Regional council contemplates building 1,000 housing units

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Bloor Park Village in Oshawa. Regional staff has recommended Durham build 1,000 new affordable housing units over the next five years. However, a motion by Ward 5 city councillor Brian Nicholson to formally commit to the goal failed at committee of the whole. (Image courtesy of Durham Region.)

By Chris Jones/The Oshawa Express

Affordable housing is on the minds of regional council as staff are looking at how to bring in 1,000 new affordable hosing units over five years.

At the most recent committee of the whole meeting, council was presented with a five year review of the region’s 10 year housing plan, At Home in Durham, Durham’s Housing Plan 2014-2024.

Commissioner of social services Stella Danos-Papaconstantinou and director of housing services Alan Robins told councillors they hope to boost the region’s public housing supply.

“We’ve heard loud and clear that residents want action,” said Robins, who also noted many renters currently face affordability issues in Durham.

Oshawa Mayor Dan Carter quickly wondered if the process of purchasing properties had already begun, and whether the region has the capacity and the support for the goal to be achieved.

He also questioned whether the provincial and federal governments would be willing to lend their support.

Danos-Papaconstantinou said the region would definitely need help from senior levels government, but has to make the first move.

“But if we do not commit to a goal as the region, then we won’t be able to achieve this,” said Danos-Papaconstantinou.

Carter said based on the region’s history of addressing housing issues,  he doesn’t want to raise the hopes of people on the waitlist for an affordable unit.

He wondered if there is are other municipalities in Ontario building units that Durham could look towards for best practices.

Danos-Papaconstantinou told him they are working with municipal partners.

But, Oshawa’s Ward 5 city and regional councillor Brian Nicholson noted the report given to committee didn’t provide tangible evidence on how Durham is addressing housing.

It was explained to him the region has helped 2,500 people through several programs, but Nicholson wasn’t having it, noting homelessness in the region has gone up, not down over the last few years.

“We have these lofty goals, but we don’t really seem to have a plan to really address it,” said Nicholson.

CAO Elaine Baxter-Trahair pointed out the region isn’t committing to 1,000 units all by itself, as many partners would also contribute.

Nicholson questioned what the cost of such a project would be, but Baxter-Trahair was unable to give an answer.

However, Carter later provided an estimate of $250 million.

Nicholson wondered if potential partners don’t come through and the region was left to hang out to dry, if it would still be able to meet this goal.

The veteran councillor called for the region to aggressively press all levels of government for funding, but Baxter-Trahair said this is already happening.

Ward 2 city and regional councillor Tito-Dante Marimpietri asked if the region could entice developers by showing them how it could benefit their company.

Danos-Papaconstantinou told him it’s something the region is looking into.

“We need to get creative… they do need to make money, and there are many out there… who want to contribute to the success of our community,” she said.

Marimpietri also wondered if the region is starting at “ground zero” on the project.

Robins said this is essentially the case because the province has yet to commit any funding.

Nicholson brought forth an amendment asking regional council to formally commit to the construction of 1,000 affordable housing units over the next five years.

“The reason I’m suggesting this change is, while I appreciate that staff can only recommend goals for this council to consider, I think it’s time that this council made its position absolutely clear,” stated Nicholson, calling it the least the region can do at this point.

While he feels it is best to work with partners, Nicholson said he wants the region to make the commitment first.

Nicholson he’d rather see 5,000 units of affordable units built, but the region needs to take it one step at a time.

“Hopefully in time, we will increase that number,” said Nicholson.

Pickering Mayor Dave Ryan and Ajax Mayor Shaun Collier both stated they could not support the amendment unless staff came back with an actual plan on how the region would built the units.

“It’s a commitment without a solution. How are you going to do it?” asked Ryan.

He believes a more appropriate motion of direction would be to ask staff to accept the council’s commitment to the report, and to come back with suggestions on how to build 1,000 units.

“But to just sit here this morning and say we’re committing to 1,000 [units of affordable housing], it’s great. We’ll get a fantastic headline out of it, but tell me how you’re going to do it.”

Marimpietri was quick to defend Nicholson’s motion, which he seconded.

“I seconded the motion because I think the spirit of the motion speaks to what Mayor Ryan actually indicated should be our modus operandi, and I tend to agree with his comments in the sense that we shouldn’t be going this alone, but we do have to commit,” he explained.

Ward 3 city and regional councillor Bob Chapman pointed out there are many potential partners, Nicholson’s motion would simply be making a statement.

“That in the next five years the region is committed to increasing the supply of affordable rental housing by 1,000 units, because that does not necessarily mean building it,” he explained.

He noted changes to the rental market could create potential partnerships.

“If the vacancy rate gets a lot higher, there’s going to be landlords that are going to be willing to enter into agreements with us that aren’t in there now [because] they’re getting [rent] higher than the market value perhaps for a vacant unit because it’s so hard to find some place to live,” said Chapman.

He also pointed out the region will be able to change its plans if when more information comes available.

Carter noted even if the amendment were not to go through, he would be disappointed.

“There’s so much more that is going on, but I will be bitterly disappointed if we fall short, and I just want to make sure that everybody understands that,” he said.

Nicholson said he appreciated all the comments from councillors, but the way to avoid disappointment is simple in his mind, and that is to deliver the 1,000 units.

After more debate from the committee, the amendment was defeated.

But, Marimpietri still believes everyone there was on the same page, but action will needed eventually.

“What I do want to caution regional council is that I think I’ve been a part of this discussion a few other times, and echoing the comments of councillor Nicholson, Mayor Ryan, Mayor Carter, and others, I don’t think we want to be having this conversation in 2024, and talking about how we need to do something different in order to arrive at the 1,000 units that we may not have hit the target by,” he said.

Eventually committee voted to receive staff’s recommendation for information, with the hope they will report back to council with a way to bring in the new units.

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