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Monday, September 26, 2022
Op-ed: How the Town of NOTL could act to boost affordable housing

John Sayers

Special to The Lake Report

A few weeks ago, I wrote a plea – and suggested a solution – for local housing to help the homeless refugees fleeing the Ukraine.

It was ironic that the article collided with other news in The Lake Report about comparable problems even much closer to home – specifically, right here in NOTL. There are Canadians on our doorstep desperate for affordable accommodation to be able to remain living here in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The shortage of affordable housing is no secret. Just ask the service staff in any of our local businesses why they don’t live closer to their jobs and they will tell you that they can’t afford to live here.

But it seems that even people who once could afford the local rents are also being squeezed out. What’s the secret?

Part of the secret is the casual attitude that the town takes toward developers. If you were a developer and you looked at Toronto, where you would be expected to pay toward creating and maintaining parks, you might think twice.

And when Toronto also required you as developer to provide a percentage of your development for affordable housing you might immediately turn your attention to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Yes, come to developer-friendly Niagara-on-the-Lake, where you take no social responsibility and can focus all your attention on making big bucks from big projects.

And this retired chartered accountant can tell you why it has always been this way and likely will remain so. Depressing thought? Read on.

The City of Toronto has a substantial inventory of city-run housing, built over many years. It’s expensive to own and maintain.

Residents of affordable housing (sometimes called social housing) units can’t afford to pay for the increasing costs of maintenance and repairs, fuel, security, management and all the other elements of subsidizing housing costs.

That’s why they have refuge there. It’s a nightmare for those who are struggling to stay alive financially. I’m sure it’s a stressful and emotionally draining experience. In Toronto, government has stepped in. In NOTL, we need to act.

But with whose money? I have a suggestion.

How about the developers who should be compelled to contribute to the housing of our financially stressed?

For example, we have a massive new winery and entertainment complex coming to town.

According to The Lake Report, it’s costing $40 million. Most of that isn’t for grapes. And the service staff in the restaurant, the wine shop, and other amenities can’t afford to live here.

So maybe the town should levy a fee of, say, 2 per cent on the project – to go specifically toward affordable housing.

That’s $800,000 – a darned good start to a town affordable housing fund. And when you add an affordable housing levy to all the other new projects in town, NOTL might be faced with the resources to actually do something.

What a pain, some would say. All those poor people cluttering up our streets when they should just come and work here and then go away – somewhere.

Who else makes serious money out of our housing affordability crisis? Well, there’s the real estate sales community.

A six per cent commission on a (lower-end in NOTL) million-dollar property takes $60,000 out of the pockets of the homeowner who has priced his or her property high enough to cover that cost. So perhaps those real estate agents should have to chip in a percentage of their commissions to the affordability fund.

These levies won’t bring down the price of existing properties – the supply/demand relationship, inflation and growing populations will continue to push prices higher. So, we need to create new, affordable housing stock for those who will never be able to climb the “property ladder.”

Even if attitudes changed dramatically and developers were required to front-end many of the costs, let’s be realistic and accept that our town would likely be on the hook for ongoing costs from subsidizing affordable housing operations.

That means an indeterminable amount of a tax increase each year. And that’s never popular with voters in any municipality, no matter how charitable they may feel.

So, we will likely carry on as we have done all the years up to this point. Forget housing refugees. Forget housing needy Canadians.

They say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, so we can assume that NOTL is not going to metaphorically sit up and bark after more than two centuries. Too bad.