Affordable housing in Niagara: situation critical

Tiny home community. Photo by Alex Ibane/Pexels

Housing crisis in Niagara prompts investigations of affordable housing solutions

Living in Niagara is becoming a luxury that the people who currently live and work here can no longer afford.

Supply and demand is causing rents to a level beyond affordability, there’s a shortage of affordable housing available and people of Niagara are losing hope.

A recent Global News article says that rents are still going to go up even more in Canada in 2019,

People are simply being pushed way past their limits.

A small single bedroom apartment in Niagara averages for $850/month plus bills, two-bedroom apartments around $1,200/month plus bills.

“There is a shortage of affordable and clean rental units,” Lou, a leasing agent with a local property management company said. “The cheapest I have is currently 900 + bills. Even that causes problems for people.”

Deb found herself having to move out of Niagara and make a fresh start someplace else.

“I actually moved to Cornwall, Ontario. I am now settled out here in a great apartment in the country. I pay 575.00 a month out here plus electricity. My total expenses for my apartment are about 800.00 here per month,” she said.  “In Niagara I was paying about 1200.00 for just my apartment. In Niagara I had 4 part-time jobs and could barely make ends meet. I have a college diploma and was barely making 30,000 a year in social work.”

“I went to Ontario Works and Niagara Housing,” she said. “They couldn’t help me because I made too much money and I wasn’t a priority because I don’t have children and I’m not a senior.

One problem is that people who are desperate to find a place to live are now living in substandard housing, Jonathan lives in a two-bedroom apartment in St. Catharines with his girlfriend. They pay $1,000 a month.

“I am in a 2-bedroom basement apartment where I am paying $1000.00 plus Hydro. The place has green mould growing around the baseboards,” he says.

While they do clean the mould themselves, a constant humidity problem means they are constantly having to clean up the mould. Frequent calls to the property management company have not provided a solution.

“Secondly it is now winter and we emailed them that it is freezing in our apartment and that we wondered where the heat controls were. They said they were in the vacant unit above us and that they sent someone to check on the thermostat. The person that came told them the temperature was fine but never stepped foot in our apartment,” he said. “We’ve bought 3 space heaters we are running and paying hydro on to be able to have a comfortable winter stay in this apartment.”

There are other problems as well.

Tenants will usually not complain to the proper authorities as the landlords will evict them for complaining, which leads to having to try and find a place to live when there are no solutions.

Home ownership for many people is out of reach. Home prices around Niagara are well over $200k+, many of the new homes being built starting at $400k+.

“I feel like I’ll never be able to afford a decent house. The price range I find myself looking in is all trash, and even those would put me in a level of debt that I don’t think I could afford,” said Laura Barton of Welland. “At most, we’d need a two bedroom. They’re either grossly overpriced or look like they wouldn’t be livable because they’d need a ton of work.”

Currently Niagara Regional Housing has 5,400 households waiting for Rent-Geared-To-Income housing in Niagara noted on pg. 10 of their latest Quarterly Report.

“There is an enormous need in Niagara (for affordable housing),” Niagara Regional Housing Community Resource Unit Manager Wendy Thompson said.

In a recent report from Jeffrey Sinclair shared with the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network, Homelessness Action Plan Advisor for Niagara Region talked about the home/rental market in Niagara said: “Only 5% of new homes were under $300,000.  Current market is far beyond the means of most who live and work in Niagara.”

He also noted that the average rents for apartment units across Niagara raised by about 5% from Oct. 2017 to Oct. 2018.

Evidence is there from many resources that say that housing is too expensive in Niagara and that the rental market is getting too expensive for people to live.

Recent articles in local newspapers have said that there is no hope for the people of Niagara, no relief in sight.

St. Catharines is in the construction phase on an affordable housing apartment complex on Carlton St. to help alleviate the problem, .

But, a trip to Social Media points towards other solutions that people are starting to look at more seriously.

Niagara Tiny Home Community is on Facebook, , they say that they are a local group of residents working with St. Catharines to create a Tiny Home Community there.

Many people across Niagara have taken notice of the page and are really interested in being able to purchase or rent these Tiny Homes.

In Port Colborne, Councillor Angie Desmarais is introducing a motion that will allow City staff to begin the process of investigating how affordable housing can be brought to Port Colborne, a plan that would see the introduction of Tiny Homes into the community.

“For the past couple of years, the need for more affordable housing has become increasingly urgent,” Desmarais said. “Port Colborne’s Social Determinants of Health Committee members have had many discussions about what can be done to better serve the local population.”

“The city’s planning department has made some changes which allow for more creative use of residential building lots, but so much more is needed,” she said. “We need to get serious about the current and growing housing crisis…rents are escalating at an alarming rate, it is no longer realistic to think that the average home buyer will ever be able to pay out a mortgage. Things are out of control and we cannot hang our hopes on other levels of government to fix it for us.”

“A comprehensive housing strategy will provide a toolbox full of options to design, build or rehabilitate new or existing housing,” she said. “Tomorrow can be better if we think outside of the box…think…tiny homes, shared accommodations, modular homes, creative use of existing spaces, incentive programs, engineered products…the list goes on. The answers are out there…let’s not get stalled by the current systems.”

Niagara Regional Councillor for Welland Leanna Villella is also investigating the Tiny Home solution for the current crisis.

She is currently investigating a solution based on the Cass Community Tiny Home model in Detroit. .

“This is a solution that would be good for so many different people,” Villella said. “This would be good for all different types people:  people who are just starting out after finishing school, people rebuilding their lives after losing everything, seniors on limited incomes.”

Villella is also a member of the board for Niagara Regional Housing.

“If we can get this across Niagara, we can help a lot of people out,” she said.

She wants to begin a pilot project in Welland and then see the program spread through Niagara. To make the programs work, she is looking at forming partnerships with local businesses and organizations.

“There are lots of people willing to help,” she said.

In February she will be travelling to Detroit to see how the community operates. She is also looking to see what sort of bylaws at the Region may have to be examined to facilitate projects like these.

“There are a couple of ways to lift people out of poverty,” she said.

“Our idea is to help people out of poverty by helping them gain assets,” she said. “If you build affordable housing for people, it will help lift them out of poverty.”

“This is a rent-then-own program that we are looking at running,” she said.

The program she is investigating will have all aspects covered, education, financing, everything the community member would need to know.

The community she proposes would have several levels available for people in different financial situations.

The program will not take a homeless person directly off the street into the project.

“First off, people wouldn’t be just coming straight off the streets into this program,” she said. “People would be screened and educated through community partners before entering into the housing aspect of the program. Other people would be working people in need of housing.”

She proposes a few different levels of homes in the community.

“Some would be for small families, others for single people, seniors,” she said.  “Everyone should have this opportunity.”

When you look at the Tiny Home companies, there are several different designs, from one bedroom to small two-and three-bedroom designs.

Besides a home for people to live in, the Tiny Homes can also help to reduce the carbon footprint left by people.

Many of the home designs can have their electricity supplied by alternate energy sources which will help the owners bring down their costs of living.

“Hope is on it’s way,” Villella said.

Desmarais is presenting her notice of motion at the January 14/2019 meeting of Port Colborne Council, Villella is going to travel to Detroit in February to examine the project there.

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