STEPPING UP TO ADDRESS GUELPH’S RENTAL HOUSING CRISIS

The following blog post was written by Suzanne Swanton and Jane Londerville, members of the Wellington-Guelph Housing Committee

As we move into the New Year, let’s talk about Guelph and it’s affordable rental-housing situation. In December 2014, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) released its bi-annual Rental Market Report. This report offers some insight into the purpose-built rental market (buildings with three or more units) in local communities.

Note the report’s Guelph Highlights:

  • The apartment vacancy rate in Guelph declined to 1.2% in October 2014 from 1.9% in October 2013 and 1.7% in April 2014.
  • The average rent for two-bedroom apartments common to the survey in 2013 and 2014 increased by 3%.
  • The universe of private rental apartment units was unchanged from a year ago.

Alarm bells! Guelph has had a rental housing problem in the past number of years and it’s getting worse, not better. Rents are going up and approximately only one of every 100 units is vacant. The benchmark for a healthy vacancy rate is considered to be 3%.

An unchanged number of rental units and increasing demand means that the Guelph census metropolitan area has now taken the lead as the tightest rental market in Ontario. Who does this most affect? Inevitably, student rental housing gets talked about in Guelph and although an important issue is not the focus of this article. Other key groups in need of rental housing, who often get overshadowed by university student housing issues are; seniors who are downsizing, households receiving Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Plan, new immigrants renting until home-ownership becomes viable, young adults getting established in the job market and low-income households for whom home-ownership is out of reach.

How do we solve such a complex issue that involves different sectors and all levels of government? Where do we start? Have we started?

There is not a simple fix, but let’s step up and agree, from whatever our vantage point, that we have a significant problem. Tenants, and especially low-income households clearly know this already.

In moving to action, rental housing and modestly priced rental housing need not only be on the political radar but front and centre on our new Council’s collective minds. Leadership from Guelph Council, in policy and resources, could be the necessary catalyst to bring together various stakeholder groups locally to address facets of the issue. What are our affordable housing targets? What concrete ways can we increase the supply of rental housing for various groups and importantly affordable rental housing? This can be done and is being done in communities elsewhere.

Mandated by the Province, the County of Wellington as Service Manager for Guelph and the two towns and five townships comprising the County, created a ten-year housing and homelessness plan last year. This document provides a road map on how to address these important issues, including increasing the supply of rental housing. That being said, our County is not an upper tier municipality setting policy for the City of Guelph; they are separate municipalities. Therefore it is necessary that in co-operation, both take a leadership role on increasing the supply of rental housing for low and modest income households. Not only condos for investors to rent out, but apartments, semis and townhouses for rental purposes. This commitment from Guelph would amplify the work being done by the County and push us forward on addressing this fundamental issue.

What concrete ways can this happen? While primary responsibility for funding affordable housing rests with the federal and provincial governments measures can be taken locally to increase the amount of affordable housing in the area. For instance, municipalities can commit to an annual budget allocation to an affordable housing reserve fund.   That way, when federal-provincial funds become available, the municipal contribution will be available. For example, municipalities can rebate certain fees, and the City of Guelph does this through their affordable housing reserve fund, to cover or reduce development charges and other fees for non-profit housing developers.

Additional strategies included in the recently completed in the 10-year Housing and Homelessness Plan for Guelph Wellington include:

  • adding a component for social housing to the development charge when next reviewed;
  • reviewing zoning bylaws to ensure they are not an impediment to the production of modest more affordable housing
  • offering incentives such as extra density to developers who include affordable rental housing in their developments and,
  • Requiring new large-scale developments to include affordable units.

Strategies and targets, and a commitment to meet them is key to Guelph’s housing policy agenda in 2015.

As the responsibility for affordable rental housing is not solely a local issue, call for a national housing strategy by our local governments in concert with advocacy groups is also critical in 2015.

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