Presentation to Regional Council on Housing and Homelessness (February 11, 2015)

Presentation to Region of Waterloo Budget Hearing [11/2/15]

by Richard Walsh, Alliance Against Poverty [This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.]

 I’m sure, councillors, you would all agree that with the collapse of Out of the Cold programs the need for more social supports for the homeless remains urgent and dire, especially with this endless winter. But, as I emphasized in my presentation last month on behalf of the Alliance Against Poverty, what’s crucial for the residents of Waterloo Region is strengthening the range of housing options for low-income individuals and families as well as for the homeless. But we in the Alliance Against Poverty are struck by the budget line in your Preliminary Budget Book of a 2.4% decrease in the category of "Assisted and Affordable Housing." If you pass your budget with that decrease, you will be doing a great disservice to the literally several thousand people in this region on the waiting list for assisted and affordable housing. Assisted and affordable housing for all the Region’s residents, after all, is a basic human right.

As you know, there are very significant health, mental health, and social consequences of unmet housing needs that drive up other costs. As your “Region of Waterloo Comprehensive Approach to Poverty Reduction” stated: "The financial costs of poverty, both direct and indirect, can impact areas such as health care, policing and corrections, and lost potential. The bottom line - we can’t afford poverty." I can tell you as a published university researcher on the issue of housing for individuals with severe and long-term mental health problems, on a team led by my colleague, Dr. Geoff Nelson, that safe, secure, and affordable housing is strongly correlated with stable and even improved mental health, which, of course, lowers collateral costs.

However, there are major deficiencies in your new plan for affordable housing. For example, the plan simply sets what you term a “realistic” goal based on uncertain funding from senior levels of government. But, as your document states, the reality is there is an “ongoing persistent need for affordable housing with limited funding opportunities.” Yet, the inadequate housing options in this Region are remediable, because there are viable Canadian precedents. Two municipalities – the City of Vancouver (pop. c. 600,000) and Medicine Hat, Alberta (pop. c. 61,000) – ensure that their most vulnerable residents, the homeless, have safe and secure housing. Furthermore, in Halifax, Mayor Mike Savage and his Council formed a partnership with the United Way, the Affordable Housing Coalition of Nova Scotia, and housing developers from the private sector to initiate improvements in housing and homelessness. If these municipalities can do it, so can you on behalf of our most needy residents.

As I noted last month, you have made some progress in dealing with the need for affordable housing across the range of housing options. We recognize that you added 2000 units over 13 years. That’s to your credit. However, while important, this achievement still falls very short of meeting the growing need for safe, secure, and affordable housing. As your Budget document states, “The demand for affordable and supportive housing is greater than supply.” Actually, the demand is far greater than the supply. Accordingly, speaking on behalf of the thousands of the “underhoused” and homeless residents in Waterloo Region, we see three major problems and one minor one in your plan, for which we recommend solutions. 

#1. According to Deb Schlichter, the Region’s Director of Housing, the waiting list for affordable housing consists of 3,000 people, which includes seniors, families, and single non-seniors; the greatest need is for one-bedroom accommodation. If you pass your Budget as proposed with any decrease to housing, you decrease the rate of new units reaching the market. Meanwhile, however, the growing demand for affordable housing will continue to expand as the population of the Region increases. Thus, you will fall even farther behind in meeting housing needs, all during a precarious time of austerity budgets and weak employment. Your operating principle should be the documented housing needs for the Region’s residents across the range of housing types required (emergency shelters, supportive housing, and affordable housing mixed with market-rent units) should determine the funding required, rather than the previous funding levels, which as the need escalates, are increasingly insufficient.

Therefore, we urge you to follow the lead of Vancouver, Medicine Hat, and Halifax and invest in the well-being of your least fortunate citizens by developing a robust housing strategy that does not rely chiefly on the dubious financial support of provincial and federal governments and eliminates the waiting list by the year 2019. Besides, building new housing stock of this sort will have the positive economic side-effect of increased employment and will reduce collateral costs. For example, according to CBC/KW, a recent Region survey showed that in the last half of 2014 over $300,000 were spent on hospital emergency room visits and ambulances for homeless people requiring care. At this rate we’re talking over $600,000 annually spent on emergency trips for homeless people, but most of that cost would be eliminated by building sufficient shelters, because for those people who are housed, as your housing staff know, the number of emergency trips is significantly reduced. So, it’s clear that building permanent housing for everyone requiring affordable housing makes both financial and economic sense.

#2. A major barrier to building affordable housing, again according to a CBC/KW story, is too much government red-tape. The owner of a local development company, who has built 175 affordable housing units in the Region, stated, "When we first started we were building within six months of finding a piece of property. Now it's taking two and three years to get through the planning... it's a long and drawn out process." Some of the obstacles he encountered are the difficulty of finding quality land within the right building zones, being taxed on government grants, and shouldering the costs of re-developing existing properties.

If the Region is not planning to construct the necessary housing but to contract with private developers, which like all public-private partnerships, as the provincial auditor reported several months ago, will cost the public significantly  more than public development would, doesn’t it make sense to lessen or remove these obstacles to smooth the way for investment in affordable housing?

 #3 Instead of simply noting insufficient federal and provincial support, advocate for it by passing a resolution on the need for national and provincial housing strategies for assisted and affordable housing and convey the resolution to the four MPs who represent us in Ottawa. There are federal and provincial budgets coming, sooner or later. Tell the federal and provincial governments to reorganize their budgets to ensure that a national, publicly supported, housing strategy materializes so that everyone can experience safe, secure, and affordable housing. This step is crucial, because local and regional planning is weakened when funding is uncertain.

Now the minor and, hopefully, temporary problem: Besides housing, many people living in poverty, such as but not only homeless people, do not have any safe and secure place to store their possessions. A member of our group, the Alliance Against Poverty, who fits this description, makes the suggestion that the Region provide a bank of lockers for this purpose in central locations, say the bus terminals. Having this service available would be a huge relief for many people living in poverty.

To sum up, affordable, safe, and secure housing across the range of housing types (i.e., emergency shelters, supportive housing, and affordable housing mixed with market-rent units) is a basic human right. However, more and more residents of the Region will be denied this right, because your current plan not only cannot meet the demand but will fall much farther behind relative to the increasing demand. The moral thing to do is increase the funding each year to ensure that all residents can be safely and affordably housed.

Given all the considerations I have noted and the three major and one minor problem tht I identified, I formally request that Council prepare a budge- proposal item investigating the costs of developing affordable, safe, and secure housing, including storage space, across the range of housing types required for all 3,000 people currently on the waiting list and for the projected number of additional people who will require affordable housing to the year 2019.

Thank you very much for your consideration.