By Geoffrey Shea, Councillor, Municipality of West Grey
At the end of January, the Rural Ontario Municipal Association held its annual conference. Along with sessions on asset management and building codes were several panels and presentations about helping vulnerable populations, protecting the environment, and indigenous relations. But nothing was more noticeable than the topic of housing.
Communities throughout rural Ontario are experiencing a range of housing problems. Growing numbers of residents are unhoused, markets are driving home prices out of reach for many families, and aging populations are not finding the housing options they need. And although our small municipalities are not required by legislation to take on housing issues, many want to help address the problems that are unfurling on their front steps.
One panel I attended was on Supporting Seniors in Rural Communities. Madison Brydges from the National Institute on Ageing kicked off sharing the results of a survey that showed that housing was one of the top concerns of older citizens. The discussion unfolded to identify that the previous goal of keeping people in their existing homes as long as possible was giving way to a vision of co-housing or supportive communities. People want to live with or near others in easily maintained settings. These models are not always supported by existing codes and regulations in Ontario.
Premier Ford was present to discuss initiatives such as Bill 23, which is meant to encourage new housing. But it does so by supercharging the existing developer-led model of housing building and financing. Builders could be exempt from paying municipal development charges if new homes are “affordable”, i.e. priced at 80% of the market average. So, in a community where the average has shot up to over 1 million dollars, anyone building and selling $800,000 homes will not have to contribute to municipal infrastructure upgrades (roads, water, etc.). This kind of tinkering is unlikely to address the root problems with our housing markets.
Another panel, Innovative Rural Housing and Homelessness Solutions, included Marilyn Struthers, who has been leading a group addressing Social Financing for Housing in association with the Institute of Southern Georgian Bay. This panel was recorded and broadcast on TVO with Steve Paikin. The panel looked at solutions for developing more housing for people at the lower end of the affordability spectrum. It looked at issues in housing further north and locally developed solutions. The point Marilyn raised, which everyone on the panel and in the audience agreed with, was that the housing crisis we are experiencing was created by the financial model that we have now: private developers building houses as commodities and investments, rather than essential community services. She spoke about the work that her group and the Institute have done over the past two years to envision social financing alternatives.
In part, that has resulted in the creation of the Southern Georgian Bay Affordable Housing Toolkit. This is meant to help communities identify the housing and financing problems where they are and to provide strategies and resources to begin implementing concrete solutions.
I heard more than one attendee at this panel exclaim that it was the highlight of the entire conference! That was certainly my feeling. I encourage you to watch the panel on TVO’s website and explore the Affordable Housing Toolkit, which will be published in the Institute’s newsletter!