Affordable rural housing a challenge to find in nearby Haliburton County

By Judy Paul

Low wages, seasonal work, inadequate social assistance rates and higher living costs are all factors.

“Apartment for rent $1,600.00 per month, no kids, no pets, no smokers.”

This ad sums up the difficulty facing many renters in Haliburton County.  Working full-time at minimum wage, one would have approximately $500 for all other expenses after paying rent.

Writer-at-Large Judy Paul.

At a housing summit in October, former Minden Food Bank chairperson Marilynne Lesperance shared the following troubling observations:

“Every morning I walk my dog very early and I always see a man sleeping on the tailgate of his truck in a sleeping bag. Last winter we found two separate people living in cardboard reinforced boxes on the edge of town. We discovered a couple living in their car behind the food bank.”

Finding affordable housing in rural areas is challenging. Rent might be lower, but high hydro costs, high heating costs and a lack of housing stock all contribute to the issue. People living in rural areas often need to spend a substantial portion of their income on maintaining a car, as public transportation is not available and the cost of a taxi is often prohibitive. The living wage in Haliburton County is $19.42, which means that a family of four requires each parent to make that wage to afford a decent standard of living.

A report by Ontario’s Financial Accountability Officer Peter Weltman states that while the province’s median income is the third highest in Canada, income growth in Ontario is slower than any other province. Analysis shows that the people faring the worst in income growth are low-income earners, single-parent families and working-age individuals.

One positive change is that the poverty rate for families with children has declined according to a report by Feed Ontario. Increases to the Ontario Child Tax Benefit, the Canada Child Tax Benefit and all day kindergarten are likely the reasons behind this trend. Single people and couples without children are, however doing worse and this group represents 72% of households experiencing low income.

Community Based Solutions

Safe, affordable housing is the foundation for physical and mental health, the ability to get and keep a job, and for experiencing a connection to one’s community. So why is it so difficult to ensure that everyone has a home?

One local organization in Haliburton County is responding to the housing need using a community-based approach. Places for People does not receive government funding, relying instead on rental income, donations, and fundraising to meet their budget. All recipients of PFP homes are at risk of homelessness. I spoke to Fay Martin, Vice President of PFP and she outlined the gap between what is needed and what is available.

In Haliburton County 76% of the permanent population consists of 1 or 2 person households and only 6% of the available housing is 1 bedroom. Low wages, seasonal work, inadequate social assistance rates and the higher living costs mentioned above contribute to dismal prospects for low-income people seeking housing.

In the 1990s the provincial government downloaded affordable housing to the municipalities who then transferred it to the community by way of non-profits and co-operatives.

Martin feels that dealing with housing at the municipal level is the right approach because working at the local level has the potential to humanize the issue. Rural communities pride themselves on helping their neighbours and supporting local needs. When given sufficient funds and project control, community organizations are well placed to meet the need for affordable housing because they understand the community and know potential recipients.

What does a community organization need to get right? “Be tuned into what is needed in the community: use information based on solid data; avoid sentimentality; have your eyes open and know your community” responded Martin. An entrepreneurial approach is also important for any housing project to be financially sustainable.

Shifting Our Thinking

In order to de-stigmatize affordable housing Fay Martin points out that there must be a mix of tenants. Some units will cost more than market rent and some units less. The units are all the same and the families or individuals would qualify based on need. Helsinki Finland has the same approach. We need to challenge the notion that successful people own rather than rent their homes.

New York City and countries in Europe have a long tradition of individuals and families from a range of socio-economic brackets renting their entire lives.

When asked what shift in thinking or approach is needed from the community at large, Fay stressed the need to consider smaller units because they are cheaper to build and heat. A Passive House uses significantly less energy to heat making it a compelling option when building affordable housing.

There is a strong argument for clustering units together as higher density housing influences the provision of public services in an efficient manner. Affordable housing must be located near grocery stores, medical offices, and recreational facilities etc., to minimize transportation barriers.

Long-term Solutions

A new cash supplement directed at low income earners, the Canada Housing Benefit, is only a partial solution states David McDonald in “Canada Has A Rental Crisis: Let’s Build Our Way Out Of It”, (Monitor, September/October 2019). Ultimately building new housing units are the answer.

Housing cannot be both an essential need and a source of wealth. Many argue that we need to decommodify housing and not just for low income people or those at risk of homelessness, but for all working people.

Housing is a right. Whether in an urban or rural setting, affordable housing is key to ensuring that individuals and families have a reliable base upon which to build their lives. In villages and rural areas, economic prosperity and a thriving community depend upon people sleeping in houses, not cars.

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