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Region facing serious lack of affordable housing

Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

Less than half of households who rent can afford ‘average market’ costs and those on wait lists for assistance can wait years for help, according to a recently-released report on housing in Durham Region.

The 2017 report for At Home In Durham, the region’s housing plan for 2014-2024, was released in June and paints a less than optimistic picture for those looking for affordable rental options.

According to the report, an annual income of $43,000 is required to afford the region’s average market rent of $1,086, based on a household spending 30 per cent of its income on rent.

Forty per cent of Durham renters make less than $34,000 and face ‘considerable challenges finding affordable rent”, the report states, adding that many of these renters are limited to bachelor units, which account for only 2.7 per cent of all units in the region.

Furthermore, three in 10 Durham renters live in “a unit that is not affordable, not suitable for their family or in major need of repairs.”

In 2016, rental units accounted for only 8.1 per cent of housing starts, down from 17.4 per cent in 2015, and 9.8 per cent of housing completions, an increase from 3.5 per cent the previous year.

Durham’s vacancy rate is two per cent, which, according to the report, is “well below the three per cent rate that is considered to reflect a healthy rental market.”

John Connolly, director of housing for Durham Region, says a lack of affordable housing is a “region-wide issue”.

Connolly says to address the issue, regional council recently established an Affordable and Seniors’ Housing Task Force to “review information related to the region’s current rental housing supply, consider the input of industry experts, facilitate public information sharing, and explore best practices being used by other municipalities and organizations.”

The task force recently hosted a roundtable with members of the housing sector, including developers, landlords, and private and non-profit housing providers to discuss possible incentives for the creation of new affordable housing in Durham Region.

Connolly said the task force will report back to regional council with a number of recommendations this fall.

Connolly says the region has been able to provide rental assistance equalling $2.7 million to 719 of the region’s lower-income households through the Durham Housing Benefit, a flat rate allowance which 445 households received in 2016, and portable housing allowances, provided to 274 households last year, a 65 per cent increase.

However, these programs are only provided to eligible households on the Durham Access to Social Housing (DASH) waiting list.

The report concludes that “although the region is making progress in increasing the provision of rental assistance for low-income households, much of this assistance is only temporary.”

A key priority identified in the 2014-2024 plan is ending homelessness in Durham.

The region reported zero chronically homeless people in 2016, the same as 2015.

Chronic homelessness refers to households who are currently homeless and have been unsheltered or living in emergency accommodations for at least six months of a given year.

Connolly says this data is based on a federal system, the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System (HIFIS), which is used to track the number of homeless people served through the region’s programs and services, and is also used to report data to the federal and provincial governments.

When asked if there could be chronically homeless people who are just not accounted for in Durham Region, Connolly says, “it is possible…but is not likely”.

“In order not to be included in HIFIS, a person would need to be unsheltered and not have used any programs or services in the previous year,” Connolly says. “As emergency shelters are not operating at 100 per cent capacity, it is more likely that they would use the system at some point.”

It was reported that the region had 93 incidents of episodic homelessness, which is defined “as having experienced three or more episodes of homelessness in a year”

In addition, the report states emergency shelter use “remained relatively low”, with 1,391 households accommodated last year, 93 per cent of which were ‘first time, short-term users’.

Community Development Council Durham, in partnership with Durham Mental Health Services, have conducted a point-in-time (PiT) count to “enumerate and survey the homelessness population in Durham Region”.

The PiT Count is intended to provide a snapshot of people who are unsheltered or living in emergency shelters, and may include information pertaining to people who do not use our programs and services, Connolly says.

In terms of regionally subsidized housing, there are currently 6,074 households on the waiting list for rent-geared-to-income (RGI) units in Durham.

The annual report states about half of the households on the RGI waiting list are “estimated to be at risk of homelessness as they pay more than 50 per cent of their income in rent.”

Connolly says a number of steps have been taken to address this.

Ontario provided $5.8 million in 2016 through the Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative to a number of community service agencies across the region, which was used to assist more than 13,000 households experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness through assistance activities such as outreach and referrals, education and practical assistance.

In addition, 1,587 applications were approved through the region’s Housing Stability Program, which helps residents to secure or maintain housing by providing assistance with rent deposits, moving expenses and rent/bills arrears.

The region contributes $33 million a year to support and provide subsidies to 45 non-profit housing providers totalling 4,481 RGI units.

Only 300 of the region’s RGI units became available in 2016, a very low turnover rate, according to Connolly, although he stated it is not necessarily a negative.

“Low turnover rates in social housing can be indicative of stable communities,” Connolly says. “The real issue is that there are not enough affordable housing options to meet the needs of all low and moderate income households in Durham.”

With the low turnover rate comes long wait times for those who require RGI housing.

In 2016, the average wait time for seniors was 68 months, 95 months for single non-seniors and couples and 79 months for families.

Applicants who are designated as special priority have substantially shorter wait times.

Special priority applicants accounted for 21 per cent of seniors, 70 per cent of singles and 92 per cent of families housed in RGI units in 2016.

The 2017 report also included an update on the condition of Durham Regional Local Housing Corporation (DRLHC) locations and other social housing projects in the area.

Approximately $5.5 million was distributed in 2016 through the Social Housing Improvement Program to fund critical repair and renovation work at 14 social housing projects, including two DRLHC locations.

Priority needs included elevator upgrades, window replacement, balcony repair and roof replacement.

Connolly says these projects are in various stages of progress.

“Some are just starting and some are nearing completion,” he said.

The DRLHC has also identified $4.9 million of priority maintenance work over the next five years, including $560,000 of “immediate critical priorities”.

Connolly says, “most of the capital requirements identified relate to normal capital replacements, and for older sites, added costs due to proposed remediation of designated substances (e.g. asbestos) in conjunction with normal capital replacements (e.g. roofing, windows, balconies, roadways, etc.).”

The $560,000 in ‘critical priorities’ include conducting a comprehensive study of one site’s foundation and water proofing system, replacement of attic insulation at one site, installing isolation backflow preventers for domestic water services and the repair and installation of minor items to address health and safety issues related to passenger elevators.

Building condition assessments were conducted for all 23 DRLHC projects, with the report stating 69 per cent of assets had a condition rating of ‘fair’ to ‘good’.

This year, DRLHC will be undertake “detailed technical reviews and a portfolio assessment for recommended replacement of assets identified as ‘beyond useful life’ that are nevertheless noted to be in a ‘fair’ to ‘good’ condition, including whether useful life assumptions should be extended.”