Right in the centre - Let there be light


Ken Waddell
Neepawa Banner & Press

The day light hours are actually getting a tiny bit longer, albeit by only two or three minutes a day. Light is a good  thing. Light has long been associated with truth and knowledge. People will say, let’s shed a bit of light on a certain topic or subject. It’s a great concept as much better decisions are made in the light of truth rather than the darkness of blind assumptions.In good old rural Manitoba, there has been a lot of decisions made in the darkness of assumptions.

One major assumption is that change isn’t needed. When European settlers came to Manitoba, some assumed that European methods would work here and some of them did. It took many years before soil management practises became prairie based rather than the extreme tillage based methods of days gone by. The change from plow to cultivator to minimum tillage took a hundred years to transform farming.

From a political point of view, it has taken a long time to realize that community viability is much different than it used to be. In the early days, if you had one good local doctor, a few teachers, a rail connection and a half dozen grain elevators, life could be pretty good in a little town. If the local economy couldn’t supply your needs, there was always the Eatons catalogue to order stuff and it came within a few days thanks to the train.

But the trains are largely gone, so is Eatons and a lot of other local services as well. No more twice daily train service to little places like Muir and Helston. The doctors, wherever they are available have clumped together in the larger towns and that process isn’t done yet for sure.

There are three approaches to communities. You can lead, you can follow or you can get out of the way.

There is no better example of the lead, follow or get out of  the way approach than in housing. The housing industry has gotten so far removed from what people can afford and what people need that it is at an almost crisis situation. There hasn’t been a lot of leadership. At first glance, housing needs to be affordable, it needs to be warm, or at least keep a person from freezing to death and it needs to be reasonably durable. We have certainly achieved the warm part and usually, the durable part. The affordable, not so much. 

If a person takes a drive or a walk around a town or city, one will see a huge variety in housing. There are small, older homes arranged tidily on our streets and at the other extreme, there are mansions. It seems the only housing being built are closer to the mansion type than the modest or affordable type. Why is that? Why don’t we have more affordable housing?

The reasons are complex and numerous. One of the reasons that houses have become so big and so expensive is that land is pricey. By the time you buy an acre of land and put in all the services, the four to five lots you can squeeze onto an acre gets pricey. Land and services is a major factor so the question needs to be asked, does a family need a 60 foot or 100 foot lot? The answer is no, but it seems that’s where demand and laws always take us. Does a family need a large home where every child has their own room and maybe their own bathroom? Of course not, but that’s the trend.

In the 1920s and then again in the 1940s and 50s, thousands of two and three bedroom homes were built that were only 800 square feet or less. They worked but today the combination of desire and social trends have driven us into 1500-3000 square foot homes. Usually, the bigger and fancier the home is, the more the suppliers and the contractors make. The building codes are constantly being pushed to the sky. Renovations to older, smaller homes are required to be up to code. It is a treadmill that is not achieving what we need in housing, be it rural towns or more urban centres.

There needs to be a legacy building code so renovations make sense. We need to allow smaller lot sizes. Yard size and side yard limits need to be lowered. Many changes are needed. If we don’t change, then we will continue to have some very ugly housing outcomes and it will adversely affect business, lifestyle and community reputation. We need a lot more light on this topic for certain.