A bold, ambitious plan

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There was a lot of excitement inside County council chambers last week after a delegation from the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus (EOWC) tabled what appears to be a solution to the community’s crippling housing crisis.

Peter Emon and Jim Pine were the proverbial knights in shining armour, briefing council on a seven-year EOWC plan to bring 7,000 new affordable rental units to eastern Ontario.

It’s bold and ambitious. And it’s exactly the kind of thing we need to reinvigorate our local housing inventory following years of neglect. The plan calls for 490 rent-geared-to-income units to be built in Haliburton County by 2031.

Given the waitlist for community housing, as KLH Housing Corporation says it is sitting at 438 households, this has the potential to be, as County CAO Mike Rutter put it, a massive game changer. The average wait time for new applicants is estimated at between 10 and 14 years. This project would wipe that out in one fell swoop.

But it’s important that we don’t get too carried away. This is still in its infancy. It’s going to take time to grow to where it needs to be.

If the EOWC receives the necessary buy-in from private developers and both the federal and provincial governments, Pine said construction could begin as early as summer/fall 2024. Right now, that’s a big if.

The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, and neither upper-tier governments have the best track record when it comes to investing in housing. The same can be said for our municipalities, though this project, pegged at $3.1 billion, won’t live or die based on the level of their involvement.

The feds have distanced themselves from the community housing portfolio for over four decades. While there is potential for them to approve investments on a case-by-case basis, as has been done in pockets across the GTA and other urban centres in the eight years since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office, an outlay of this nature in rural Ontario would be a change in direction.

Even if Doug Ford told me straight to my face that he would personally sign off on funding this project, I’m not sure I’d believe him. This is the same government that’s struggling to maintain operational and COVID-related payments to our hospitals, with Haliburton Highlands Health Services in recent months being forced to use their line of credit to cover basic costs. MPP Laurie Scott was scant in her reply, too, when I asked if she would support and lobby for the housing project at Queen’s Park, choosing instead to take the ‘wait and see approach’.
There’s also the small notion of figuring out where these units will be built.

And private developers aren’t going to help fund this out of the kindness of their hearts. There must be a real business plan presented that proves the project’s feasibility and reassures investors they will see a return.

That’s why it’s a real plus that this is coming from the EOWC. Their track record with developing sizable, seemingly impossible projects is good. The much-lauded cell gap project, improving service and connectivity for 99 per cent of rural residents across eastern Ontario, which it helped launch, is well on its way to completion.

This is easily the most important project I’ve seen tabled since my arrival nearly three years ago. As well as the positives for those waiting for community housing, imagine what this will do for people further up the ladder. I’ve lost count of the number of working professionals, nurses, contractors, consultants, I’ve spoken to who are staying in motels, or sleeping on friend’s couches because they can’t find anywhere permanent to live.

Anything to move us away from that reality is a win in my books.

Further updates are expected later this year. Until then, consider reaching out to Scott (laurie.scottco@pc.ola.org) and MP Jamie Schmale (Jamie.schmale@parl.gc.ca) to make your feelings known.