By Jenn Rae, Housing Development Coordinator, Town of Collingwood
Communities across southern Georgian Bay and beyond are grappling with the challenge of affordable housing. But affordable housing is not just a local issue – it’s a global crisis with profound consequences for individuals, communities, and economies. In this article, we will explore the extensive social and economic costs of failing to address the affordable housing crisis, while highlighting how the Town of Collingwood is taking action on this high-stakes issue.
The Human Toll
The most immediate and heart-wrenching cost of the affordable housing crisis is the impact it has on individuals in need of housing. This can affect individuals and families in a variety of ways – at its most severe, those who are unable to secure stable and affordable housing may experience homelessness and the myriad of risks and challenges that accompany it. Some individuals may find themselves stuck in unsafe or unsuitable housing with no other options available, while others may be limited to living with family members long after previous generations would have ‘flown the nest’ – not experiencing the typical milestones of young adulthood and feeling despondent about their future.
A lack of stable housing can have a severe impact on mental health. Stress, anxiety and hopelessness can lead to or exacerbate mental health issues. This, in turn, can lead to increased healthcare costs and decreased overall quality of life.
Children bear a heavy burden in the affordable housing crisis. Unstable living conditions can disrupt their education, limit their access to nutritious food, and expose them to unsafe environments. As a result, some children may face lifelong challenges in achieving their full potential. The cost to society, in terms of lost potential and the need for ongoing support, is immeasurable.
The Economic Consequences
A lack of affordable housing can lead to longer commutes for those who must travel between their more affordable home and their place of work. Lengthy commutes not only result in lost time but can also lead to decreased workforce productivity and contribute to emissions that drive climate change, another crisis faced by our communities. It can be challenging to recruit and retain employees when there is a lack of affordable housing, which can have a significant effect on a region’s economic growth and stability.
Affordable housing is not just about providing a place to live; it’s about creating an environment where people can thrive. When individuals are forced to allocate a disproportionate amount of their income to housing costs, they have less financial freedom to spend on activities that enhance their physical, social and mental well-being.
As mentioned earlier, the mental and physical health of those affected by the affordable housing crisis often deteriorates, which has a direct impact on healthcare systems and social services. Increased demand for services places pressure on already overextended health and social service providers, compounded by health service employees struggling themselves to find housing and keep services open due to the lack of affordable housing – a vicious circle that causes significant strain on public resources.
The Ripple Effect on Communities
When a town doesn’t have enough affordable housing, the whole community suffers. Housing insecurity affects certain groups more than others, such as diverse and marginalized populations, older people, and those with low and moderate incomes. As rents keep going up, more individuals and families struggle to make ends meet.
A lack of affordable housing also diminishes social connections and community wellbeing. When individuals can’t afford to live in the community they work in, they are not likely to get involved in volunteer activities, sports or social clubs. Community involvement is critical for building a more cohesive, safer and stronger community, while lowering levels of depression, increasing overall life satisfaction and promoting better mental well-being. Truly a lack of affordable housing strains the social fabric of a community.
Global Issue, Local Response
The affordable housing crisis is not unique to any one municipality or country – it’s a global issue. Developing and developed nations alike face the challenge of providing adequate and affordable housing for their citizens. In many places, the crisis is compounded by population growth, urbanization, and economic disparities as well as post-pandemic impacts such as interrupted supply chains, raising costs of materials, and labour shortages.
In Canada, housing is an emerging priority for lower-tier municipalities, and many are just starting to understand the role that they need to play. Upper-tier municipalities and regional governments are Provincially mandated to administer housing, but typically their work has focused on supports for people experiencing homelessness and for deeply affordable social housing. There typically isn’t much support available for individuals and families earning moderate levels of income, but in today’s housing market, they are being priced out of the market with home sales and monthly rent skyrocketing beyond what they can afford.
In 2021, Collingwood Town Council understood the consequences of inaction and had the foresight to prioritize affordable housing at the municipal level. As the County of Simcoe is funded and resourced to provide homelessness supports, emergency and transitional housing and deeply affordable housing, the Town decided to focus its efforts on moderate income households within the 4th to 6th income deciles (I.e. home owners earning between $70,000 – $98,000 per year and renters earning $36,000 to $51,000 per year). Council appointed a citizen-led Affordable Housing Task Force which has worked diligently, providing guidance and advocacy on the affordable housing crisis. Following the Task Force’s recommendations, the Town hired a dedicated staff person and invested in an Affordable Housing Master Plan consultation to guide the Town’s work in affordable housing within the municipality’s legislative and fiscal/resourcing realities.
The Affordable Housing Master Plan will be presented to Collingwood Town Council on October 30, 2023 – the culmination of 10 months of research and community consultation. But the Town of Collingwood has not rested on its laurels while waiting for the plan to be finalized. Over the past year, in addition to major projects like the Official Plan Review and the Development Process and Fees Review, Collingwood has: fast-tracked development applications with affordable housing components; applied to significant grant opportunities including the Federal government’s Housing Accelerator Fund; participated in education and information-sharing sessions; approved a Notice of Motion for Future neighbourhood designation for Town-owned parcels to accommodate higher densities and a mix of uses; and explored acceptance of surety bonds to provide more options and flexibility to developers. Most notably, the Town of Collingwood also developed the Rapid ADU Deployment Program – the first of its kind in Ontario – to help homeowners be part of the solution through gentle densification by building housing in their own backyards and basements.
From these actions, we’ve seen early gains changing the tide in the response from the development community, with: site plan control for an upcoming apartment building including two affordable housing units voluntarily added by the developer; rough-ins for approximately 25 accessory dwelling units committed to as part of a development application; and the incredible $1 million contribution to affordable housing from John Welton of Sunvale Homes. Policies have begun to shift and there is a rising interest in ADU construction.
These actions have not come out of the blue. They are the result of the Affordable Housing Task Force’s efforts and advocacy over the past two and a half years and Council’s unwavering focus on affordable housing. And they are a result of many conversations between staff, communities organizations and members of the development community. Affordable housing is new territory for municipalities like ours. There is no magic bullet to solve the housing crisis, but it has become abundantly clear through that action is required from all orders of government, as well as for-profit developers, non-profit developers, employers and individuals. Once approved by Council, the Affordable Housing Master Plan will act as a costed and prioritized roadmap to guide the Town of Collingwood’s actions to make a lasting and sustainable impact on affordable housing over the long-term.
The social and economic costs of ignoring the affordable housing crisis are staggering and have dire consequences to the fabric of our community. Locally, we have seen action occur at municipal and regional levels of government, as well as within citizen-led groups like Collingwood’s Affordable Housing Task Force and the Institute of Southern Georgian Bay. These organizations understand that the health, safety, diversity and social cohesion of our community will suffer if we continue on a path where only the most affluent and privileged citizens can thrive. The social and economic costs of inaction are too high to ignore, and, together, it’s time to prioritize affordable housing as an essential element of a just and prosperous society.