, but also any pest infestations. Once it’s reported, that is worked on. They’ll lay traps from my understanding and that sort of thing, and if that does not quell that situation then a professional company will come in and do the work.”

“For any type of pest or situations where there is a safety concern of tenants, that is taken very seriously by Saskatchewan Housing Corporation, and myself, of course.”

The concern raised in Saskatoon, though, was that this wasn’t taken seriously. Makowsky responded he had asked officials to look into this, and it was his understanding that was under way. 

“It’s serious and we have to treat it that way and get on top of things, for sure.”

As for accusations the government is becoming a “slum landlord” in some neighbourhoods or perhaps might even be looking to get out of the housing business entirely, Makowsky said that wasn’t the case.

“In our major centres, absolutely we need the housing stock,” said Makowsky. 

“Repairs are going on all the time, for various reasons. I’ve toured many of them here in Regina. Some are in very nice condition and just waiting to be ready to go, and that takes time. Others require serious repairs, and there’s a decision made on what to do with it at some point.”

Makowsky said the housing stock was needed for those most vulnerable, and for social and affordable housing. He also added they partner with the private sector to deliver and repair housing units across the province.

Makowsky also noted there had been several housing announcements over the summer to increase the stock and partner with other third party agencies to deliver housing and wraparound supports.

In a statement to, Sask Housing Corporation provided the following information:

Currently their vacancy rate is around 19 percent;

Over the past 15 years they have invested over $440 million in renovations. Those include minor work, but also investments to rejuvenate, modernize their existing stock;

Social housing units in urban centres can remain vacant when they don’t match the needs or preferences of applicants looking for housing – typically due to size or location;

Periodically they divest properties as part of continuing efforts to ensure Saskatchewan’s social housing portfolio meets people's needs, with 40 units sold in 2021.