By Marg Scheben-Edey
Housing Advocate and Chair, Out of the Cold Taskforce
“Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is manmade, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity … It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.” -Nelson Mandela
If you’re old enough, think back 25 years ago. Do you remember much discussion about an affordable housing problem? Most likely, your answer is no.
SO WHAT HAPPENED?
It’s a pretty complex topic open to discussion and debate, but it’s worth taking a moment to put this into some general context.
In the mid-1990s, there were government policy decisions that resulted in significant changes in government responsibilities and strategies for housing programmes. Federal deficit cutting caused provincial and territorial governments to download many of their housing responsibilities to municipal governments, without providing the necessary resources to meet those responsibilities. In addition, the Canadian economy has grown since then at a relatively strong and sustained pace. As a result, the bar for risk has gone up in that time as interest rates went down– a perfect storm for increased debt and rising house prices.
Until 2017, Canada was the only major country in the world that lacked a national plan for housing. That changed in April 2018, when the Canadian government released the country’s first National Housing Strategy in order to implement Canada’s obligation under international human rights law. In 2019, Canada formally recognized that adequate housing is a fundamental human right affirmed in international law.
A KEY COMPONENT FOR THRIVING COMMUNITIES
Housing is an essential component of a thriving community. In the hierarchy of needs, shelter is a very basic need, along with food and water. Without it, the sustainability of our communities and our quality of life are under threat.
Consider what the positive impacts are for a community when it has an adequate supply of housing that is affordable to local residents:
• It reduces the incidence of homelessness;
• It creates housing stability, which in turn improves education access and outcomes;
• It improves health;
• It supports population diversity and equality;
• It reduces crime rates and food insecurity;
• It improves economic sustainability through labour force stability and productivity and contributes to increased consumer spending; and
• Having enough money after providing for basic needs may mean someone can shop in a local store, attend a concert, buy a piece of art, or go out for dinner.
WHAT IS THE SITUATION IN SOUTHERN GEORGIAN BAY?
Even at median income levels, shelter is no longer affordable. According to the Town of Collingwood Official Plan study notes, there is virtually no housing available that is considered affordable or attainable to households at or below the 60th percentile of the household income spectrum. Based on current house prices, only people above the 80th percentile could potentially buy a home! This would generally hold true for the entire region.
Consider these facts:
• In 2016, tenant households in Simcoe County paid an average of $1,127 per month on shelter costs (i.e. rent plus utilities), and 49% (or 18,847) of tenant households spent more than 30% of their total before-tax household income on shelter costs.
• In Collingwood, it was even worse, with 54.4% of renters spending more than 30% of their gross income on shelter costs.
• The average composite rent in Simcoe County in 2015 was $900 a month. In 2020, it was over $1,600 a month, an increase of 78%.
• According to the MLS® Home Price Index Benchmark Price, the average composite residential sale price (all types) in South Georgian Bay in 2015 was $299,711, and in 2020, it was $555,820, an increase of over 85%.
• While no current data exists, it would likely be generous to say that on average, incomes can be estimated to have grown by no more than 10% since 2016.
So here we are. We have a national housing strategy and recognition of housing as a human right. Yet in our area, the crisis of affordability has never been greater. For the last two decades, shelter affordability primarily affected low-income workers, but today, it has become an issue for the middle class as well.
IS THERE A WILL TO FIX THE PROBLEM?
In September 2020, Collingwood hosted the UN Habitat in Towns: Collingwood World Summit, which culminated in a resolution that included this item:
19. Sustainable Affordable Housing: acknowledges that sustainable and affordable housing for all plays a crucial role in community well-being and sustainable economies; encourage all levels of government to work together to establish clear plans for ensuring the delivery of sustainable affordable housing, including a diversity of built forms, have zero carbon or negative carbon footprint, and tenures that appropriately address the housing needs of all their residents throughout their life courses.
How this will translate into action is yet to be seen, but there are glimmers of hope. Local municipalities in our region are looking at the issue:
• The Town of Blue Mountains has formed an Attainable Housing Corporation.
• The Town of Collingwood is updating its Official Plan with an increased focus on the issue of affordable housing and is looking at forming a housing advisory committee.
• At the time of this writing, there is an initiative to bring together a regional committee of mayors and CAOs to discuss topics of common interest, such as housing and homelessness in the region.
• The regional Out of The Cold program is undertaking a feasibility study looking at ways of addressing homelessness in the area.
• The Simcoe County Alliance To End Homelessness is looking at forming an affordable housing task force for the Southern Georgian Bay region.
WHAT ELSE CAN WE DO?
Let’s begin by understanding the problem and committing to advancing and supporting solutions.
Lobby local governments to urgently address the issues for the sake of our future sustainability and quality of life.
Start talking about, and advocating for, creative alternatives such as workforce housing, co-operative housing, land trusts, tiny homes, creative financing models through shared equity lending, social bonds and community foundations.
Recognize the urgency and importance of this issue. Get informed, get involved and get active.
As Mandela said, the problem can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. It’s high time we act. Our very future depends on it.