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Our small push for action on homelessness is not as effective as we think it is

This week's Market Squared wonders why we can't seem to develop more housing options, and it's because we're focusing on small moves, and not the big picture.
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It’s the end of the year, which means that we’re taking stock of the events from the last 12 months, and it seems to me that the two biggest recurring themes at city council this year have been climate change and homelessness. Two super easy initiatives that city council can totally solve on their own with no help from the public and no impact on the city’s finances.

That was sarcasm.

At this week’s planning meeting, the topic of affordable housing came up again when councillor Rodrigo Goller, who seems to have appointed himself Guelph’s Minister of Housing, asked staff about whether they pushed a developer to make a number of units among 84 approved townhouses affordable.

“Affordable” is a relative term, which is part of the problem with all these debates and discussions. By the city’s definition, “affordable” is 80 per cent of market value, which is still out of the grasp of so many people even if there was any real incentive to build more affordable units.

A Porsche is cheaper than a space shuttle, but does it matter when you can’t afford to buy a used car from earlier this century.

Incentive is key because there’s absolutely no incentive for private developers to build even modestly affordable units. Typically, something only becomes cheaper on the marketplace if it’s either being phased out for a newer version of the same product, or if supply outweighs demand.

Remember, Guelph’s vacancy rate hovers around zero, so unless homebuilders start moving faster, or people decide they don’t want to move here, it’s going to be a tough sell for Guelph developers that they should make a little less money.

It should also be noted that this is one front on a war with many, many fronts. Yes, there should be an onus on developers to try and make room in the market for all kinds of buyers, but here’s an interesting question: does the City want people with limited means having homes?

On the surface, of course they do, but one of the drivers keeping the annual budget increase down is growth. Increasing the tax base helps absorb the year-over-year tax increase even as Guelph City Hall struggles to keep such increases as low as possible.

But growth doesn’t pay for itself either.

A conversation continues to happen in the background on development issues about how development charges are not recovering all the costs of new roads, streetlights, and other infrastructure that communities need to be viable. Plus, the costs of parks, community centres and other rec facilities have now been separated from DCs into their own unique fund, which makes funds more scarce.

To many in the advocate community, it looks like the city is subsidizing the growth of middle class and upper-class neighbourhoods, while being stymied to do anything even remotely substantive on homelessness in our community.

Still, it’s more complicated than that. Like so many things in the municipal realm there are more barriers to action than just the will, or lack thereof, for government to act.

For instance, who is supposed to be guiding the construction and development of more social housing? Technically, this is the responsibility of the County of Wellington, and because of, let’s say, reasons,* Guelph has not had a lot of say in how the County is working on the housing file.

(*The “reasons” go back to 2010 when then Mayor Karen Farbidge opted to stop sending representatives to a joint city/county committee on social services, which is a much longer story, but it ends with current Mayor Cam Guthrie just recently getting voting rights back on that same committee.)

Presently, the county is doing work on how they can create supportive housing, and that report is scheduled to become public in January. Yes, this is the same work that many on council have spent the better part of the last few months pushing the City of Guelph to do without the available expertise.

Meanwhile, the federal government is working on their own homelessness strategy although right now they’re in a public engagement phase, which means that a plan, and the money to enact it, is still months, if not years, away.

The province? Technically housing is their jurisdiction, or at least it was. The present government could always make more funds available, but it seems part of doctrine in the Doug Ford era that the thing standing between people and homes is regulations and not cost.

None of this though gets to what might be the X-factor in any discussion about homelessness, and as a society we have to answer this question: What’s the point of owning a house, is it to have someplace to live, or is it to have an investment?  

For those that can afford it, a house is both, but for the cold and desperate we ply our privileged standards and demand to know why a shelter bed’s not good enough. We pat ourselves on the back for having the shelter beds to cover the needy, and then we go back to the confusing bureaucratic maze we’ve established that gets us not one step closer to permanent options.

In the new year the question will be asked again, are we adding more affordable housing? The answer will be the same.