Thursday, December 7, 2023

The Track Property at Former High School Would be a Good Location For Some Affordable Housing

If you tuned into the live-stream of Monday’s special meeting of council, you likely felt some anxiety while hearing the harsh realities of the affordable housing crisis, not just in this community, but far and wide.

The problem is real, and it is getting worse. With the average resale price of a home in Grey County currently more than $700,000, a household income of more than $200,000 per year is required in order to afford to buy an average home, meaning that current average home prices are affordable to just 10 percent of our population.

In Meaford, the median household income is $79,500, which means that half of our households earn more than that, while half of our households earn less. The average household income in Meaford is $100,600, a long way from the more than $200,000 required to find housing prices affordable.

If you are a renter, the situation is just as scary. Vacancy rates are extremely low at less than two percent, as anyone who has hunted for an apartment recently is very well aware. Worse is that the average rental unit goes for $1,850 plus utilities, which requires a household income of roughly $75,000 to afford it. For those who live alone, or who live on minimum wage, the struggle is real. A minimum wage earner, if they have the luxury of full-time hours, earns $32,000 per year before taxes, and an affordable apartment at that income level would be roughly $800 per month including utilities; it is virtually impossible to find such a rental these days.

For a municipal council, particularly a small town council, the issue has been a growing source of frustration. Housing is not the domain of municipal councils in Ontario, but residents are increasingly turning to municipal councils to find solutions to the problem.

The numbers presented at Monday’s council meeting were perhaps astonishing. Solving the affordable housing crisis isn’t as simple as building some subsidized housing projects. Grey County data suggests that the cost per unit to build affordable housing now exceeds $400,000, so to build a small, 40-unit affordable housing building would cost more than $16 million, not including the cost of land. Forty affordable units would barely put a dent in the number of units actually required.

In just the last three years the County’s waiting list for social housing has doubled to 1,500 households. The cost to build 1,500 rental units for the 1,500 households on the waiting list alone would cost a whopping $600 million, not counting the cost of land.

If these numbers don’t scare you, they should.

So I can appreciate the conundrum in which Meaford’s council finds itself. With limited resources, and a staggering need for affordable homes, the municipality is turning to the county, which does have housing within its purview, for a solution. But we are just one of many knocking on the county’s door.

Several folks have insisted that the municipality purchase the track property behind the former high school in order to maintain the track and green-space. The school board has made the property surplus and last year offered it to the municipality and other government agencies, which is the standard practice. Council explored the potential, but they were floored by the asking price, which is reported to be more than $3 million, and declined to make the purchase.

The school board will soon offer the property publicly, which means that any developer could purchase it and build a development on the property. Council’s motion on Monday is a last gasp effort to try to convince the county to purchase the property for future use as a housing development along with maintaining some green-space. Council’s motion offers to contribute $500,000 to the purchase in partnership with the county. Whether the county bites remains to be seen, but I think it would be wise for the county to seriously consider the proposal, as the property could easily accommodate an affordable housing building, while preserving some of the much valued green-space, which I am well aware does not make the folks very happy who want a running track to remain on the property for decades to come. But running tracks are the little luxuries we have no problem funding in good times, but we are not in good times. We are in a major affordable housing crisis, and unfortunately I would suggest that gaining new affordable housing is more of a concern at the moment than preserving a running track.

Don’t get me wrong, in a perfect world I too would like to see the property owned by the municipality and preserved as green-space and a running track, but we are dealing with some harsh realities at the moment, and an affordable place to live is about as basic a need as I can think of. We must address basic needs before frills, no matter how much we might love any given frill.

Should this municipality succeed in convincing the county to purchase the property, it will still be a long road before we see any affordable housing built on the property, so it would remain as green-space with a running track until the county is ready to build, a process that could take a few years.

As was noted during Monday’s council meeting, there is no silver bullet solution to the affordable housing crisis, whether it be rental units or home ownership, but most of us have been priced out of both markets in this municipality, in this county, and in this province, leaving few places for folks to turn when looking to find that most basic of human needs, an affordable place to live.

 

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