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Kawartha Lakes’ affordable housing hurdle: Can City reverse the trend?

Kawartha Lakes’ affordable housing hurdle: Can City reverse the trend?

in Community/Local News by

Tyler Jones and his wife have been looking for a place to live in the Fenelon Falls or Bobcaygeon area for five months now. He’s got three daughters and another baby on the way, but has had no luck in finding an affordable place to live.

With a family this size he needs a four-bedroom home – but he can’t go over the $1,100-$1,700 range, even with both of them working.

“It has been very hard looking for a home in Kawartha Lakes that would suit a family of five for a fair price,” he admits, “unless you can spend $2,000 a month or more, plus heat, hydro and water.”

The challenges aren’t easy and it has been a stressful time. “The wife and I fight over it, and it causes more money issues. It just causes a really uneasy time,” he says.

Hope Lee is the manager of housing for the City of Kawartha Lakes and the chief executive officer of the Kawartha Lakes-Haliburton Housing Corporation. She agrees the City is in great need of more affordable housing and says the statistics back this up.

Rental costs have been increasing steadily. Even from just 2015-16 there was a 5.2 per cent increase in the average rental unit’s cost.

Between 2006 and 2016, there were only 91 units built for the purpose of renting, compared to all of the ownership units built at the same time. “The focus (for builders) has been on the single, family-owned home,” Lee says.

That begins to explain Kawartha Lake’s stunning vacancy rate – just .8 per cent in 2017. A healthy vacancy rate is more like three per cent.

“New units are not keeping up to the increase in demand,” says Lee, “and that really pushes rent costs higher.”

Mike Barkwell is a RE/MAX realtor in Fenelon Falls and an advocate for more rental units to be built. The realtor says they have been working with developers to encourage them to do some more rental housing. While at a municipal level the aspirational goal for builders is to do 25 per cent rental housing, Barkwell says that will never happen. “A more realistic goal would be five to 10 per cent, and even that would be a big help.”

Hope Lee points out this tightening of the rental market is not confined to Kawartha Lakes. In 2017, Ontario reached its fewest vacancies available since the year 2,000. There is just a 1.6 per cent vacancy rate across the province.

But how did we get here in the first place?

In a background paper by David Hulchanski, University of Toronto, called Housing Affordability in Ontario: Anatomy of a Crisis, he notes the private sector stopped building many rental units in the 1980s. The federal and Ontario government followed suit in the 1990s. This all started when market conditions changed, making it unprofitable for the private sector to build unsubsidized rental apartments. Since renter apartment developers had to now compete for building sites with condominium developers who were building for a higher-income group of homeowners, who could always afford to pay more for the land, builders were reluctant to create rental apartment buildings, Hulchanski writes.

“Given that the gap between rich and poor…continued to widen, why build for a group of consumers (renters) who could not afford the rent levels in new apartment buildings?” he asks in his paper.

It was another example of the shocking cost of inequality to society as a whole. As the 1990s unfolded, the deterioration of jobs continued at breakneck pace. Incomes were not rising, but precarious work was – jobs that were part-time, contract, lower waged, and without benefits. Simultaneously, in an astonishing ideologically-driven move, social assistance payments in Ontario were dramatically cut. All of this added to the housing pressure for thousands of families across the province.

As for Kawartha Lakes itself, Hope Lee says rental rates here are just “slightly more expensive in Lindsay,” for example, when compared to Peterborough.

She points out that landlords are able to able to charge higher rents here because there’s so much interest. In between one tenant leaving and another starting, rent prices can be jacked up. “It might be the same unit with a dramatically different price,” in between the shift from one tenant to the next.

Lee says that in 2017, 51.6 per cent of Kawartha Lakes renters were facing affordability challenges, which means they were paying 30 per cent or more on housing.

Kawartha Lakes-Haliburton Housing Corporation manages a centralized waiting list for financially assisted units. “It’s increased 155 per cent since 2012.”

While Lee says there are few incentives and tools available to the City, a number of things have converged so that improvements are just around the corner.

After years of both provincial and federal neglect, the Province now has a multi-pronged approach with its ‘Fair Housing Plan.’ The plan aims to increase the housing supply, expand rent controls to protect against dramatic rent increases, and expand tenant protections, among other goals.

Then there’s the City’s ‘Affordable Housing Framework’ that came into effect last December. It sets out a number of actions for more rental development, providing more tools and incentives.

This includes identifying land to ensure it’s zoned correctly. If it’s municipal land, the City can look at providing it to developers more easily and more cheaply so it’s more attractive to developers who may want to build rental units.

Then there’s the so-called “secondary suite market.” This is where the City offers zero-interest loans of up to $10,000 for a homeowner to help create a rental unit.

The City also wants to see the rehabilitation of downtown stores, where units above could be created to rent but which might not exist now. There is an interest-free, forgivable loan program for this, with grants of up to $20,000 available to create such a new unit.

Another big piece for the City is to encourage growth by increasing the capacity to accommodate future development within a local sanitary service area, such as the new pumping station being built in Rivera Park in Lindsay.

There were also three major projects in 2017 launched in Lindsay to address affordable housing issues. This includes the 24 one-bedroom apartments being created on Lindsay Street North, and 12 three-bedroom townhouse units being built on Bond Street East. As well, there are an additional 16 units being built on an existing building on St. Paul Street.

As for Tyler Jones and his growing family, the clock is ticking on finding a new house before the baby arrives. “I have until September. But you know I’d rather be comfortable and have everything done before the baby’s home.”

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Roderick Benns is the publisher of The Lindsay Advocate. He is the author of 'Basic Income: How a Canadian Movement Could Change the World,' and is also Vice Chair of the Ontario Basic Income Network. An award-winning author and journalist who grew up in Lindsay, Roderick has interviewed former Prime Ministers of Canada, Senators, and Mayors across Canada. He also wrote and published a series of books for youth about Canada's Prime Ministers as teens.

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