County councillors calling for fresh narrative surrounding affordable housing

WELLINGTON COUNTY – Attainable housing is now a pressure point throughout the county, county councillors agree, with astronomical housing prices making single-family dwellings unattainable for most.

“This housing challenge isn’t just our challenge as politicians, this is our community’s challenge,” economic development committee chair and Minto Mayor George Bridge said at the county’s June 24 council meeting.

“This is something that we need our community to get behind and understand that they may have to make some sacrifices in their own mind.”

The barrier to affordable housing is public opinion, according to councillor and Wellington North Mayor Andy Lennox and Ward 8 councillor Doug Breen.

“I know that we had a planning application come to Wellington North and one of the prospective neighbours said, “Oh, I don’t want an apartment building in my neighborhood because the wrong kind of people live there,’” Lennox said.

“While I didn’t say anything, at the time I was thinking, ‘Well, I guess I must be one of those wrong kinds of people, because I lived in apartments for several years.'”

Breen said the whole perception issue has been a “pet peeve” of his for a long time.

“There’s this notion out there that developers don’t want to build affordable housing and that the public doesn’t need affordable housing,” he said, going on to say the truth is, there’s huge demand.

“The problem is that we’ve all been guilty of this, where we sat through public meetings and sort of kowtowed to the public’s desire to not have anything built near them.”

Breen added, “We all know nothing will fill a gallery faster than saying you’re going to build an apartment building, or even a four-plex or even a duplex.”

But he called on councillors to tell a “radically different story” to change public attitude.

“It falls on us; we have to have the courage when we have that gallery full of people to stand up and tell these stories,” Breen said.

Councillor and Centre Wellington Mayor Kelly Linton said housing is “one of the most urgent situations” and the county is working on driving toward action.

“We need to change hearts and minds on this topic—it starts with us as leaders, but we also want to make sure that we’re doing that with our community,” he said.

Though Guelph/Eramosa Mayor Chris White offered no comments on the subject, he later made several profanity-laden remarks after Linton broke the meeting for a five-minute intermission.

White wasn’t aware his remarks were heard until he was contacted for comment by the Advertiser on June 25.

“Oh geez, I can’t believe this,” he said when a reporter read back his remarks, which included the suggestion the only solution to the problem would be to “ram everybody” into cramped micro housing.

Asked why he didn’t speak up when called on during the meeting around the issue of affordable housing, White said his comments could have been interpreted as being growth-opposed.

“That’s not the implication, at all,” he said, adding “the county by itself can’t solve this problem.

“Even as we build hundreds of units here and there and try to do things, it doesn’t come close to solving the bigger issue.”

White noted he’s heard of thousands of people who need to get into housing.

“The numbers, they’re not lining up, so as someone as an elected official trying to help, it’s frustrating to know that there’s some of these issues that are beyond our control and capacity,” he said.

In 2019, the Weston Consulting group presented to council the Wellington County Housing Strategy report, resulting in the formation of the county’s Attainable Housing Taskforce.

Wellington Place Administrator Jana Burns, who is on the county’s task force, said the group is working on a summer public awareness campaign to communicate what attainable housing can look like.

“I think there’s a misconception that attainable housing could denote a slum, for example, and that’s not what we’re talking about – we’re talking about providing homes for everyone,” she said.