The housing summit hosted by Places for People (P4P) in Minden last week was interesting in that, perhaps for the first time since I started working in the County, I saw someone lay out a precise roadmap for how to make affordable housing happen.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a guideline that can be strictly followed in the Highlands.

Lori-Anne Gagne and Graham Cubitt are considered mavericks of Ontario’s affordable housing segment. Through their work individually at non-profits such as Indwell, Flourish and Victoria Park Community Homes, and collectively on the Hamilton is Home Collaborative, they have successfully brought thousands of units online across the GTA. In the past three years, during a pandemic no less, they’ve overseen construction of 3,000 new units.

These are two people who can walk the walk.

That’s why Fay Martin, who organized the April 5 event, brought them in. Of the 100 or so people in the room, half were local politicians and municipal staffers. Others belonged to notable community groups and non-profits. These are the people we need to step up if we’re going to make any headway on this critical issue.

Cubitt broke down ways the collaborative has been successful. They’ve left no stone unturned. When the City of St. Thomas decided their old fire hall was surplus to requirements, Cubitt swooped in and developed a plan to transform it into a 45-unit apartment complex. He said he’s currently working on his fourth church retrofit.

If there was one message Cubitt really drove home, it was the need to think outside the box and be creative – twist while everyone else shakes. There is no silver bullet to fixing this, no easy, cookie-cutter approach we can replicate from elsewhere.

When I asked him what the best first step a community like ours can take to achieving the kind of housing targets laid out in the County’s official plan – 750 new affordable units by 2029 – or in Ontario economist Mike Moffatt’s Baby Needs a New Home report – 1,200 total homes by 2031 – he sounded like a high school teacher. Do your homework and play nicely with others. Instead of operating in silos, we need to come together and work as a team.

Work being the operative word. Enough of the talk.

In the lead up to last fall’s municipal election, every candidate I spoke to said housing was top of mind and if elected they would do anything and everything to address the issue. Six months later, I haven’t seen a single locally sourced idea tabled.

Non-profits like P4P and Kawartha Lakes Haliburton Housing Corporation, for various reasons, have seen proposed builds come to a screeching halt.

One cost-effective way we could bring more housing online quickly, Cubitt noted, is through secondary units. While Bill 23, new provincial legislation passed in November, stipulates municipalities must allow up to three residential units on a single lot, that only applies in communities with town-supplied water and sewer. That leaves out 75 per cent of the County.

Algonquin Highlands has made some headway, recently updating its zoning bylaw to allow up to three units in some areas, which is a good start. Dysart currently allows up to two units, though they must exist within the same building.

I think a consistent, clearly established County-wide policy on this front would help. Incentives should be provided to encourage homeowners to bring more secondary units online.

While forming part of the long-term solution to our housing crisis, it would also ensure some headway is made while we wait on things like the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus’ Seven in Seven initiative to take shape, and for our local leaders to develop tangible plans of their own.