When ripples become whirlpools

Every four years, give or take, a trip is made to Wellington County headquarters to welcome new councillors. It’s a hangover from a previous time in my life, but it’s great to renew friendships that are still strong years later and meet people intent on serving their community.

Along with going-away speeches and a special tribute for Lynda White and her decades of service, councillors spoke of the term ahead. Two words that day rang out like a clarion: affordable housing.

It has been a significant amount of time since concerns about housing had the airing they did that day. Numerous speakers, from councillor David Anderson, who chairs the social services committee, to councillors Shawn Watters, George Bridge, Allan Alls and Andy Lennox, took runs at the ongoing issue.

Housing has been a significant unaddressed issue for at least 25 years. That it got air time from so many councillors in November suggests momentum is gaining to actually see something of consequence happen.

The County of Wellington has been an active agent for building units since 2004, but it can be easily argued that not enough has happened in recent years to address this staggering problem.

Sure, a report entitled “A place to Call Home” was commissioned and now sits in the hands of councillors. Without appearing trite, its authors earned their keep and advocates (including councillors) have some talking points, but failed yet again are the families desperate for accommodation today.

Watters laid bare the concerns of most parents and caregivers of the aged. Prices have escalated to a point that affordability has been denied to many hard working families that don’t have great paying jobs or retirees with little means.

Specifically, Watters mentioned service sector workers, which would include hospitality workers. Since many of those people work odd hours and tend to have a busy lifestyle, smaller, cheaper accommodations make the most sense. Consider a cool second or third storey loft for younger tenants. Options are limited, due to zoning bylaws and accessibility rules that make it difficult for landlords to conform. Now that communities like Centre Wellington have hung their hopes on tourism, housing for employees is paramount.

That’s where words from Lennox, from Wellington North, greatly resonated. He suggested affordable housing is a problem of definition and perhaps figuring out what is needed is the starting point to addressing the issue.

As often happens in marketing, buzzwords and phrases are used to sell things. Affordable housing, by market definition, might mean the low end of the market. Let’s face it, when buying a home, affordable is a far sweeter adjective than cheap. In many ways the term “affordable” has overshadowed traditional needs like rent geared to income or subsidized options.

For the working poor however, even the cheapest home on the open market is still out of reach. It was noted in the report that half of renter households in 2017 could not afford the average market rent of $1,054, which requires an annual income of at least $46,000.

Housing problems aren’t isolated to just Guelph and Wellington. They are happening across the province. The trend of migration to cities and the high-priced Toronto housing market is much like a stone dropped into still waters. From the point of entry, the ripples start and extend their reach, affecting everything in their path.

Regrettably, ripples of growth at some point can turn into a whirlpool. The less buoyant can’t seem to keep up and eventually succumb to pressures far beyond their control. Before reaching that point of despair, it is our sincere hope that a made-in-Wellington common sense solution can create options for renters.

For the lofts mentioned earlier for young people, most zoning bylaws require parking, though numerous people in this demographic don’t drive or opt to ride-share.

Subdivisions (where out-of-town developers set up shop only to vacate immediately upon completion, never to be seen again) should perhaps have to provide a hefty percentage of multi-residential land, along with parkland and greenspace.

Perhaps rules that govern tri-plexes and four-plexes should be less restrictive, opening up the option of small units that are cheap to rent and maintain.

Seniors on the cusp of needing care at a facility have few options really. Those without means have fewer options yet. Would it not be wise to enable developers of such facilities far greater latitude than currently found today? An additional tower at Wellington Terrace is also in order – now.

Housing options for all demographics could well be this new council’s greatest challenge. Early indications suggest they are going to take it on.

That’s good news and something we welcome at long last.