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Jan. 19, 2021 | Tuesday
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Affordable housing project won't help 'vulnerable' tenants, advocates say
The only affordable housing building in NOTL is on Davy Street. It has a waitlist of 268 applicants. (Dariya Baiguzhiyeva/Niagara Now)

A NOTL developer’s proposal to build two rental accommodation buildings in Virgil would not help the “most vulnerable” people who are spending more than 30 per cent of their income on rent and can’t afford to move somewhere cheaper, says a Niagara housing advocate.

Jeffrey Sinclair, homelessness action plan adviser for the Region of Niagara, said rental units at $1,200 a month would not be considered affordable for core housing needs or the “most vulnerable” households.

Statistics Canada says a household in core housing need is one whose dwelling is considered unsuitable, inadequate or unaffordable and whose income levels are such that they could not afford alternative suitable and adequate housing in their community.

NOTL developer Rainer Hummel, owner of Hummel Properties Inc., unveiled plans at a town council meeting on May 13 to build two five- or six-storey buildings in Virgil.

Each building would have 40 units and 20 per cent of them – or 16 units out of 80 – would be considered affordable, said Hummel. Those 16 units would have an average rent of $1,260 while the rental cost for the rest of the units would be about $1,400.

The development’s target group likely wouldn’t be people in need of core housing, but rather those looking for a more affordable rental option in NOTL, said Sinclair. “$1,200 a month doesn’t go deep enough to address the most at-need households,” he said.

The head of Niagara Regional Housing agreed the proposed new buildings would not help those who desperately have a core housing need.

“Two-thirds of the renters right now in Niagara-on-the-Lake are paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent and they’re paying more than $1,200 a month,” said Donna Woiceshyn, CEO of Niagara Regional Housing.

“So for Niagara-on-the-Lake and for the prices of the rent that people are paying there, yes, it is affordable.” 

Woiceshyn also said renters in the Virgil project would not qualify for rent aid from the region.

“We can’t even touch those rents with subsidies because they’re much higher than what we’re allowed to pay in subsidies under our program,” Woiceshyn said in a phone interview.

Under the regional agency’s program, to be eligible for a subsidy, a one-bedroom unit in NOTL would have to cost no more than $922 a month and two-bedroom units no more than $1,052 a month.

Out of 16 acres of the property, Hummel said 3.5 acres would be for the rental buildings. Lord Mayor Betty Disero said she is interested in seeing what the developer plans to do with the remaining land, which is zoned as an enterprise area.

Disero expressed two concerns with Hummel’s proposal, saying the developer asked for “quite a lot” from the town in the form of tax breaks and reduced development charges. Hummel wants the project to be exempt from property taxes in the first four years and be fully taxed by year 10. He also wants concessions on development charges, all municipal fees and park dedication fees.

“One is that he’s asked for quite a bit of assistance,” said Disero. “And second of all, they’re employment lands. I’d like to see where we would replace those employment lands because employment lands in Niagara-on-the-Lake are a very important issue as well,” she said.

In an interview with The Lake Report on Tuesday, Hummel confirmed the rest of the land is zoned for business. 

Employment lands are considered to be any properties designed for business or economic activities, such as manufacturing and warehousing, according to the Niagara Region website.

In 2016, the average total household income for 882 renter households in Niagara-on-the-Lake was $85,367, according to the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis. The data, provided by the research organization, became available in April and was shared with planners from all 12 local area municipalities.

The Niagara Regional Housing has one affordable housing building in NOTL, on Davy Street. With 40 units, it is fully occupied. There are currently 268 applications on the waitlist and 33 of them are from Niagara-on-the-Lake residents.

Disero acknowledges NOTL’s need for cheaper housing and said she would love to see more affordable housing for young families.

“If we’re looking at areas where the land costs are slightly cheaper, that would probably be further out from settlement areas, like Glendale,” she said.

“Do we look at the possibility of some additional density? Do we look at how we can assist with some development charges or taxes? But I don’t want to do that if it’s going to be a big burden on the rest of the taxpayers,” Disero told The Lake Report.

Hummel’s company received a number of emails and inquiries about the project, and the feedback has been mostly “positive,” the developer said.

The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake has also followed up and Hummel is going to meet with the director of planning and the chief administrative officer Wednesday to discuss the project, he said.

Hummel said NOTL regional councillor Gary Zalepa and a senior manager for Niagara Region contacted him saying the region would support his project.

“But (the region) would let the town take a lead on the entire initiative,” he said in a phone interview. The developer will also be meeting with the mayor and planning director for the Town of Pelham, where Hummel also wants to build some rental accommodation buildings.

If the NOTL project isn’t approved, “we just sit for the time being,” said Hummel, adding his company is also waiting for the province to table legislation which, if passed, would ease restrictions on development.

“We suspect that legislation would be favourable to allow infill development. And, if that is the case, then we would simply proceed with the development going forward on the entire site,” said Hummel explaining he could start the development on 3.5 acres right away but wants to wait for the legislation to pass to be able to use the remaining 12.5 acres for business purposes.

“We would prefer to look at everything comprehensively or globally because you tend to do it in a much more sensible and proactive way versus just piecing it together,” he said.