Photo: marc falardeau/flickr
A mailbox decorated with colourful townhouses. Credit: Photo: marc falardeau/flickr / Flickr

Ted Hildebrandt, director of social planning at Community Development Halton (CDH), characterizes affordable housing as the market price for purchase, or rent, that is affordable for a household of low or moderate income, spending no more than 30 per cent of their gross household income on housing without government assistance.

Hildebrandt has crunched the numbers and found that while Halton Region (Halton) is one of the most desirable places to live, it is also unaffordable for many.

The city of Burlington along with the towns of Oakville, Milton and Halton Hills make up Halton. While Burlington and Oakville vie for the best place to live, Milton is the fastest growing ‘city’ in Canada.

Part of the draw is Halton’s proximity to the Niagara Escarpment, Bruce trail, conservation parks, local farms and to Hamilton’s bustling arts community.

According to Statistics Canada’s 2016 numbers, 81 per cent of households in Halton own their homes—or perhaps a more honest statement would be, have a mortgaged home they hope to own one day. Only 19 per cent rent.

According to the Halton Region 2020 State of Housing report, the affordable threshold of new unit sales was $409,500. Only 26 per cent of new unit sales was at or below this price. In fact, the average price of a new home in Halton at that time was $745,341.

The new reality is that over the past year alone, real estate increased an average 32 per cent. The average sale price of a single detached home today has surpassed the $1.3 million mark making the 2020 numbers obsolete.

Average rents during the same time ranged from a low of $1,245 in Halton Hills to a high of $1,694 in Oakville. Milton was $1,345 and Burlington $1,573.  The average annual increase was five per cent.

With a vacancy rate of 2.3 per cent this put the region slightly below a healthy rate of three per cent. However, rental vacancy rates between 2014 and 2020 varied from a low of 0.9 per cent in Milton and to a high of three per cent in Oakville. Burlington and Halton Hills were 2 per cent.

Renters needing to live in the municipalities with the highest rents or the lowest vacancy rates are often forced to look elsewhere. That becomes a major hurdle if renters living in one municipality and working in another don’t have a car because public transit between these cities and towns is abominable.

Presently, there are 4,000 subsidized units in Halton. This is includes a combination of physical units; support from direct rent supplement funding programs; and affordable housing allowances. Unfortunately, far more individuals and families need these supports.

The 2016 Census revealed that 45,690 Halton households (24 per cent) spend 30 per cent or more of their income on shelter. Those households were divided between 20 per cent owners and 45 per cent renters.

What these numbers don’t show is the number of households that are inadequately housed or those who are under housed in unsuitable accommodations like not enough bedrooms.

Angela Chaves is a lawyer and the traditional housing manager at Halton Multicultural Council (HMC). She helps newcomers find housing and these days that is a difficult job.

Immigrants face a whole host of barriers when looking for housing. Language barriers. System barriers to accreditation which means underemployment and lower income. Establishing the credit history needed to be able to rent may take two to three years. A lack of knowledge regarding tenant rights. Cultural and ethnic factors such as multi-generational or large families. Poor public transit—a reality in every Halton municipality—makes getting to work or groceries difficult. Domestic violence which is exacerbated when an abusive spouse withdraws sponsorship. Being a single parent.

Finding employment that pays more than minimum wage, $15 per hour is crucial to being able to find decent housing.

A living wage, as defined by CDH is, “The hourly rate that ensures that a person working full time, full year, earns enough to participate in the normal life of their community.” The living wage for Halton is $20.75 per hour. But it can still be a challenge to make ends meet even when you earn a living wage given the prevalence of permanent part-time employment and precarious hours.

In addition to the barriers faced by immigrants, refugee claimants often face additional hurdles. Refugees are not in Canada by choice, but have come to escape war, hunger, climate disasters or to join their diaspora.

Often arriving with nothing, refugees rely on criminally insufficient Ontario Works (OW) benefits to cover shelter and all necessities. OW pays single recipients $733 per month—$390 of which is allocated for shelter. As of last year, the poverty line for a single person in Ontario is $26,426, yet a single person on OW receives a mere $8,796 annually.

A single parent with one child receives a maximum $642 for shelter and $360 to cover all other expenses. However, that parent would qualify for the Ontario Child Benefit that provides an additional $120 per month for a total monthly income of $1,122 or $13,464 annually.

It can take years to get permanent status because refugee hearings are often delayed. Without permanent status landlords are reluctant to rent to refugees.

With the average studio or one-bedroom apartment in Halton costing $1,500, OW is no where not enough to find shelter. Under housing is a real issue for far too many immigrants and refugees who find themselves living in rooming houses that are unsafe, unhealthy and illegal.

That’s when the assistance of Garth Brown, housing advocate and founder of Egality.ca, proves indispensable. For the past 30 years, Brown has provided safe, appropriate, affordable housing for homeless people and those most in need. He often works along side Chaves to help house recent immigrants and refugees.

Brown relies on the five core pillars of the Social Commons as the foundation for his advocacy work. Taken together, these ideals build solidarity, trust, and community while strengthen democracy, improving well-being and prosperity through sustainable economies that exist in harmony with nature.

Brown’s approach is very community oriented and in tune with the often-difficult financial realities that renters live with every day.

In Oct. 2020, the federal government announced the launch of the Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI) that would invest $1 billion for the creation of 3,000 permanent affordable housing units across Canada. At $333,333 per unit, Brown realized that was not an affordable solution.

In July 2021, Toronto was given $132 million from RHI to build 233 new affordable and supportive homes to help people experiencing homelessness. At $566,524 per unit, Brown saw this was not sustainable.

Then Toronto forgave over $40 billion in soft costs for developers for 1,000 affordable rental homes. That loss of $40,000 per home brought the actual cost of these affordable, supportive units to $600,000 per unit.

Brown gets much better results for just $25,000 to $50,000 per unit and it’s completed in months not years like developer driven units.

Most people don’t know that transiently, or short-lived, homelessness costs tax payers $72,444 per person per year while chronic homelessness costs $134,642 per person according to a 2008 report from Homeless Hub.

2013 was the first year a comprehensive report on homelessness was undertaken. The report determined the annual national cost of homelessness was $7.05 billion. That amount included emergency shelters, community supports, fire, police, emergency medical services (EMS), health care, and the criminal justice system.

Housing the un-housed makes a tangible difference in individual lives. Included on the long list of societal benefits is the fact that it is also a fiscally responsible undertaking.

Compare the average monthly cost of housing someone experiencing homelessness in a hospital bed $10,900; in the prison system $4,333; at a shelter $1,932; to the cost of providing rental supplements $701 or building social housing $200.

In 2011, Brown purchased a townhouse in Oakville that continues to house people with mental health issues supported by an agency. Rent for each resident is $600 per month.

In Burlington, Brown purchased and renovated a bungalow. The three-bedroom main floor unit rented for $1,600 to a new family and the two-bedroom basement rented for $1,300 to a mother with one child.

In each case, renters paid 30 per cent of the rent while the rest was covered by rent subsidies provided by Halton Region. While the share of rent paid by immigrant and refugee households remains capped at 30 per cent of their income, that dollar amount they contribute increases as they gain experience, credentials and find better employment.

According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), 1.7 million people need housing in Canada as of last year. Millions more are inadequately housed or can’t find affordable housing. Over 25,000 Canadians are chronically homeless.

There are 3,241 people on Halton’s wait list for subsidized or rent-geared-to-income housing. The list is basically one-third seniors, one-third singles and one-third couples and families. Typically, it takes several years to get to the top of the list. The pandemic has only made that wait longer. Seniors are now encouraged to apply when they turn 60 in order to have a chance at a unit when they turn 65.

To help ease this backlog, Brown would like see the Halton community step in to fill this housing void by creating a new inventory of affordable, dignified housing dedicated to people on the region’s wait list.

Regional and municipal governments would still play a role in this initiative by providing both financial incentives and supports to homeowners participating in the project. Government would also ensure sufficient wrap around services are provided for individuals and families.

Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) are companies that own, operate or finance income-producing properties. Most REITs are publicly traded like stocks. Yet, the federal government helps underwrite these mortgages. REITs own over 20 per cent of the private rental stock in Canada.

From 2011 to 2016, a total of 320,000 rental units became unaffordable to tenants with incomes under $30,000 annually. Affordable rental units continue to be lost at a rate 15 times faster than new affordable units are being created. REITs and other financial models incentivize taking affordable units off of the market.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) found tax breaks to the seven largest resident REITs from 2010 to the present cost tax payers $1.2 billion.

Brown would like REIT subsidies replaced with a plan to acquire and improve 300,000 units of private rental housing over the next 15 years in conjunction with a mixed social housing program to build 60,000 units per year for the next 15 years.

Brown’s plan includes building 15,000 Housing First and transitional housing units to end homelessness. As well as strengthening rental protections to ensure affordability and reduce evictions.

Regional and municipal governments can also use intensification to re-build affordable housing and adopting inclusionary zoning with a focus on main streets, shopping districts and transportation hubs.

Larger lots should qualify for as-of-right zoning for secondary units. Brown sees this as the easiest and most cost-effective way to solve the affordability and availability crisis.

Both Burlington and Oakville allow for new additions to be attached to the foundation wall of an existing home in order to create a self-contained suite. The homeowner can either rent the suite or move into the suite and rent the existing home. Burlington currently has 20,000 detached homes already zoned for an as-of-right legal secondary suite.

In Brown’s experience, secondary units can be constructed within three to four months at a cost of up to $30,000 per unit. Units built by developers cost upwards of $150,000 to $350,000 per unit and take five to ten years to construct.

Trailblazers like Niagara, Waterloo and Simcoe are a few regions that offer forgivable loans of up to $30,000 per unit to homeowners who want to build units to help with the housing crisis. Halton should tap into the wealth of experience these regions, and local experts like Brown, have to share.

To watch Poverty Free Halton’s webinar, Housing as a Human Right, click here.

Doreen Nicoll

Doreen Nicoll is weary of the perpetual misinformation and skewed facts that continue to concentrate wealth, power and decision making in the hands of a few to the detriment of the many. As a freelance...