County directs affordable housing funding to seniors project

Advocates for homeless say funding for permanent supportive housing more urgent

WELLINGTON COUNTY – The County of Wellington has made a conditional commitment to direct $1.6 million in federal funding over two years for development of affordable rental housing to an existing seniors housing project under development by St. Joseph’s Housing Corporation.

In 2019, St. Joseph’s was the successful proponent for the county’s affordable rental housing development RFP for a total commitment of $1,287,000.

The project under development includes 115 units for seniors in the City of Guelph, with 65 of those units being designated as affordable.

“This project was slated to begin construction within the last month, however, while finalizing their commitment with CMHC (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation) through the co-investment fund, higher construction costs and low municipal co-investments put the project at risk and have created a capital shortfall of $2,400,000,” explains a report from county housing director Mark Poste.

The report notes the RFP process drew six proposals: one from Guelph-Eramosa, one from Puslinch and four from Guelph.

“All of these programs would mean a great deal to our community and are needed affordable options for some of the most vulnerable in our community,” Poste notes in the report.

An evaluation team consisting of representatives from the county’s housing services division as well as the planning and treasury departments, reviewed the proposals and found the top four proposals scored fairly close based on the criteria listed in the RFP.

The top proposals, the team determined, were from Eramosa Non-profit Housing Corporation, the Welcome In Drop-In Centre, Sunrise Therapeutic Riding and Learning Centre, and St. Joseph’s Housing Corporation Inc. Guelph.

Although the report notes, “we would have liked to see one or two new projects receive funding through this RFP to support their development and to get more affordable housing options in our service area,” staff recommended both years of funding, for a total of $1.6 million be conditionally committed to St. Josephs “in order to help save a nearly $50,000,000 investment in affordable housing.”

The report explains the new commitment brings the total commitments to the project to $2,887,000. This recommendation is conditional, as the total funding available does not cover the entire gap of the capital need for the project which is $2,400,000. This additional funding was made conditional on the City of Guelph committing to funding the remaining gap by Aug. 31.

The report also notes if the county is advised by the province to cancel its original commitment to the project due to risk or construction delay, then it would be committed to do so.

Also, if St. Joseph’s Housing Corporation Inc. decides not proceed with project, then the county would cancel its commitments.

If St. Joseph’s is not able meet the county’s conditions and the commitments are cancelled, housing staff propose coming back to  the social services committee in September with recommendations for reallocation of the funding under the 2020 RFP.

However the report also contained a recommendation that, if the St. Joseph’s project does not proceed and there is an opportunity “to quickly recommit the original funding” of $1,287,000 from 2019, that council delegate authority to the CAO or the treasurer and the social services administrator to commit the funding to a local project that can start quickly to avoid losing the funding, and have a positive impact on housing and homelessness needs.

Gail Hoekstra, executive director of the Welcome In Drop In Centre, told council she was concerned the county elected not to use the funding to address the serious plight of individuals experiencing homelessness in the region.

“Many of you might feel it’s a predominantly city issue,” she said. “Just know that many of the individuals from a county or rural place come to places like Guelph because when you are on the street it is easier to live in a city setting … knowing many of our individuals, a lot of them do come from the county.”

Hoekstra explained that of 764 individuals who came to the shelter system over the past year, 130 experience chronic homelessness, compounded by other issues such as mental health concerns.

She said there have been increases in recent years in both the number of homeless and the length of time many remain without permanent accommodations.

“Over the last year we’ve had to abandon any idea of a shelter timeline because a timeline would suggest that solutions to finding housing would be at the end of the stay and this is most often not the case,” Hoekstra said.

“As of November we ended up opening the drop in centre 24/7 to have a warm place every day and night of the week just for people to sit or sleep on chairs all night. Although it was a relief to the community, it just doesn’t seem like a solution.”

While noting the county “has been very supportive” in funding efforts like the drop-in centre and a Supported Isolation Shelter for homeless individuals who need to isolate due to COVID-19, support is also needed for  longer-term solutions.

She said the drop in centre “worked hard,” including hiring consultants recommended by the county and attending “countless meetings” to prepare an RFP for their plan to house homeless people in a converted hotel.

“Purchase of the Parkview Hotel would provide 36 permanent supportive housing units directly for our homeless population,” she stated.

“The Parkview Project would contribute to a small solution to end homelessness … it was a creative innovative move toward a solution. To not be awarded the RFP dollars from the county was devastating.”

Hoekstra added, “And to know that all of those dollars were given to a project for the last two rounds where all of the money went to a population that was currently housed is defeating.

“I struggle to believe that a priority in this RFP competition was not given to our community members that do not even have a home. Ending chronic homelessness by 2023 is your goal as a county.”

Dominica McPherson, coordinator of the Guelph Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination, was also supportive of the Drop-in Centre proposal.

McPherson commended council on its efforts to support members of the community impacted by COVID-19.

However, she noted, “While so many of us have taken measures to stay home and keep safe during this difficult time individuals experiencing homelessness do not have the same options,.

“You can’t stay home if you don’t have a home and it has never been clearer that housing is health care and it could save someone’s life,” McPherson stated.

“Supporting the creation of this type of housing is not only the right thing to do, it is most cost effective thing to do. Investing in housing has proven to reduce costs and reduce pressures on often more costly interventions involved in ending homeless,” she pointed out.

Cost savings to hospitals, emergency services, county housing and social services budgets and the emergency shelter system would result from investing in permanent housing solutions for homelessness, she explained.

“Unfortunately funding has been the largest barrier to making these projects possible, which is why it was disappointing to see another round of funding as part of the most recent RFPs not be prioritizing what is the greatest set of needs in our community,” said Hoekstra.

“It was extremely disheartening to know that the affordable housings needs of seniors are being weighed against the needs of some of the most vulnerable in the homeless population.”

Councillor Mary Lloyd also questioned the decision to select the St. Joseph’s project ahead of one aimed directly at homelessness.

“I am concerned that supporting this does turn our backs against the homelessness and making the focus on this build in St. Joseph’s strictly on seniors, even though 65 of the units would be classed as affordable, we are not issuing any kind of proposals that would be for families,” Lloyd stated.

“We are seeing record number of unemployment through this COVID crisis; people are losing their homes … and putting money into this project, which is having a difficult time reaching its approval stage because of the funding, it kind of makes me feel uncomfortable.”

Social services director Eddie Alton said the St. Joseph’s project “is like a continuum of care, so it’s very important to the community.” Alton explained that as seniors move to the new units, “where they are moving from gets freed up.

“So there would be 65 housing units within the community that would open up for people and they’re probably family size people,” Alton added. Noting, “there are other things in the works” to assist the homeless population, Alton said, “If we had enough money we would have supported all four of the projects.”

Councillor Jeff Duncan objected to delegating authority over for potential redistribution of the funds to staff.

“At the committee level I raised concerns about that and was told that it’s an operational matter, or it’s summer holiday time,” said Duncan. “I don’t think it’s an operational matter, we wouldn’t have to be doing delegated authority if it was. And being the summertime I don’t think is an adequate reason.”

Duncan said he would like to see the matters dealt with over the summer in a special social services committee meeting or by having the warden be part of the delegated authority group.

Councillor Earl Campbell disagreed with Duncan’s interpretation of the delegated authority provision.

“The way I read the report is that if St. Joe’s is not successful this will come back to council for the next decision. I think the delegation of signing the thing is really just giving the staff the ability to do what needs to be done over the summer,” said Campbell.

Alton told council the reason for the delegated authority through the summer is “we’d be working with the ministry if that project does not go through … we’d have to probably makes some quick decisions to make sure that money wasn’t lost to the county … so we would bring back another report similar to what’s on this agenda for approval by council.”

Councillor Chris White said, “Staff are in an unenviable position here. It’s absolutely incredible how complex these things are. The needs are great in many, many areas. I have no doubt in my mind that all four of these projects are worthy of funding and we’re almost getting nickeled and dimed in our ability to try to react to these very real needs.”

White added that upper levels of government need to be reminded  that  many worthwhile projects are not getting essential funding.

“As you meet with the ministry, I hope they are aware of the fact that while some projects do get funded there’s a whole pile of worthy projects behind them,” stated White, who called the homeless situation in Guelph “absolutely tragic.”

Council approved the recommendations in the report in a resolution opposed by Duncan and Lloyd.