Social and Affordable Housing

Many thanks to the tenants of low cost housing and the policy experts who assisted with important details.

Affordable Housing: A Multimillion dollar Question and a Bureaucratic Quagmire.

A fellow Guelph citizen, a university educated woman who lived a comfortable middle class life until a pregnancy put her in financial jeopardy, wrote to me recently about living in social housing. She is once again returning to college because there are no job prospects in her field – while studying, she must remain housed where she is: 

“The letters they send out are almost threatening. You have to have all your paperwork and everything done if anything changes – for me this means redoing subsidy packages, gathering and delivering paperwork 2-3 times a year to calculate my rent, then having them over charge me (then have to pay me back) every few months. . . .They demand tons of paperwork to stay on waiting lists and if something isn’t absolutely perfect they take you off lists for bigger housing – because they have no bigger housing. I have been on the waiting list for a bigger home for 5 years and they have tried to throw me off of it three times. Both times they said their regulations have changed and I was no longer eligible. Then it took letters, appointments and phone calls to be reinstated. I can’t even explain how stressful it is to be poor and try to get help. It is worth not living in housing and starving unless you are made of f**ing steel. It’s not worth the effort to get help. Everyone has an agenda and no one actually wants to help you.
I’m pretty bitter today, so I guess it’s best I don’t get started. By bitter . . . I mean bloody furious.” 

Another community member has lived in social housing most of his life. He briefly owned a house. Unfortunately, he fell prey to an addiction to prescription pain killers after a workplace injury. He beat that addiction, but chronic pain keeps him unemployed and living on the margins:

“I got a 50 cent raise (at my part time job)  and 1 extra hour at work. My rent went up almost 50 bucks. The disconnect at the county level is astounding. Your OW or ODSP worker will tell you that you can make “X” amount before they claw it back. They don’t tell you that housing claw back is immediate.

The U of G did an interesting experiment a few years ago.  Grade 12 students from affluent families had to navigate “the system”. 
Most of them either couldn’t do it in the time restraints or didn’t believe the experiment was even truthful. It was truly eye opening for many. In fact, it made a few of them change their vocational studies.” 

It is a little known fact that the City of Guelph spends millions on social housing each year. Last year, Guelph invested nearly $16 million in the Wellington County administered Social Housing portfolio. That is our city’s share of what it takes to operate low cost rental housing within our boundaries. Housing is administered and maintained by the County in a service sharing arrangement. We also invest $100,000 each year in the City of Guelph’s Affordable Housing reserve. But both sums are not enough to lead to greater investment in building affordable housing for Guelph. We have to face a significant problem of profound need in our neighbourhoods that carries with it a very costly solution.

I agree with many housing activists that direct municipal involvement is best for developing effective strategies for low cost housing because we know our communities best. We would use our local knowledge for policy development.  However, we cannot afford what the provincial and federal governments can – we do not have the tax base.  There is a 7-year waiting list for social housing. To correct this problem by quickly investing in 1500 under-housed Guelph families would drive tax increases that are unsustainable for all. 

Yet, the $100,000 per year the City allocates to our own affordable housing reserve is not enough either. Everyone agrees. Setting aside money at this rate, it will take years  (actually decades) of savings to raise what is needed to put a development of any size in the ground at a reasonable cost. Estimates suggest that 100 units would cost approximately $20 million to build at today’s current prices.

I believe all partners (government, non profits and the private sector) including our homebuilders need to come to the table and offer real financial solutions. The solution may appear simple. Getting there however is not easy. It requires community leadership, efficient economic strategies and shared non-partisan political will. 

Our community must also address the problem of how we build more low cost housing without actually growing outside our borders or decimating green spaces. If we limit the areas for growth, that affects the land available for low cost housing and reduces the possibility of utilizing future development charges to pay for this housing, a practice currently used in the Region of Waterloo. 

 Guelph’s last significant area to grow is Clair Maltby in the south end. We need to get it right. Together we need to ensure that we develop Clair Maltby in ways that balance broad community needs. How do we preserve green space?  How do we ensure that infill and Brownfields are developed?

Recently, I counselled a large family needing a 5-bedroom home. There are simply no places being built like this in Guelph nor do I expect that there will be anytime soon. I suggested this family apply to the coop I was involved in building in the 1980’s (Windfield on Westwood Road). They have some 4-bedroom units and some former members’ finished basements that could be used as bedrooms. But these are limited and do not address our future housing shortages. 

Some suggest Guelph might consider using increased development charges to build new low cost housing as is done in Waterloo. That however will load the cost on to new purchase home owners. Something else that should be considered is building smaller units on smaller lots. This requires that the city and homebuyers change their assumptions about what is an appropriate lot and house size. Land in Guelph is costly, so we must reduce the cost of affordable housing by reducing the land taken up by the structures. 

As a community we need to bring all partners together to examine policies and incentives that might change lot and house sizes so homes can be put on smaller lots and cost less. We need to be open to communities of mixed housing with shared community space rather than to the individual yards of traditional suburbs – townhouses and, for seniors, co-housing are two answers embraced world wide.

We need to consciously challenge our attitudes toward what is acceptable development in a subdivision. That might not be easy for some who might fear this would lead to lower property values for larger, more expensive homes.  Still our neighbours should not be struggling to pay their rent.

I believe we must demand that our federal government develop a practical housing strategy which guarantees a variety of low cost housing options: cooperative, nonprofit, subsidized and rent geared to income. 

Currently the National Affordable Housing program only reduces rents by 20% for up to 20 years. That is a flaw. For most people on fixed incomes these rents are already too high, and this program does not significantly contribute to increasing our low cost housing portfolio. As is borne out by comments in our community, we clearly need to streamline the services that allow for these accommodations.

As Guelph grows, we lose ground in the fight for more low cost housing. It is time to put our collective heads together, and work for a comprehensive solution that transcends ideology.