Ten points on affordable housing

I was invited, along with the other candidates for this municipal election, to address residents at Rupert’s Landing this week. Each candidate was provided a list of ten questions and given three minutes to respond to one of them. I will comment on the other nine in a future post, but for now, I wanted to talk about question two, which I chose to answer:

There is insufficient affordable housing in Collingwood. What are your plans for increasing affordable housing for low-income adults?

Three minutes is a very short time in which to address a complex, challenging issue. I had made a list of ten points but only managed to get into point three or four before my time ran out. Below are some of the notes I made on the issue and my thoughts about housing. This is by no means a comprehensive post on housing and raises more questions that it provides answers; most of these are simply the points I wanted to raise at the event, and some are simply bullets.

I chose this topic because I felt is was the most important one on the list and that it had so far received little attention this election. I served on Collingwood’s Affordable Housing Task Force a few terms back, where I learned a lot about the needs and the politics. Housing should not be just a campaign topic- it should be on council’s radar all the time.

  1. “Affordable” housing isn’t just an issue about subsidized housing. It’s also about rental unit and rooming house availability, but it’s also an issue that affects development charges, property taxes and home prices. It’s really about housing in general. And it affects every municipality in Ontario.
  2. The term affordable is imprecise – the word means different things to different people. As the CMHC website notes: In Canada, housing is considered “affordable” if it costs less than 30% of a household’s before-tax income. Many people think the term “affordable housing” refers only to rental housing that is subsidized by the government. In reality, it’s a very broad term that can include housing provided by the private, public and non-profit sectors. It also includes all forms of housing tenure: rental, ownership and co-operative ownership, as well as temporary and permanent housing.
    For a couple earning minimum wage working 35 hours a week, their take-home pay will be about $19,500 a year each or $39,000 total. Thirty percent of that is $11,700 or $975 a month. A quick search on Kijiji and other sites showed most local apartments were $1,200-$1,700. That’s between 36% and 52% of their income. And a lot of people working in the regional hospitality and retail industries don’t get the full 35 hours a week.
    A mortgage on a house will be much more. On $375,000 it is more than $2,000 a month. And that’s not considering the downpayment required – hard to save for when all your money is spent on just getting by.
  3. Housing is a regional issue. Too many people who work in Collingwood can’t find a place here – or afford it if they find one – so they have to live in Stayner, Wasaga Beach or even further away. Their transportation costs to and from these communities makes affordability an even bigger challenge. We need to have a regional approach to housing because our neighbours are involved in it, too.
  4. Simcoe County has jurisdiction over subsidize and social housing. They fund it, build it and manage it. The county has other housing initiatives like support for home ownership, housing retention and rent supplements. The role of the deputy mayor and mayor at county is to advocate for funds and projects in Collingwood and to bring opportunities back to council. Having good regional relationships for a stronger united voice makes it much easier to get support for local initiatives.

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The high cost of affordability

Affordable housing is crucial to the economic and social vitality of every municipality. Without it, people cannot afford to live here, which means they will look for jobs in places they can afford. Young people, especially, will move to places they can afford better.

Collingwood is especially vulnerable to housing issues.* Given that the growth trend in our area is in low-paying (minimum wage), and part-time employment, finding affordable housing has become increasingly difficult for many people. Simcoe County itself estimates that a “single individual on Ontario Works would need to spend 108% of his/her monthly income to afford to live in the County.”

And as the Simcoe County housing strategy continues:

The Southern Georgian Bay area, while home to a thriving tourism industry, is also experiencing an aging population, high market rental rates, and a higher incidence of low income in private households.

Skyrocketing real estate costs contribute to the devaluation of a community. They push up taxes, living costs, rent, and utility bills. It takes a mature, wise and compassionate council to find ways to counter rising taxes and keep their community affordable. **

As the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing notes on its website,

Decent housing is more than shelter; it provides stability, security and dignity. It plays a key role in reducing poverty and building strong, inclusive communities.

But housing is a complex, challenging issue for municipalities and municipal politicians. Solutions are often very expensive; more than a small community can afford.

Councils have no direct control over real estate values (a problem compounded by the out-of-control Municipal Property Assessment Corp – MPAC – which raises property values across the province by computer formula, from its ivory tower offices, without conversations with local officials).

Municipalities also lack the legal muscle to demand private-sector development of lower-cost housing and much-needed rental properties like apartments (few young people can afford to buy homes, especially in a community that offers predominantly low wage job opportunities, so a supply of affordable rentals is critical).

On top of that, jurisdiction for affordable housing usually lies with a higher-tier government. In Collingwood’s case, it falls under the authority of Simcoe County. There are already 4,113 social housing units in Simcoe County, including approximately 3,035 rent-geared-to-income units. The County provides rent subsidies to 28 housing providers for 2,878 non-profit units, 60% rent-geared-to-income and 40% market rent. The county has already invested $3.4 million in maintaining its housing assets.

Before we go further, let’s dismiss some emotional – and inaccurate – impressions. Affordable housing doesn’t mean subsidized housing (although subsidized housing is also affordable). It represents a range of housing types. As the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) defines it, it’s an economic condition:

Affordable housing generally means a housing unit that can be owned or rented by a household with shelter costs that are less than 30 per cent of its gross income.

Last Tuesday, Simcoe County Council heard a presentation on the county’s long-term plan for affordable housing. Given its importance, it’s unfortunate neither of our own council reps were there to hear it.

I, however, had the fortune of being there for what proved an eye opener.
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Strat Plan Part 4: Economic Vitality

CartoonstockWhat, you may ask, is meant by the term “Economic Vitality” – the third objective in our town’s strategic-plan-in-the-works? Apparently it’s one of those motherhood statements people make on soapboxes and campaign platforms that have little grist in them to mill into actuality.

Sure, we all want a town that has a lively, thriving economy. but how do we achieve it? No one has an answer – not one-size-fits-all answer. certainly it isn’t found in the woo-hoo strategic plan. The economy’s health depends on creating a suitable, supportive environment that both attracts and sustains business and commerce.

Let’s start with an understanding that governments do not create private sector jobs. They can only create an environment where the private sector feels it worth the investment to do so. And the cost of doing business in a town plays a major role in that decision (i.e. low taxes and low utility fees).

Last term, council’s collective attitude towards business and keeping taxes low saw much growth and development: Goodall expanded, the glass plant expanded, Pilkington Glass added shifts. New restaurants and bars opened. Three microbreweries opened. The mall was revitalized with new stores and shopping opportunities. Cranberry Mews mall grew.  it was a boom time.

The previous council can’t take credit for private growth and expansions: what it can take credit for is being welcoming, supportive and keeping taxes and utility rates as low as possible. Last council also initiated the hiring of a new, dynamic marketing and economic development director, and created a new small business centre that brought together a wide range of community partners and NGOs to work together cooperatively and successfully for common goals.

Yet I hear you say that our current council went against this grain right off the bat by raising taxes and water rates while giving themselves a pay hike – making the town less attractive to business (and making themselves look avaricious and petty). That’s pretty anti-business!

So, you ask, how can they say they want economic vitality when council is deliberately undermining this goal? That’s a bit of a conundrum. The overtly anti-business attitude of this council is a hurdle that will not be easily overcome until the next election. They have created the reputation that Collingwood is closed for business. It will not easily be reversed.

Also, word on the street says this council is poised to divest itself of the airport – one of the few actual economic success stories in Collingwood. Council has already irrevocably damaged the once-good relationship with our municipal neighbours who are partners at the airport to the point Wasaga Beach is planning to pull its financial support. Instead of developing this as a regional success story and promoting it, council will destroy it like it did our utility service board.

So let’s examine the goals and proposed action items in the strategic plan that relate to economic vitality. Try not to guffaw too loudly.

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