I think we’re all quite aware at this point that there’s a massive dearth of affordable housing in Canada. Politicians are (finally) competing with one another to propose solutions, and I’ve had a lot of residents lately reaching out to me to do likewise. It’s wonderful to see, especially because so many of these residents are showing incredible compassion and generosity. I’ll review some of the federal and provincial solutions in a future post, but for now let’s take a look at why solving this issue isn’t as simple as it seems.
Who is responsible for housing?
One of the first challenges of any issue is figuring out which level of government is responsible for it — not just because it isn’t always obvious, but also because the lines aren’t always clear.
In the case of housing, the government of Ontario passed this issue down to the municipal level about twenty years ago. Ontario is the only province that has done so. There are benefits and drawbacks to downloading services to lower levels of government: on the plus side, there’s more local control and accessibility, which means more opportunity for local people to be involved in solving local problems; on the minus side, there tends to be fewer resources to solve those problems, and more overhead costs as each local area needs to have their own department. Ontario has 444 municipalities, and 47 Service Managers. A Service Manager is a department responsible for social services programs, including housing programs, and is usually located in an upper-tier (e.g., Northumberland County) or single-tier (e.g., the City of Peterborough) municipal government.
While Brighton isn’t directly responsible for housing programs, that doesn’t mean we have no responsibility. Northumberland County passed an Affordable Housing Strategy back in 2019, which included asking member municipalities to contribute land for building more affordable housing.
Now, contributing land isn’t as easy as it sounds: first of all, the municipality needs to have land to contribute. Brighton has since started a Land Banking program, budgeting some money to purchase land that might be appropriate for affordable housing. But finding land for sale that’s also appropriate for affordable housing isn’t easy either: it needs to be close enough to transit (which we don’t have) or services (i.e., walkable) that a resident wouldn’t need to own a car, as many low-income residents aren’t able to afford a car, or often aren’t able to drive for other reasons. That means looking for available land within our downtown core, and all such lands are already developed; even if such lands come up for sale, we would need to count the cost of demolishing or renovating the existing home on them. While that sometimes happens, it isn’t always economically efficient. So even though Brighton agreed to the Affordable Housing Plan, and even though we have a Land Banking program, to date we haven’t gifted any land to the County for affordable housing.
What about rentals?
Several residents have asked me recently, can we just rent a house for people? Well, yes and no. First, all subsidized rents flow through the County, not the lower-tier municipalities.
But the County can and does work with rentals, in a few different ways. They own properties, usually apartment buildings, that have a mixture of low market rent (units that are rented out at the low end of the range of market prices), subsidized rent (in which they pay a small portion of the rent for that unit, to make it more affordable), and Rent Geared to Income, or RGI (in which the rent for the unit is set to be no more than 30% of the resident’s income). Northumberland County’s Housing and Homelessness 10-Year Plan aims to construct 900 new units by 2029, at a rate of 90 per year, with 65 of those units being affordable to households with low incomes, 25 units being affordable to people with moderate incomes, and 37 units being accessible and/or supportive for people with special needs. As it is, the wait list for RGI units is about six years in Brighton, and around ten years in Cobourg.
The County also has access to some funding for a portable rent subsidy: people who are unable to get into County-owned affordable housing can sometimes be approved for a rent subsidy on private rental housing. This is where the common suggestion of “can we just rent a house for people?” comes in: if people are eligible for rent subsidies, and can find an acceptable home to rent, then yes, the County can help them rent it. But even private market rental units are hard to find these days, and expensive enough that the County’s limited funding for rent subsidies can’t meet all of the demand.
Can I help?
I love it when people want to help, and I hate that it’s so complicated to do so through the system. That said, the best way to help IS to work through the existing system. If you have some land you want to offer (or sell) to the County, or have a home for rent that you’d like to be included in a rental subsidy program, reach out to them — the more options available to them, the better!
But you also don’t need to put everything through the system. If you are a landlord, you can voluntarily choose to set a low rent. The system we have assumes that everyone wants to get the most money they possibly can for their rental units, but you can cut your own rental rate for the benefit of your tenants. If you have land, you can offer it to the County as a donation. If you have room in your yard, you could build a tiny home as an accessory unit (provided you follow the zoning requirements, reach out to me if you need help with that) and charge a low rent. A few people doing these things could change the lives of a lot of others, faster than working through the social services system; but it would come at your expense. The system takes longer, but it spreads those costs out over the entire population by using money that comes from provincial taxes and property taxes.
The systems we have aren’t perfect, and they aren’t currently adequate for the demand that’s out there. But unless we understand the system we have, we don’t have much chance of making a better one.