Speakers pitch low-cost housing ideas

Symposium brings together several stakeholder groups

 

Thousands of, basic, no-frill homes constructed by non-profit developers on donated land without any government financial support and owned by their residents, could be a viable solution to the lack of affordable housing in York Region.

With a multi-year wait list for low-cost shelter in the region, it’s time to turn talk into action and deliver creative resolutions, presenters at the York Region Housing Symposium said Thursday at the Richmond Hill Centre For The Performing Arts.

Hosted by the region’s human services planning board, whose membership includes representatives from York’s hospitals, school boards, government, social services and police department, the forum left board co-chairperson and Newmarket Regional Councillor John Taylor enthused.

“There was good discussion and energy. People are excited about the innovative solutions to affordable housing,” he said of the pool of experts from academia, private and non-profit enterprise and municipal government. “We pushed the boundaries and opened doors to opportunity. Everyone showed great interest in the art of possibility.”

Highlights of the session included a look at the ingenuity of affordable housing across Canada.

Options For Homes president Michel Labbe has been involved in the production of affordable housing for more than three decades, the first 13 years with Lantana Non-profit Housing Corporation. Speaking about the 3,700 low cost homes he’s built in Canada, he provided an overview of a model that can provide mixed income housing to thousands of people without permanent government subsidies.

Avi Friedman, a housing consultant and co-founder of the affordable homes program at the McGill School of Architecture, where he teaches, detailed how the construction of elementary, unadorned homes can apply to any forward-thinking community.

“Don’t expect granite counter tops,” he quipped to the standing-room-only audience, emphasizing the austerity of the shelters.

The houses, starting at a modest 500 square feet, would provide essential, all-season comfort for residents who normally couldn’t rent, let alone own, a home, he said. While sizes, models and community configurations could differ, the construction costs would be significantly less than new residential homes with luxury options.

Built on land donated for the purpose, with development charges, building costs and commissions waived, the homeowners would be allowed to defer home-ownership levies for 10 years.

Similar communities have been created and proven workable in Ottawa, St. James Town in Toronto and various other Canadian municipalities.

Location of the low-cost units could be in stand alone areas or part of mixed development communities.

People wouldn’t be upset to have affordable housing near their neighbourhoods, Mr. Taylor said, as the affordable housing residents would also be owners.

The region would need to look at the concept from the standpoint of land availability and with respect to existing taxpayers, he said.

“The people who move in will eventually be new taxpayers,” Mr. Taylor said. “It’s the real deal. We’d take people who normally couldn’t afford a home into home ownership. All this would lead to better health circumstances.”

Poverty Action for Change Coalition chairperson Tom Pearson, a longtime advocate and voice for the region’s marginalized citizens, applauded the initiative, claiming he originally championed the low cost housing hypothesis and offered it to the region in 2010.

“They kind of took my idea and kept me out of the loop,” Mr. Pearson said with a chuckle.

Newmarket-Aurora MP Lois Brown shared a similar affordable housing model with him years ago, Mr. Pearson said.

He ran with the idea and researched viable locations, including the Glenway redevelopment and properties near Upper Canada Mall in Newmarket.

“As I understand it, the region’s plan is to set aside 25 per cent of new development for affordable housing,” he said. “The region would qualify and guarantee residents who could afford ownership. Getting land was the only obstacle, I was told.”

Buoyed by the innovation, he approached Mr. Labbe’s Options For Homes organization for details and learned it was arranging mortgages at $583 per month for people who would not normally qualify.

Mr. Pearson said he first raised the idea with the Town of Newmarket and included it on the York Region social audit agenda.

“They all said they’d look in to it, but no one responded” he said.

Pride of concept ownership aside, Mr. Pearson said he was “a little upset about not being invited” to the symposium as a coalition representative.

“Still, I like the idea,” he said. “It gives people the hope of owning their own home, gives them a sense of pride and pushes them to do better.”

It all needs to come to fruition sooner rather than later, Mr. Pearson said, citing affordable housing wait lists that have families and senior citizens in a seven-year queue, while individuals will languish up to 18 years.

The concepts tabled at the symposium need to be discussed and refined, Mr. Taylor said.

“We have to determine how to make something happen,” he said, adding he’d like to see a model soon and have 50 to 100 units built by 2014.