Time to Slay the Infrastructure Deficit

OK, I know I’ve been beating this drum for years.  But, it’s budget time, so it’s crunch time.  If we’re going to do something about all the roads, pipes, parks, and buildings that need fixing in Barrie, now’s the time – let alone the projects that are needed to help us get around more easily, such as the Harvie-Big Bay Point crossing, and connecting Bryne Drive.

Barrie staff have sent cameras through water pipes, used sonar to map the condition of all not only our road surfaces but the subsurfaces too, and looked at all the stormwater culverts, ponds, and pipes that need repair.  Their conclusion is pretty stark – we need to be spending something in the order of $80M per year to maintain state of good repair.  Today, we’re spending something like $30M.  You – our residents – have told us we need to do more.

This budget, Council needs to tackle this problem in a meaningful way.  Overhauling services and innovation will help.  But the amount of taxes going to capital budgets needs to increase.

The math is straightforward.  While getting to $80M will take time, we can make real progress in this term of Council.  We now have a 5-year capital plan – if we decided we were going to make this a “$25M Challenge” – $5M more to capital for over the 5 years of the plan – we could accomplish this with:

  • Debt Retirement – $5.2M
  • Infrastructure Funding from taxes – $11.5M
  • Service Innovations – $4.0M
  • Federal Gas Tax – $4.3M

The City retired some debt in 2014, that will save us $2.2M in the operating budget this year.  A further $3M is coming in 2019.

Since 2009, Council has already been increasing infrastructure funding from the operating budget to the tune of about 0.35% on the tax increase.  This need to increase, probably by another six-tenths of a point.  The degree to which we can offset this tax-based increase in the capital funding – and keep the overall tax increase down – will depend on our success in keeping operating costs down from year to year.

Service innovations are changes such as the LED streetlight conversion project, which will deliver $2.2M in savings alone by 2019.  A further $1.8M would need to be freed up, but I am confident this can be accomplished.

Federal Gas Tax is indexed to inflation; however, the City typically does not fully spend this funding annually (I think we should).  $4.3M more is roughly $850,000 per year more; indexing will probably provide about $300,000 of this, leaving about $550,000 more annually to reallocate to asset management and state of good repair.

Together, these measures would bring our annual funding of infrastructure to $50M by 2019; that will allow us to do more work, sooner, and with less debt.  That is an aggressive goal, but one that Council needs to tackle.


The Agenda with Steve Paikin

More to come soon on other issues as February is looking like a blockbuster month – budget, affordable housing, planning for intensification, some key debates on parking etc.  In the meantime, due to popular request, here’s a link to the first of two episodes of the Agenda with Steve Paikin filmed in Barrie about ten days ago, concerning growth and our economy.  It was a great opportunity to talk about the City we all love, with a good and open debate about the challenges facing us.




Inaugural Remarks

As delivered on Monday night.  Comments most welcome.


Councillors, Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:

In the mid 1830s, Lady Julia Ingleby Barrie tried to convince Sir Robert Barrie to settle at the end of Kempenfelt Bay in a new town named for her husband.  However, Barrie at the time lacked even basic municipal services such as water, and was little more than a military depot and a few homes clustered near what is now the Five Points.  Sir Robert turned up his nose at retiring in Barrie, and returned to Swarthdale, England, near Harrogate, where he died a few years later.  This story, from the earliest days of Barrie’s history, leaves us at least two lessons.  One, high quality municipal services are critical for a city to grow.  The second lesson, given Sir Robert died a few years after returning to England, is “always listen to your wife”.

I like to think that today, Sir Robert would have made a much different decision.  Today as we sit in this Chamber, Barrie has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.  This year, we were named the safest city in Canada.  And we enjoy a quality of life few could have hoped for even a generation ago.  Ours is a prosperous, safe, progressive city, wrapped around a waterfront of unrivalled beauty.  And we are an energetic and caring people, with a clear sense of who we are, and where we want to go.

But a restless desire for change is also infused into our community’s DNA.   Barrie does not stand still.  The story of our history is growth and change.  That story will continue, and it is the job of City Council to guide that growth and change so that change results in a stronger community.

It might be odd to talk about change, since the election a few weeks ago returned an unprecedented number of incumbents.  But I do not believe that this was a vote for the status quo.  Our residents endorsed a platform of reform; while they expressed much confidence and support for those leading the change, change is expected to continue.

Today, cities everywhere are being called on to meet new challenges.  For my part, as your Mayor, my commitment is to respect this mandate and work every day to build a better Barrie.  In addition, through the work I do through LUMCO and AMO, I will advocate for the tools that Barrie and all municipalities need to meet these challenges.  As City Council, it is our responsibility to use the tools we have to respond to the needs of our residents, whether those needs are driven by forces that are global in origin, or local to specific streets, neighbourhoods, and families.  From the individual to the international, municipal government is the level of government that most affects our lives, which is what makes serving on City Council such a rewarding job.

To returning Councillors, congratulations on your re-election.  The wide margins of victory for all of you speak to the confidence that your residents have in your leadership.  In particular I would note Councillor Prowse’s results, being the first Councillor in fourteen years to be acclaimed.  I’m delighted that so many members of the previous council were returned.  For the past four years, Barrie was served by a team of energetic, visionary, funny people whose professionalism was noted not only by our voters but by the media and residents of other communities around the Province.  I know that professionalism will continue for the next four years.

To the new Councillors, I want to say welcome and congratulations.  With more than 60 services, a budget in excess of $300M, and a plethora of legislation, regulation, and by-laws to learn, it can be a daunting task to enter municipal office.  I would echo the words of Councillor Alex Nuttall, who said last week that he entered office a politician, and in office, became a public servant.  I know you will rise to that challenge, representing your residents in all the everyday tasks of local government, while maintaining vision for the future of the city.  Your election results are a vote of confidence in your abilities. Welcome to City Council.

Now to the tasks ahead.

My goal for Barrie is to be a complete community.  This should be a city that serves as the economic and social capital of Central Ontario; a city that benefits by its ties to the Greater Golden Horseshoe, but is not dependent on them; a city that our kids see as a place of opportunity; and a city that cares for its people.

To accomplish this goal, Barrie needs change.  Despite much progress, both as a community and as a corporation, Barrie needs to continue to change how it does business.  Internally, our services need to be modernized, both to make them more efficient and cost-effective, and to constantly strive to improve the quality of customer service to the public and to the business community.

In the broader community, the City must lead the transition of our economy to one based on entrepreneurialism and added value.  This means working with local business owners to support their expansion in our community, expanding post-secondary education, and providing public services that are not average or passable, but superior.

Already, some of this change is evident: from the renewed strength in our downtown core, to the lights going back on at some of our long-vacant factories, to the expansion of our hospital and college, to the expansion of our largest employers, such as Napoleon/Wolf Steel, to the investment commitment of Laurentian University to a satellite university campus.  But there’s much more to be done to reach our goals.

Entrepreneurism runs in our veins here.  The City is and can be an enabler for startups and small and medium size enterprises.  Increasingly, our downtown is an incubator for creative sector companies.  The City should back this, for example, by working with downtown building owners to help provide parking, by making it easier to get licenses to open new businesses, and by working with Georgian College’s entrepreneurship centre and the Greater Barrie Enterprise Centre to expand services for new companies.

Our economic development efforts should be a “made in Barrie” solution.  Helping companies expand produces far more jobs, with far more stable economic growth, than recruitment alone.  We need to leverage new sectors, such as data storage, security and management.  We need to help our companies expand their physical plant more easily, and the City can play an organized role in helping Barrie-built products and services reach new markets, both within Canada and around the world.  Our new Business Ambassador program, driven by the business community itself, will be very important in this regard.

And it is time for Barrie to have its own university campus.  Today, with companies starting and growing daily, we need to focus on creating more stable, well-paid jobs.  We need to continue to support a stand-alone campus of Laurentian University in our City, as complementary to our renowned Georgian College, because we can only get stronger with both.  A stand-alone university campus will create jobs, stimulate creativity and innovation with our local industries and our social sector, attract research investments and academic conferences.  It will help retain our best talent right here in our city and attract bright students from all over the country and the world.  I will continue to advocate for that key missing piece of our city by continuing to working together with Laurentian University and the Province.

Training the labour force of tomorrow also need to focus on an expanded role for education in the skilled trades.  In 2013, the Train in Trades initiative was very successful in bringing together our manufacturing community and the education system to showcase careers in the trades to thousands of residents, particularly highschool students.  This initiative will continue in 2015 and should become a central part of our labour market strategy.

It’s also time to change our thinking about our city centre.  Our Community Improvement Plan for downtown Barrie, The Next Wave, is ten years old.  It has served the city well, leveraging private investment through incentives and grants.  But the underlying thinking for our city centre has changed.  We need to consider our core as not just a commercial district to be beautified, but as an economic engine that is the civic, cultural, entertainment, and commercial heart of our city – the Creative Hub of Barrie.  And we need to think of it as a residential neighbourhood as well.

We’ve done some great planning for our City Centre but what is needed now is a stronger focus on action – co-ordinated, thoughtful action that puts some key principles first:  creating great public spaces, supporting business growth, protecting our heritage, but embracing our future.  The past ten years have shown that downtown revitalization, driven by new thinking, can be successful.  It’s time to expand our thinking from just the historic downtown to the entire city core – Allandale, Bradford Street, the Downtown, and our waterfront.

What is needed is a new Action Plan – to renew, reinvigorate and realign our efforts, and most of all – to get the job done.  We don’t need more plans on shelves.  We need decisions, actions, and investment – all guided by a new philosophy for core revitalization – that can spread our success to the west end of downtown and beyond.

One of those actions should be to convert our bus terminal to a fine food market.  In Byward in Ottawa, in St. Lawrence in Toronto, in downtown London, markets are the anchors of vibrant districts that are tourist attractions and great neighbourhoods.  Markets are, after all, the reason cities exist in the first place.  Working with the BIA, I would like to see this become a reality.

And action, not just rhetoric, needs to be our response to the affordable housing crisis in Barrie.  Rents in Barrie are the 7th highest in Canada, the wait list for social housing is more than 1,500 households long, and low-income seniors face a wait of up to five years for a unit. This isn’t acceptable in a modern, Canadian city.

I want to set three targets.  First, I would challenge us as Council to pass the new Affordable Housing Strategy within our first 100 days in office.  This strategy will require bold and even controversial steps to succeed; we must have the will to see that through.  Second, I challenge us to achieve the construction of 300 new units of affordable housing during our term, through a combination of public and private sector development.  Third, I believe this Council can and should support the Pathways initiative, to centralize and expand support for the marginalized in Barrie.

This Council will also face strategic challenges that force us to change our thinking.  For example, adapting our infrastructure to climate change is no longer the stuff of science fiction; it is a reality – ask the residents of Burlington, Toronto, or Calgary.  We need to seriously look at the City’s resiliency and sustainability in a completely new way.

And our population is aging; the number of senior citizens in Barrie will more than triple in the next 20 years.  Shifting our service priorities and planning for an aging community should be about much more than programming, it needs to be reflected in fundamental changes to how we build our neighbourhoods, public spaces, and health care.

But the last challenge I want to address is financial.  While municipal finance is immensely complex, the major fiscal challenge facing our city is straightforward – we are spending less than half what is needed on repairing our existing infrastructure, which has led to an infrastructure deficit.  In addition, we have projects that should have been undertaken years ago that need to get done – completing Ferndale Drive, widening and urbanizing Essa Road and Huronia Road, and fixing far-below standard streets like Duckworth are just a few examples.

Keeping taxes down while meeting this challenge will require the kind of service reforms I talked about earlier – using new technology and new approaches to service delivery to become more efficient.  But it will also require a conscious commitment to make investments where they are needed, in our roads, our water and wastewater systems, renewal of parks and buildings, in social housing.

These are some of the challenges our Council will need to face.  To meet these challenges – for Barrie to truly become what it can be – Council will need the foresight and political will to make decisions that may not have immediate benefits, or may even be unpopular.  We are called on not only to make the decisions of today but more importantly to build the future.  I’ve often thought that is the mark of true leadership and that is the standard that I expect to be held to, and I hope it’s the standard that our residents will hold Council to.

Hazel McCallion once said that Council must remember that they represent “the silent majority”.  Having spoken with the silent majority on their doorsteps throughout the fall election campaign, I know that people expect some straightforward things:  value for their tax dollars, reliable, high quality public services, and for their concerns to be listened to.  But in addition to these basic things, what characterizes truly excellent leadership is vision, to be willing to endorse positive change:  to be bold, in the words of Willard Kinzie.

The last thing I want to say is that the fact that I even have the opportunity to be here is because of the support of an incredible campaign team.  Many of the members of the Committee to Elect the Mayor who were the architects and chief bottle-washers of the campaign are here tonight, and to Tom, Laurie, Marg, Andrew, Aylan, Hank, Chris, Charlene, Kristian, Linda, Sherry, Mike, Michael, Quito, Sean, and Allan – thank you, thank you, thank you.

I owe my parents Bob and Joan so much; most importantly, my values – among them a deep belief in Barrie and a desire to serve the community.  They are themselves two people who have worked tirelessly to build a stronger city and I am very proud of both of them.  Thank you Mom and Dad.

I am so lucky to have a smart, funny, beautiful, creative, and wonderfully supportive wife, Jennifer.  And despite being half me, I also have a smart, funny, beautiful, creative, and wonderfully supportive five-year-old daughter, Cassie.  They are the best part of every day for me and their patience, understanding, and support of Daddy’s job is boundless.  Thank you Cassie, and thank you Jenn.

Last, to the people of Barrie.  I can only say a very heartfelt thank you for your confidence in me.   I hope that my actions over the next four years are representative of the trust you’ve put in me as your Mayor.  I am deeply honoured and humbled to have the opportunity to lead this incredible city, and for that I am grateful to you every single day.  Thank you very much.


Council Redux!

Well, I’m back!  Thanks to all those who are following this blog despite the many months of hiatus.   I also want to say a thank you on here to all those who supported me during the recent election.  It was a historic night on many fronts.  I’m delighted to have so many returning Councillors as well as three energetic new members and am looking forward to this term of Council.

Lots to talk about – jobs reports, transit ridership numbers were both released in the last couple days and showed amazing strength.  At the same time, demand remains high for social services, showing income polarization continues (or at least, that cost of living continues to make it difficult to make ends meet).  This points to one of the big issues for this new Council – affordable housing.

I’ve had a request for some more visual and video content on this blog.  That’s a great idea.  I’ll be doing more of that this term.

My inaugural speech addressed some of the challenges I see ahead – will post that here shortly too.




Quick Canada Day message

Just finished a citizenship ceremony at City Hall.  49 new Canadians took their oaths today, in the Council chambers.  It sometimes takes people from outside to help us appreciate what we’ve got; while there is something Canadian about seeing the glass as half empty, the rest of the world knows that we have much to be thankful for.   Canada on its birthday in 2014 is peaceful, prosperous, and progressive.  The fact that prosperity and progress is not shared by all should drive us all to work harder for a “more just society”; but on this day let’s also all remember just how lucky we are to live in the greatest country in the world.  This is a wonderful day; I will be spending the rest of it with my family in downtown Barrie, and on the waterfront for fireworks tonight.  I hope you enjoy your Canada Day with family and friends and that we remember some of the pride we feel today every day for the rest of the year.

New 20-year growth plan approved – and has a few surprises!

After four years of work, on June 2nd Council approved the secondary plans, infrastructure plan, and financial agreements that set out how Barrie will grow over the next 20 years.

It will be quite different from the last round of growth.   Barrie is forecast to add 70,000 people and almost 40,000 jobs over the next 20 years, but this time, more than 40% of new units will be inside the existing urban area.  This will be concentrated in the city core (not just downtown, but Bradford Street and certain parts of Allandale like Essa Road), but will also include major corridors and nodes around the city.

The new neighbourhoods in the annexation lands are being planned with parks and “village squares” – a square green open space – as well as shops and services within walking distance.  There is a major new business park in the area of MacKay Road and Highway 400, but there is no new large-scale retail area (just local stores and a few grocery store-size centres).

The financial agreements that have been reached for development of the new neighbourhoods are unprecedented in Ontario and are a good deal all around.  100% of growth related costs will be paid for by the development community.  The City will build infrastructure according to an agreed capital plan, with services being put in at the same time as growth occurs – not much later.

There’s a huge trove of information about this on the City’s growth management page, click here for info.

Also – the Examiner had a great editorial about this.  And they are very much correct – the trick now will be to stick to the plan for the years to come.


City needs a new path for spending

Been a long time between posts, and a lot has happened.  Today I’m posting a new plan for capital spending for the City – this is my plan to pay as we go more, borrow less, and over many years, fight the infrastructure deficit in Barrie.  I’m posting this now because tonight Council is debating the growth plans, and before we launch into more growth, I think we need to a plan to “fix more of what we’ve got”.

The “infrastructure deficit” is the term for the backlog of road maintenance, pipe repairs, and other asset management work that has been deferred or otherwise not completed.   In 2014, it totals about $400M.  But the bigger problem is the gap between how much we’re spending annually (about $30M) and what we need to be spending (about $80M).

This gap can’t be made up overnight without major pressure on the tax rate, or without issuing a large amount of debt.   I’m not willing to either of those things.

What we need is to put the city on a path to a more sustainable financial future.  We can do this by taking more steps to “pay as we go” – instead of putting things on the credit card.

In January, our 2014 budget was passed, with the lowest tax increase in 14 years.  But we put more money into fixing existing infrastructure – $2.5M million more this year, and another $500,000 was added for a series of roads projects.  At this rate, it will take time to make up the funding gap, but we need to do this if we’re going to properly manage the city.

Here’s a link to my memo to Council on this, which is on the public circulation list tonight.

Memo re Funding strategy for Capital plan


Your interesting stat of the week

So, I started talking about the monthly jobs reports not long after I became Mayor.  Last months’ was really unchanged – December unemployment was 5.2% in the Barrie Census Metropolitan Area (CMA), which is the 2nd lowest in Ontario, and less than half what it was two years ago.

However – we are often asked:  yeah, but how many of those jobs are part time and how many are full time.   Our Business Development department pulled out some stats (one of the staff calls this “spending some time in the nerdery” – she’s awesome).  Here’s the answer on that issue:  the proportion of jobs that are part time or full time held by people in the Barrie CMA has pretty much not changed in almost 20 years.

Average proportion of jobs that were part-time, Barrie CMA, 1996-2005 = 19.8%

Average proportion of jobs that were part-time, Barrie CMA, 2006-2013 = 19.6%

Source is Statistics Canada, Labour Force Survey, 1996-2013.  See snazzy chart below.

Part Time_full Time Emp Chart


Parking – Red Herrings, Real Issues, and your money

First of all – happy new year.  How on earth did it get to be 2014 already.

Lots of talk about the City’s parking budget recently.  Just before Christmas, Council approved the first rate increase for downtown parking since 2006, an additional $0.25 per hour.  This was in part just to keep up with inflation in costs, since some costs, such as electricity, have gone up dramatically over that period.  But the bigger issue is that even with this increase the City’s parking budget has about a $600,000 deficit, which if it is not covered by additional revenues, has to be covered by the taxpayer.  This is driving City staff and Council, rightly, to look for a solution.

However, look a little deeper into those numbers.  In 2011, the City’s parking fund generated about $1.3M in revenue, and had $1.2M in costs.  In fact, on an operational level, the City’s parking operations are self-sustaining.  With the rate increase, it will actually be net positive on an operational basis.

The fiscal problem is that the are debt costs for the downtown parkade are also sitting in the parking budget, to the tune of $964,000.   That’s what is causing the parking fund to run at a considerable deficit.

The debt for the Collier Parking garage is 15 year debt, which will be paid off completely in 2024.   At that time, the Parking budget will of course dramatically improve.   So the issue is plugging this hole over the next ten years.  It’s therefore a bit of a red herring to say that the fund is “unsustainable” – the current practice is unsustainable, but the real problem here is a cash flow issue for the next ten years, caused by a single large annual debt payment.   By and large, all other elements of the parking budget are in good shape.

With a daytime rate increase having already been approved, there are some who see the only option for Council to be to extend parking hours into the evening.  There are good reasons for that particular move – for example, why should only daytime customers of downtown businesses have to pay to park, and evening customers get a free ride?  Shouldn’t restaurant or bar patrons be charged just the same as patrons of retail stores or daytime offices?

The counter argument to that one goes like this – there are also a LOT of evening parking users who are coming to the downtown for special events, charitable organizations, et cetera.   Seems harsh to ask a volunteer from Out of the Cold to pay for parking, particularly if it’s for an 8-hour shift.   Also, very few other municipalities charge until 11 at night – Councillor Ward calls it “uncharted territory” and he’s not wrong.  Most charge until 6pm, a few until 8pm.  All of this said, I do agree with Councillor Brassard’s views on this, there is a basic inequity between daytime customers and evening customers right now that makes little sense.   Side note – John is doing great work in the background on this issue, he is meeting with the downtown merchants (BIA) tomorrow, and will chair the Transportation Committee meeting on Tuesday next week where we address this issue.

Anyway – I think there are also some other options for Council and I continue to beat the drum about #1 below!

1.  Charge Visitors for Waterfront Parking – the 2012 study estimated that by giving all Barrie residents a pass for free parking on the waterfront, and just charging out of town visitors, would generate a net of approximately $400,000 in revenue.  I have been in favour of this for some years.  While I would like to see our residents continue to park for free at the waterfront parks that were built with their tax dollars, I think we have hundreds of thousands of visitors per year who would reasonably expect to pay to park, especially given virtually all other municipalities charge for this (Innisfil, Oro, Wasaga Beach, and others).  With all our special events, this is a good opportunity to raise revenue.

2.  Sell parking lots for redevelopment, if it replaces the parking – Parking lots downtown are a great redevelopment opportunity and can raise revenue through sale of land, development charges, and tax revenues.   Developers can be asked to replace all the lost public parking as part of their redevelopment, as is happening with Mady’s Collier Centre project across from City Hall.  I blogged about that previously, click here if you want to read more. This could generate considerable revenue, but it’s hard to count on it because the timing of land sales is difficult to forecast.  It would not be unreasonable, however, to assume this could generate $2-3M over the next 10 years, even with a relatively slow pace of redevelopment.  This would take the 10 year shortfall of about $6m due to the debt and reduce it to $3-4M.

3.  Make some smaller, money-losing lots, seasonal use only.  While overall the parking operation breaks even net of debt, there are some lots that don’t see enough activity to cover the costs of maintaining them.  This may seem an oddity, but think of the snowploughing and lighting costs alone associated with a parking lot.   Some lots could be closed in the winter, especially the smaller ones near the waterfront.  There are probably $50,000 and maybe $100,000 annually in savings from this that are possible without hugely reducing the parking supply.

4.  Get a little more inventive about parking pass sales.  Annual parking revenues from pass sales are about $350,000 per year.  Even a 20% increase in pass sales would bring in another $70,000 per year, although there could be an offsetting loss to some extent as people who pay cash convert to passes.  One approach could be to market parking passes to property owners who do not have enough off-street parking at their downtown properties.

5.  Deal with this for what it is – a cash flow issue.  This may sound strange, but the fact is that the parking fund is sustainable and perhaps this is being made out to be a little bit more of a problem than it is.  Hypothetically, for example, if Council was to take a few of these steps to putting us on a sustainable fiscal path, with land sales making the difference between a small deficit and a small reserve contribution every year until 2024, there public would continue to see good service and we would not need to dramatically drive up rates, paid hours, or expanding paid parking.

At a minimum, however, Council probably needs to take one more major step – either paid waterfront parking for visitors, or evening parking charges, to get us over the cash flow crunch of the next 10 years, and prevent homeowners around the city from having to subsidize downtown parking.

Comments as always are welcome.

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.


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

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