By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
If you are a homeowner, are you a backyard champion concerned about your property values or a community citizen championing housing for all?
That’s the question Nancy Orr, of Nancy Orr and Associates, asked attendees at the Rural Talks to Rural Conference before encouraging them to be “brave, creative and futuristic” as municipalities try to solve the housing crisis. Rural Talks to Rural was held in October in the village of Brussels.
“I know for most of us, our wealth is tied up in our homes,” said Nancy, who wrote What Does It Take to Bring Affordable Housing to Non-Metropolitan Areas for her Masters thesis. “But that doesn’t mean others do not deserve a home,” she said, referencing the need to create more affordable housing.
As more and more municipalities address the housing crisis, she referred to three successful projects where local communities have embraced the vision of housing. Maple Tree Community Housing repurposed a former retirement home residence into four three-bedroom apartments, two two-bedroom apartments and six, one-bedroom apartments after two Goderich faith communities combined their skills and resources. “The housing corporation is a community-based, faith-community led, not-for-profit corporation existing with the express purpose to participate in the development, ownership, maintenance and management of affordable housing in Goderich,” reads the website.
Orr said Maple Tree has become part of the community, as did the Perth Meadows Housing in Listowel which offers 36 units and 18 town homes available for purchase via an innovative system called the
Equity Life Lease. Residents enter into an occupancy agreement that sets the redemption value of the
lease and provides ownership.
With the agreement in place,
the residents receive reduced monthly housing costs. “Rather than live off your investments and pay rent to a landlord, your investment is protected and your monthly costs are manageable,” states the Perth Meadows website.
The third innovative affordable housing solution Orr referenced was the
Maple Leaf Development in Thamesford which is planning to repurpose an abandoned, 120-acre, former Maple Leaf plant into
800 new housing units
with plans for a child care centre, commercial space
and other amenities for families.
“It took a visionary council to see the possibilities for this site,” said Orr.
Leading that council was Mayor Marcus Ryan who was at the Rural to Rural conference to share his perspective on affordable housing from a municipal standpoint.
He said for him, community goals are all about examining the “current state” and moving towards the “desired state”.
“I knew we needed to take an open-minded approach and examine what steps we needed to take to move from the current state to the desired state,” said Ryan.
When Maple Leaf Foods closed the plant in Thamesford, it was a nightmare scenario, admits Ryan. “I was thinking smashed windows, weeds growing in the cracks and how it would undermine all neighbouring properties if it was not developed.”
A lot of “crazy ideas” were considered but once it was decided that the desired state was more housing, council focused on action versus problems. “Municipal councils often get caught up in what they can or cannot do. We decided to look at the tools we have to get housing in our counties instead of focusing on constraints.”
In that way, municipalities can make it possible for renters to buy, for kids living in their parents' basements to move out and for adults living in homes too large for them to move somewhere more manageable, summarized Ryan.
He encouraged everyone at the conference to develop “crazy ideas” to increase affordable housing which led to an hour of break-out sessions with participants filling a large board with their ideas.
In the group I sat in, participants learned about all the existing government programs and agencies already addressing the issue including:
● The Affordable Housing Development Toolkit created by Bruce County council (see sidebar)
● A pilot loan project just launched by Community Futures within the Saugeen Economic Development Corporation where new residents to Ontario and Canada can apply for a $20,000 loan as a down payment for a home (among other uses).
● Digitizing and streamlining permit processes
● The Federation of Canadian Municipalities Green Building Fund
Ultimately, said Orr, it's about accepting that gentrification has come upon our rural areas and labour is a concern and communities need more residents. To attract them, they need affordable housing.
However, long-term homeowners are often “conservative, skeptical and can be downright combative when it comes to affordable housing,” she said.
“We think people should just work hard and buy a home because that is what we did,” said Orr. “But we do not acknowledge that these thoughts and our actions might prevent other families from having a home, when they deserve one too.” People who need housing are often people we see every day. They could be aging parents with nowhere to downsize, kids with nowhere to go or business owners that had to hang up their tools because they couldn’t find any employees, described Orr.
Orr said it takes local action to make an impact. It also requires land, enabling policy, and changing existing rules. “Municipalities need to look at bylaws on height restriction, lot size, setbacks, parking, green space and footage and be willing to be flexible. They also need to encourage secondary units for dwellings. Be solution-oriented, flexible and responsive.”
She challenged the audience if they fit into one of four categories:
● Political will
● Community citizens
● Housing expertise
● Local champions
Those with political will need to be brave, creative and futuristic, she said. “You could be an encourager versus putting up barriers.”
Local champions are people who share enthusiasm, do not shy from risk and activate leaders. “They do not give up,” she said.
Those with housing expertise could be from both the public and private sector who enable builders and provide skills and knowledge.
The last category is local champions who recognize that no one can do everything, but we can all do something. These are people who think outside the box, like the group of seniors Orr knew who sold their homes to create affordable and functional housing for themselves.
“Don't let perfection be the enemy of better, just get started,” concluded Orr. ◊
● Editor’s Note: Read Housing Part 2 in the January issue of The Rural Voice