Another Housing Debacle in Cwood

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Our councilA recent story in CollingwoodToday leads me to believe Council has made yet another misstep in its fumbling and bumbling efforts to deal with affordable housing. As the story notes, Council decided to sell an already affordable property near the downtown where people are currently living in rental units, and to sell another piece of property at the edge of town far from every service and shopping, to create an “affordable ghetto” there. Bad ideas, as I’ll explain, and a poorly-considered decision.

And, in another facepalm-WTF-were-they-thinking moment, council decided to sell both properties after initially rejecting one of the sale proposals at the committee level. Such is the confused state of our council: they can’t make a decision without one of them demanding it be brought back to be remade to suit that individual’s personal agenda.

The story notes:*

During council’s regular meeting on Jan. 22, councillors approved offering up town property at 7882-7888 Poplar Side Road to the County of Simcoe to build a new affordable housing project on the site. While initially defeated at committee of the whole, councillors also voted to bring back their land at 29 and 45 Birch St. into the conversation, but are setting up terms the county will have to agree to in order to build on either site.

As far as I can tell from the article, neither of our two representatives (the mayor and deputy-mayor) on the county council, nor anyone on staff, approached the Simcoe County Housing Corporation to see if the properties were suitable for development before the proposal to sell the two pieces of property was approved by council. Or maybe the reporter couldn’t be bothered to ask them.

Nor was there mention of council requiring a guarantee from the county that Collingwood residents will get first chances at any affordable rental properties built at either site. As I understand it, residents living in Barrie and other communities in the county got to move into the county’s affordable housing apartments on Second Street when they were built. That didn’t sit well with other residents. The article mentions:

The deadline for applications is March 1. The county is expected to present the best options as part of its 10-year building plan at a County of Simcoe committee of the whole meeting this summer for approval.

But nowhere in the article is there any description of what sort of projects or properties the county wants to develop, nor what, if any criteria they have for proposals, nor any timeline for such development if approved. Proposals won’t even be considered until summer… and why didn’t the reporter ask what the fallback position was if the County said no? Would the town undertake the work itself? Finally fix the Birch Street property so it doesn’t have empty units?

Local media, eh? Well, we’ve learned not to expect much in the way of journalism from them, haven’t we?

Despite Councillor Ring being “eager to see shovels in the ground,” neither project will likely see shovels, much less residents in them during this term. Given the glacial speed of governance and planning at both the municipal and county levels where approvals are required, I don’t imagine anything will get built at either site for at least the next five years. So his comment that “Whether we do it, or the county does it, whatever gets people into housing quicker is my main goal,” is just posturing. There is no “quicker” here.

What happens to the people who get evicted during that time? Was it too inconvenient for council to consider them? Recall the statement in the affordable housing task force report (page 16) “…there are 1,333 households waiting for units in Collingwood. Collingwood has one of the highest wait lists in all of Simcoe County for both RGI [rent-geared-to-income] and affordable units.” Where will these people be able to move to?

The properties for sale

Let’s start with the apartments at 29-45 Birch Street, a property already occupied by people living in ground-level apartments (image from the County of Simcoe public GIS page; wonder why local media didn’t include any photos of the properties? Would that have meant actually going outside to get one?). As the story tells us:

The Johnson Trust Apartments at 29 to 45 Birch St. were originally owned by the Johnson family, where they had been converted from a lumber yard/bread distribution business. About 40 years ago, the property was given to the town and the Rotary Club of Collingwood to jointly manage. While the town owned the land, the Rotary club managed the buildings, where rent collected went toward operational costs as well as Rotary projects. Rotary provided the town notice in 2021 that it was terminating its part of the agreement. The town then retained a third-party property manager to deal with day-to-day operations. There are currently nine apartments on the site, but not all of them are occupied.

Birch Street propertyAs far as I can tell, during the whole affordable task force process, none of the residents there were consulted or asked how they felt about the town selling the property and being evicted. I also found no evidence anyone in local media spoke to the residents about the sale, about being turfed out, or where they might go (surprise, surprise…).

And there’s no evidence the mayor spoke to any of them. Our often gormless mayor is quoted as saying this is all about “…housing for people who work in Collingwood,” without explaining where those working people would live after they’ve been evicted in a town already chronically short of affordable rental housing and where our council continues to make decisions to make housing more expensive. Maybe she thinks these occupants will be able to move into the 24-story, waterfront millionaire’s playground council also approved.***

The article also adds that “In Collingwood as of 2021, the sixth decile refers to renters with incomes in the range of $51,600 and the affordability standards for that group suggest rents around $1,292.” But as I’ve pointed out previously, the median rental price for a one-bedroom apartment here is $1,820. A two-bedroom apartment is (median) more than $2,000. Evicting people from apartments they can currently afford doesn’t mean they will be able to find rental properties here that are similarly affordable for their income.

Rent cartoon; source unknownA single person making minimum wage at a full-time job in Ontario (working 35 hours/week, $16.55/hr) makes about $30,121 a year. They bring home $2,088.39 a month, just over $25,000 a year. The consultant’s report on affordable housing (the master plan or AHMP) recommended the town ignore anyone or family making less than $51,600, and at the same time, ignore the homeless, too. And yet the task force also noted on page 9 of their report that (emphasis added), “Over 70% of renter households earn less than $60k, with 20% earning less than $20k.”

And no, they can’t afford to buy, either. The affordable housing master plan noted (page 2): “Moderate-income households in Collingwood can afford to purchase a home in the range of $250,000 to $370,000 or to rent a home that is between $1,200 and $1,700 per month.” Good luck to those the town will evict from Birch Street at finding anything here in either price range. And on page 6 the AHMP notes, “There are next to no options in the market for moderate income households in both ownership and rental tenures.”

My contacts tell me the town has not renovated or repaired any of those empty apartments since it took them over, letting them sit empty instead of making them suitable for renters. In fact, it may be the town has let them decay beyond any simple repair. Like so much else, what that “third-party” manager has been doing all this time about the vacant units was not explained in the story, either.

Nor, apparently, did anyone on council question why the town has let the property deteriorate instead of making it better and opening those empty apartments for people to rent, So much for council’s often-lauded, self-congratulatory statements about affordable housing. They’re just virtue-signalling without substance.

The property is, at least, well-situated for affordable housing because it’s within walking distance of stores, restaurants, parks, and other amenities around the downtown core. But even if the County of Simcoe takes it over, it will take several years for anything to be built there. Before then I expect some NIMBY backlash from local residents around the property who, it seems, were also not consulted by anyone in this process.

Poplar SR propertyThe other property is located at the very southern border of the town, at the corner of High Street and Poplar Sideroad (see photos, also from Simcoe County’s GIS service). It is at the furthest reaches of our infrastructure, surrounded by an empty field, has no sidewalks, no parks, no trails, no nearby shops or schools, no facilities or amenities. And it sits beside two of the busiest, noisest roads here.

The closest grocery store is 2.93km away; the library is 4.13km; the swimming pool 2.62km; the YMCA 3.62km; the high school is 2.23km; town hall is 3.67km; Walmart is 3.28km; the nearest Tim Horton’s is 1.35km; and the hospital is 4.5km away.

From what I can tell by the town’s unhelpfully outdated page on public transit (a service this council has chosen to make worse and less accessible), there is no bus route to that location nor is there any route planned for the future.** That means any residents there will need a car or depend on delivery services for food and other items.

People in affordable housing may not be able to afford a car or two as well as paying rent. I understand the town has an archaic, 1950s’, pro-vehicle planning attitude and wants more vehicles, more noise, more pollution, and less safety on our streets, so maybe this is part of the plan to increase traffic here.

As it stands, putting affordable housing in that isolated, unserviced, and distant part of town is basically creating a ghetto for its residents, with no easy way for them to engage and integrate with the greater community. Maybe that’s how the town plans to avoid a NIMBY backlash: by building units outside any neighbourhood.

According to town staff earlier this month, the two properties combined have an estimated sales value between $1.6 million and $3.2 million. However, if the county agrees to take the town up on either offer and come to an agreement on terms, the town will give the land to the county for zero dollars.

Poplar SR property closeupI don’t know how you read that, but to me, estimating a range that wide suggests no one at town hall consulted an actual real estate agent to get a value that was somewhat more realistic and less broad. And why didn’t they provide separate values so councillors could make a more informed decision about each? The wording above suggests that, even if the County only agrees to build on one site, the town will give away both pieces. Local media… imagine what they could do with an editor!

Why didn’t anyone at the table ask if the town could sell the Poplar properties to a private developer with the requirement that it will only be approved for development if rental apartments are built on them?  And require some as rent-geared-to-income (RGI) units. The town could then use the money to upgrade and renovate the Birch Street property so it could be fully utilized. Or use the money in partnership with the County for an upgraded development there with more apartments? And why didn’t local media bother to ask anyone at the table about other options like this?

The executive summary of the affordable housing report, presented in a staff report to council last November, itself said (page 6 of the agenda; emphasis added), “The need for affordable housing ranges from 1,300 to 2,500 units and is simply too great for the municipality to make a meaningful impact by taking on the construction and operation of units. These functions are best delivered by experts in the private and non-profit sectors and therefore provided focus for the Town to take on other actions that can result [in] a significant gain in units for modest funding.”

The AHMP says numerous times that the town should partner with the private sector developers as well as the non-profit developers (which here I believe consists solely of Simcoe County), for example on page 44 (emphasis added): “The Town of Collingwood should aim to reduce the cost of development using development incentives (e.g., capital subsidy, property tax breaks, free/discounted land, etc.) to encourage private sector and non-profit developers to participate in the delivery of affordable and market-rate rental housing.” And (page 4): “…there are opportunities to leverage the private sector to deliver a broader range of housing outcomes and pricing levels through strategic policy and financial interventions.”

The affordable housing master plan (AHMP) mentions (page 4, emphasis added), that although “non-profit housing providers can play a major role in the delivery of affordable housing and services, these actors are largely absent in the Collingwood market…” That pretty much leaves the private sector as a potential partner, I’d say. But were any developers contacted about it before council decided?

Yet the story notes that some unidentified person (local media, eh? Imagine them having an editor who actually read this stuff first…) only named Valentine in the article who (emphasis added) “clarified that the affordable housing task force and staff advise against partnering with a private developer as there are legal considerations under the Municipal Act.” Seems a bit of a contradiction there. All the reports recommend partnering with the private sector, but this mysterious Valentine person advised against it, so council went with that.

No, council isn’t “moving forward” to address the housing problems with this latest move. It’s just blundering aimlessly along with poorly conceived ideas that no one at the table considered deeply or, at least as I read the article, asked any serious questions about, or offered alternatives.

Collingwood deserves better.

Notes:

* Another bit of flaccid, lazy reporting where the reporter apparently merely watched the meeting online, and never bothered to attend to ask the councillors any tough questions about their decisions. That would, I suppose, go against an apparent policy of meekly publishing municipal propaganda untarnished by verification or investigation. Why not take a photograph of the actual properties instead of recycling an irrelevant pic of town hall? And, of course, the story wasn’t even in the increasingly irrelevant Cwood Connection. Local media…

** The town doesn’t see fit to publish an actual map of the bus routes. That would be open and transparent, I suppose. Since council chose to switch to a less-accessible, user-hostile “on-demand” service to inconvenience users and discourage residents from using our public transit, the posted 2021 pandemic schedules are useless. No one in town hall has seen fit to update the page to reflect the current status. Of course, the town’s IT department only has 5.3 full-time staff and a budget of more than $1 million a year, so you can hardly expect them to keep the town’s website up to date. And I’m sure it’s not the CAO’s job to make sure the town communicates current and reliable information to residents. But someone should be responsible.

*** Our mayor is quoted in the article as saying, “I had some concerns about this recommendation going forward without any specific asks from our council.” Ask is a verb, not a noun, at least in proper usage. The proper noun would be “request” or “demand.” She might have also said “consideration” or even the over-used “caveat.” I realize English is not always easy for everyone, but I do expect our elected officials to be sufficiently well-spoken to avoid such a glaring error. It’s always a facepalm moment when she speaks.

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