Published on: March 20, 2019
Their interests vary, but participants in Belleville’s housing summit agree the two-day city council meeting was fruitful – but they also say council must maintain its momentum.
“I think it was excellent. I think they got a lot accomplished,” said developer Phil Spry, who received praise multiple times as someone who is addressing the housing need. Spry has led or been part of construction of several buildings with affordable units. He said it’s required partnerships with Hastings County and others, including All-Together Affordable Housing Corporation of Belleville.
The corporation’s president, Bob Cottrell, was also enthusiastic in his praise of the summit.
“The key missing part … has been the city – and that player is here, big-time, at the table today and we are deeply grateful for that,” Cottrell said.
“For us to see affordable housing being prioritized is a huge deal,” said Cottrell.
“Today we saw council doing more than lip service. They put some concrete measures in place.
“We’re moving into high speed now from virtually a standstill.”
Other advocates for more affordable housing expressed relief and even joy about being heard by the mayor and councillors.
“We have tried for a long time to get the city to be part of the solution and now they’re taking that on,” said housing coordinator Reta Sheppard of the Hastings Housing Resource Centre.
“I think they came up with some really good ideas, so hopefully they can make them fly,” she said.
She said the city’s plan to encourage construction of new homes by reduce development charges in certain cases “will certainly help” and she’s thrilled to see council’s commitment to supporting Habitat for Humanity and similar groups.
Gina Cockburn represents the housing working group of the Poverty Roundtable Hastings Prince Edward. She, too, spoke of trying to put housing on the city’s agenda.
“We feel successful today and hopeful that this council will take this matter forward,” said Cockburn, a lawyer with Belleville’s Community Advocacy and Legal Centre and also a landlord.
“People are very fearful of losing housing that they have,” she said. At the legal centre, she added, “We try to do everything to keep people in their housing because there is nowhere else to go.
“There are lots of really good landlords there … I just don’t know them in my day job,” Cockburn continued. She noted there are also “great tenants.”
Cockburn said prior to construction of the Shorelines Casino she’d asked council to put one per cent of future casino revenue into an affordable housing fund – and hinted that could still be an option.
Quinte Region Landlords Association president Robert Gentile commended the city for being receptive to secondary suites.
“Overall I’m thrilled and enthused that finally the city and council are recognizing the impact private landlords can have on increasing rental inventory,” Gentile said, adding landlords are eager to be at the table.
The landlord association’s Ken Horricks proposed testing an intensification project with six to 10 properties. Many rental homes are old ones on deep lots, he said, and that’s “probably not the best use of that land.” He suggested studying the cost of demolishing those buildings and replacing them with ones which could house more people. It may be a way of convincing landlords it “makes good business sense” to intensify, Horricks said.
“I think you’ve actually got a really good idea there,” said Mayor Mitch Panciuk.
Intensification ideas also came from executive directors David Morris of Habitat for Humanity and Sandy Watson-Moyles of Three Oaks Foundation.
Both suggested converting surplus buildings, such as schools, and surplus land into housing. Watson-Moyles said tiny homes – occupying only a few hundred square feet – could be placed on those lots.
“We could remove people from the units that they can’t afford, put them in units they can afford, and open up those other units,” she said.
“It’s an immediate doable.”
Belleville and District Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer Jill Raycroft also suggested putting three tiny homes on a lot in a larger development.
Raycroft said a campaign focused on linking young people with older people who have unused bedrooms could help both groups and allow seniors to retain their homes.
Raycroft and city manager Karen Poste both pointed to large employers, namely HEXO Corp. and Costco, which are to open in Belleville.
“We don’t have any place for their employees to live,” Raycroft said.
“It’s not just affordable housing that’s in short supply in this community. It’s housing at every level,” said Poste, who oversees economic development and strategy.
She said a lack of skilled labour is a problem for all types of local businesses – and when workers are found, they may not find housing.
They cannot find people locally with the skill sets that they need.”
That means it’s important for the city to work with Loyalist College,” Poste said.
“Those graduates are needed in this community desperately.”
Addressing housing “will become our competitive advantage,” she said.
Poste said the city’s housing and labour-development policies must be studied together.
Council is warming to the concept of secondary units in homes and to easing restrictions for them.
Quinte Home Builders’ Assoc. president John-Ross Parks asked council to waive all development charges on suites in new homes. Those units would be purpose-built and safe, he said.
In his example, a person who qualified for a $300,000 new home could add $150,000 in buying power by adding a secondary unit to the plan and renting it for $1,000 monthly.
“They can live in that home for a lot longer” while helping the rental supply, he said.
Parks said the city could waive the $12,000 development charge but the resulting increase in property taxes of about $2,400 per year would recoup that in about five years – after which the city would continue to receive the extra revenue.
Charges still useful
The city’s director of engineering and development services, Rod Bovay, said the city collects $1.5 million to $3 million per year from development charges.
He explained that revenue funds not only fix infrastructure.
“Money goes to the development of park land; it goes to the library,” Bovay said, adding it also funds new vehicles and gear for police and firefighters.
Hastings County’s housing services manager, Michelle Ogden, said there has, at times, been only one bidder to build housing for the county, the area’s largest residential landlord.
“Some of it is related to development charges and building permits,” she said.
Businessman and landlord Al Koudsi said the city is “stingy” with building permits and regulations have pressed landlords into other ventures, including short-term rentals.
“You pushed them to create those types of Airbnbs,” Koudsi told council. “The landlords will go somewhere else and they will start making, somehow, some more money.
“Please do not suffocate the market. Let free enterprise do its work,” Koudsi said.
While council pledged to “fast-track” affordable-housing development, director Bovay said there are limits.
“We can’t shorten the timeframe to any great extent under the Planning Act because we have to provide minimum notice periods to the public,” he said in a telephone interview.
Living in tents
Though council spoke of the urgent need to address it, some in the social-service sector first sounded the alarm a few years ago. They see the need daily.
Gloria Bentley of Quinte Health Care’s Hastings and Prince Edward Community Treatment Team said there may be a need for a centralized intake system for vulnerable people.
“They’re telling their stories over and over again,” she said, adding it creates a sense of hopelessness.
“Last summer we had 56 family households that were homeless,” said the county’s Michelle Ogden.
“Some of these families were still living in tents when school started.”
The mayor said the city’s ready to act.
“There comes a time for government to intervene on behalf of the community and that time is now,” said Panciuk. “We have a plan. We have the political will.”
And act they must, said the Hastings Housing Resource Centre’s Reta Sheppard.
“It’s not something they can let drag on and on, arguing over words.”