Letter to the Editor: Is Mayor out of touch when it comes to wages and housing?

To the Editor:

“Once we have rental units in a larger scale, that will create opportunities for people to live here who are working those service sector jobs, the $20 to $25 an hour jobs. We want those people in our community, we need them and we’re working to make sure they can,”                                                          …. Luke Charbonneau, Mayor of Saugeen Shores

If this quote made you raise your eyebrows, you aren’t alone. I’d like to extract two short fragments, if I may, which were used in the same sentence above:

“…service sector jobs…”
“… $20 to $25 an hour…”

Are you as baffled as I am?

I have never seen a municipal official say something this out-of-touch. Premiers? Sure. MPs, MPPs? Sure. But the mayor, who actually resides in the community he claims to represent? Really?

This quote comes from a CTV article highlighting the housing crisis in Saugeen Shores. It offers a few stories of people with well-paying jobs who are struggling to stay in the community due to rising housing costs. The mayor’s comments were in response to actions taken by the Town to ensure that geared-to-income housing is being built along with all of our new neighbourhoods. To be sure, this is good news. The town needs policies like this to combat a hostile market. However, the wages he quotes paint a troubling picture.

First, and most obviously, the current minimum wage is $15/hour. Believe it or not, there are people in Saugeen Shores who earn this wage and are trying to live on this wage. Do these people not deserve a home in Saugeen Shores? If our geared-to-income housing is not geared to those earning the least, then what’s the point? The people making less than $20 an hour in this town, run this town. These people ARE the “service sector”: cashiers, servers, cooks, cleaners, stockers. These people staff our fine dining establishments, they make our specialty coffees, they ensure we all have access to groceries and basic necessities. These are the frontline workers who were rightfully praised for working throughout the pandemic with no way to work remotely. The quality of life, the luxuries that we enjoy as one of the area’s most affluent communities, are made possible by the people that can barely afford to live here.

Those who know me will know that I am not currently a resident of Saugeen Shores. This may lead you to ask: why is a rate-payer in Arran-Elderslie giving our mayor a hard time? Does this really concern him?

Although I live in idyllic Arkwright, I do work in Saugeen Shores. Not a bad commute if the weather holds up. My family and closest friends live in Saugeen Shores. I grew up in Port Elgin and lived there for most of the first 25 years of my life. My family ran a business in Port Elgin for over half a century (I know, it’s got nothing on Eby’s). I care deeply about this community and the people in it. When I briefly lived in the city, I couldn’t help but miss it here; when I moved back, I never thought about the city again.

So why don’t my wife and I live in Saugeen Shores now?

Because we can’t afford to.

When we were able to even think about affording a house, there was nothing in the area that was in our price range. Anything that was even approaching it would inevitably be inflated by bidding wars. Continuing to live in our current home wasn’t an option, and rents were significantly more than the kind of mortgage payment we were expecting. This was all in early 2020: home prices were on the rise, but in two short years, we all know how much worse it’s gotten.

The ultimate irony is that I am someone who is lucky enough to have the type of job that Mr. Charbonneau is describing, all thanks to my union. And yet, even with my wife’s income, we still can’t afford to live in Saugeen Shores. When it comes to the service sector, I know I am the exception. I know many renters with good deals, praying that their landlords don’t decide to change their situation, lest they be homeless or have to move elsewhere. I know several people who commute to Port Elgin from other towns where housing is cheaper. I knew a coworker who drove from Durham, nearly an hour away in good weather, for several years, just to keep her supposedly typical $20-25/hour service job. She never once considered moving to Saugeen Shores.

So far, I’ve only discussed those who are actually able to work. I was shocked to learn recently that those on ODSP (Ontario Disability) are basically on poverty wages unless they find an additional source of income. What about the retired? The homeless? Those with “no fixed address”? These problems may be beyond the scope of a municipal government. However, if we go into this battle with the Mayor’s mindset, we exclude so much of our community from a solution; we exclude them from what should be a human right.

I’m not an expert in economics, or politics even, but I’m not sure that I need to be. I think it’s pretty simple: everybody should be able to afford a home. I say home in the general sense: apartment, house, townhouse, condo etc.. Not everybody needs a three bedroom detached house, but everybody needs a place to live. I am happy to see my hometown taking steps to solve the housing crisis; but the Mayor’s frankly callous words need to be held to account. At best, he is woefully unaware of what poverty looks like in our community. At worst, he has drawn a line between those who are welcome here and those who are not.

Adrian Little
Formerly of Port Elgin