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Affordable housing a continual uphill battle

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

With a new provincial government, and details of the federal Liberals’ national housing strategy slowing trickling in, Durham’s acting director of housing services says the region is in somewhat of a holding pattern in terms of immediate and long-term plans for affordable housing.

“Much of the funding is still wait and see,” Al Robins tells The Oshawa Express.

The plan, unveiled by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last November, includes a pledge to invest $40 billion into housing over a 10-year period, with promises to build 100,000 new affordable housing units and repairs to 300,000 existing units.

In April, it was announced that all provinces and territories excluding Quebec, would match up to $7.7 billion in funding, but it is unclear if Premier Doug Ford and his Conservative Party will stand by prior commitments.

“We’re in a bit of holding program,” Robins noted

Despite this, the region recently released its 2018 At Home in Durham Report, the fifth annual update within the region’s long-term housing plan for 2014 to 2024.

As reported last year by The Oshawa Express, it’s estimated less than half of rental households in Durham can afford the average market rent of $1,139 in 2017.

A household would require an annual income of $45,560 to meet the suggested ratio of 30 per cent income to rent levels.

Average market rent was up about five per cent last year, but Robins notes an influx of “luxury” apartments influenced the increase.

About 30 per cent of renters in Durham live in a unit that is not affordable, unsuitable for their family or in need of major repairs.

Despite record levels of building activity in both the City of Oshawa and Region of Durham in 2017, rental housing represented only 8.6 per cent of all housing starts and 16.4 per cent of housing completions in 2017.

However, according to the report, “new rentals are generally not affordable to low and moderate-income renters.”

The average market rent for units built since 2005 is $1,874, more than $700 higher than the overall average.

Robins says he has spoken with several developers interested in creating more affordable units, news that gives him some optimism.

“I’m surprised by the number of private developers who are interested in affordable housing,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s all the [attention in the] press but there are developers with a social conscience. It’s the right thing to do.”

However, to spur interest from developers, Robins believes there must be some incentive for them to be involved.

The region allocates nearly $34 million annually towards the operation of 44 non-profit housing providers and to subsidize 4,481 rent-geared-to-income (RGI) units in Durham.

There is currently 7,075 individuals, couples or families waiting for a RGI unit, with only 275 units becoming available in 2017.

However, Robins says low turnover rates are not uncommon.

“It’s consistent with prior years. For the most part, we have very good properties and we don’t encourage [residents] to move out. The amount of turnover is usually quite low,” Robins says.

Policies created in 2011 under the province’s Housing Services Act moved to deem certain individuals on affordable housing wait lists as special priorities.

These residents are mostly victims of violence or human trafficking.

Last year, former Durham housing director John Connolly told The Express these rules have “created a waiting list within a waiting list.”

Robins adds there is basically “no real benefit” to setting local priorities because provincial legislation will always supersede.

Referring back to the federal government’s national housing strategy, Robins says the key to expanding Durham’s affordable housing fleet is increased funding from senior levels of government.

In the 2018 budget, regional council approved approximately $250,000 in annual funding to create 30 new RGI units.

This funding is not subject to rules under the Housing Services Act, and has allowed the region to accommodate a number of applicants who have been on the waitlist for more than a decade.

Using previous provincial funding, the region is also seeking proposals to construct 16-20 new affordable housing units.

Durham also provides temporary assistance, funded by all three levels of government, to address rent affordability needs.

In 2017, these programs assisted 698 households, including;

– 295 households receiving a flat rate rent supplement between $200 to $500 depending on income level

– In partnership with eight community agencies, the Durham Housing Benefit was afforded to 156 households

– 227 households receiving a ‘portable housing allowance’ from the Ministry of Finance to assist with housing

– Two federal co-ops received support to continue rent subsidies for 20 members over the next two years

Last fall, regional council endorsed the final report of the Affordable and Seniors’ Housing Task Force which was formed in late-2016.

The task force brought forth 34 recommendations and six action plans which are in the process of being implemented.

The first progress report of the task force was presented to council in June.

Some achievements of the group so far include;

– Establishing a regional tactical team to focus on affordable rentals and senior’s housing

-Working with the federal and provincial governments, area municipalities and school boards to develop a surplus land inventory

– Preserving affordable units with local non-profit organizations nearing the end of operating agreements

With development booming in Durham, the region has moved to aim funds directly to housing through a new development charge.

Revenue collected through this new category will fund the development of new social and government-assisted affordable housing projects.

Payment for development charges for these projects will now also be deferred.

To Robins, this type of action is key in the addressing affordable housing needs.

“I think it is very important. Just the move to include [this] component shows the region’s commitment towards housing and the residents,” he says. “We’ll have to see how much we are getting each year. As the revenue increases, I can it see potentially topping up other programs.”

One of the stated goals of the At Home in Durham plan is to “end homelessness” in the region.

Durham was reported to have 33 incidents of chronic homelessness in 2017, after no incidents the previous two years.

And while that may appear to be an alarming trend, Robins says improved data collection methods allow for a better indication of homelessness in Durham.

In April, the region partnered with Community Development Council Durham and Durham Region Mental Services to conduct the second annual Point-In-Time (PiT) count to document the homeless population in the area.

The PiT count sees volunteers venturing into the community in an attempt to document residents who are living unsheltered or using emergency and/or domestic violence shelters.

This year a ‘registry week’ was added, inviting precariously-housed individuals to attend community events to provide information.

The collected data is part of a detailed account of Durham’s homeless population, which specifically identifies the individual needs of those within the list.

“It allows individuals who are seeking support not to have to retell their story multiple times, and if funding is available, we are able to address local needs,” Robins says.

As with many issues facing the region, affordable housing is in need of both short-term and long-term solutions.

“It’s not going to be solved overnight. It’s an ongoing battle, and every step you make is closer step to the end of the battle.”