What is Barrie doing about Affordable Housing

We have a housing problem in Barrie, and it’s not overstating it to call it a crisis.  This post is about a few of the steps we are taking to help, but some context is important first.

The waitlist for affordable housing in Simcoe County is about 2,700 households, roughly one-third of whom are from Barrie (click here to read the County’s 2012 centralized waitlist report).

The rental vacancy rate in Barrie in 2012 was 2.7%, and was actually zero for three bedroom units, important for families.  Average rents are just under $1,000.  The net effect of this, I believe, is driving some of the increase in food bank usage and other demands for assistance, even as unemployment in Barrie drops and the number of people on Ontario Works (welfare) drops as well.  Low wages and the rise in temporary work is also probably a factor.

Now, I’m someone who looks first at whether there’s something not working in the housing market.  There are a lot of reasons for the low rental vacancy rate in Barrie, both on the demand side and the supply side.  I think part of the problem is that we are not seeing a lot of rental housing created.  There are many reasons for this as well – NIMBY, restrictive planning policies, regulations (mostly provincial) that scare aware landlords, the popularity of condominium apartments, and others.

So what is Barrie doing?  Not enough, but we are taking some steps:

1.  Investing More in Expanding Housing – This year, the City will contribute $1.8m more toward Simcoe County’s social housing than last year, to help fund the construction of a new seniors-oriented affordable housing project on Brooks Street.  This will provide 54 new units for seniors living on low income.

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2. Supportive Tax Changes – I blogged about this earlier in the year, here.  Barrie is equalizing its tax ratios so multi-residential properties pay the same tax rate as single residential (generally multi-res properties are rental apartments; condos are “single residential” rather than multi).

3. More Supportive Planning Policies  – to support the construction of more townhouse and apartment units, the City has designated areas of the city for higher densities.  To date, many of these projects have been high-end condos.  However we are now starting to see a broader mix of built forms and a range of target prices.  The increased supply can only help with keeping rents reasonable.  There’s a report coming to Barrie Council early in 2014 on other steps than can be taken to ensure a broader range of housing choices are available.

4. Supporting the Pathways Project – in 2011, Councillors Prowse and Nuttall brought a motion to Council to support the concept of a new social services hub.  This has taken shape in the form of the proposed “Pathways” project, which is an alliance of some 23 non-profits, charities, and social service agencies, dedicated to co-ordinating efforts in support of reducing homelessness.  The City dedicated a staff member to this project, and the proceeds of my Big Roof Fest concert in January of 2013 were partly put towards this initiative.

Despite these steps, more clearly needs to be done.  Fortunately there’s a plan – Simcoe County has a new 10-year Affordable Housing and Homelessness Prevention Strategy.  It’s a plan to build 2,600 more units over the next ten years around the County, about three times the number of units built in the last ten years.

However, local government is not going to be able to solve this problem alone, not without a major effort by all three levels of government, and both the federal and provincial governments show no signs of making affordable housing a focus for the foreseeable future.  All levels of government will need to commit to this issue if homelessness and affordable housing are to be meaningfully addressed, and in the past both the Federal Government (through CMHC) and the Provincial Government (through the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing) have played a much larger role in ensuring a reasonable supply of affordable housing.  Barrie and Simcoe County need them to commit to a shared effort to address our housing problem.

Last – if you’re wondering if there is a financial case for making this investment, consider these numbers, which I’ve taken from page 28 of the County Affordable Housing Strategy:

$49.5 Billion – the amount of money that Canadian taxpayers spent between 1994 and 2004 to fund
emergency services to manage homelessness. Homelessness continued to increase
across the country
$4.5 Billion – $6 Billion – a conservative estimate of the annual cost of homelessness in 2007 for the provision
of emergency service to manage homelessness in Canada. Homelessness continued
to increase.
$66,000 – $120,000 – the annual cost of institutional responses (health and/or corrections) per homeless
person that uses a lot of services.
$13,000 – $18,000 – the annual cost of emergency shelters per person.
$1,268,479 – total cost of emergency and community based shelters in Simcoe County in 2012