Housing is not a sexy issue. It is not one of those topics like health care or education or restructuring where everyone has an opinion and knows someone who is being affected. Politicians are not too crazy about housing issues because they don’t garner votes. But to those people who are looking for affordable housing in Northumberland, this is a very important topic. And how we handle this issue as a community says a lot about us.
Homelessness in Northumberland is invisible. Unlike large cities such as Toronto, Ottawa and Vancouver, you don’t see people sleeping on hot air grates in the middle of Port Hope or Cobourg. But according to Jamie Simmons, author of a recent major study on housing for the Transition Housing Coalition of Northumberland, there are lots of people who have needs. These people may live in temporary shelters or hotels or with friends. A few find refuge in the street. None have a place of their own. There are 454 applicants on a waiting list at the Northumberland County Housing Authority looking for an affordable place to live. Some of those people face a wait of up to four years.
So whose problem is this. Clearly it is being downloaded. The federal government does not have a national housing policy. It just signed an agreement with the Ontario government to hand over 200,000 affordable housing units, including a $525 million subsidy, to run it.
The provincial Tories virtually brought the construction of social housing to a dead stop when it was first elected. Since 1995, there has not been any construction of new provincially funded social housing. The private sector is going to be left to solve this one.
Within the past month, Housing Minister Tony Clement announced $50 million for rent supplements, giving low income people and families a chance to top up their rent payments. There is also $4 million in tax grants to support developers in constructing affordable rental housing. There are also some changes to the building code that would allow them to construct smaller apartments, making it more cost-effective for developers.
On a municipal level, there is little or no effort to assist in creating affordable apartments. In Port Hope, no apartments have been built in the past five years. Cobourg has only constructed five rental units during the same period. A majority of development is full-priced condominiums, town homes or houses.
The opportunity to develop affordable rental units exists. Port Hope has enough land zoned for 440 apartments. Cobourg has enough for up to 600 units. But nobody is interested in building this kind of housing.
Port Hope Councillor Steve Ashton, who is responsible for planning, had little to say in defense of his council’s record. Since it is not a big issue to his constituents and he can hand out blame to the provincial and federal governments for not providing grants, there is no pressure to do anything.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation,” he said. He later added, “it’s sad.”
Cobourg’s counterpart, Peter Delanty, also pointed to the lack of financial aid. Cobourg council has taken a more proactive approach to creating affordable housing. It supported the local Habitat for Humanity project with $300,000 in waived fees and other deferred costs to assist in creating houses for those who could not otherwise afford them. Mayor Joan Chalovich has also supported Transition House, a project to assist people in dire need of temporary housing. But this is her effort, not his as the person in charge of development.
No doubt this is more than most municipalities are doing across Northumberland and deserves our support. But it does not address the need for rental accommodation. Robert Rowe, manager of Northumberland County Housing Authority said there is high need for one and two bedroom apartments, particularly in Cobourg. There are more than 200 applicants. The provincial rent supplement may provide some small relief for these people, but it is not a long-term solution.
This is a complex problem. Developers need to create financially viable projects. There is a demand, but nobody is building affordable rental housing. The federal and provincial governments have made their positions clear. The only way our community is going to find a solution is to create one on its own. Cobourg has already taken positive steps, but should move to address rental needs. Other municipalities have to do the same.
Every municipality has a planning committee made up of interested citizens and politicians. Surely this group, which normally approves subdivisions, official plans and amendments, could be given the chore of creating a five-year action plan for affordable rental housing. Cobourg has already shown how an innovative approach can benefit the community. Other municipalities can do the same. With a policy and plan in place, developers can assess the viability of creating affordable apartments as an option that may not have been considered before.
Councillor Ashton is right. This is a sad situation. But people don’t need pity they need a home. Let’s stop waiting for other levels of government to solve Northumberland’s problems. We seem to feel homegrown solutions are necessary when it comes to health care, education and restructuring. Now, let’s add housing.