Plenty to talk about when it comes to affordable housing

The COVID-19 crisis has brought into the spotlight a number of social issues, from income inequality to the availability of health care. Add to that list homelessness and affordable housing.

Which is precisely what the KW Community Foundation is doing June 18 in its online series called the “Do More Good Dialogues.”

Affordable housing is a top-of-mind subject in the region, even in rural areas such as Woolwich and Wellesley.

While there’s been a push for more housing options, in part driven by provincial policies being forced on municipalities, affordability isn’t always part of the equation.

In the townships, there have been a few housing projects aimed at seniors, but, again, affordability hasn’t been the top priority. Two Elmira projects recently in the news, for instance, aim to provide apartment-style options, but pricing isn’t a selling feature of the applicants in either case. One is an apartment building aimed at the rental market, with the emphasis on market rates, and the other a higher-end condominium complex.

Neither addresses the affordability option, except for making an argument that apartments are typically less pricey than renting or buying a single-family home.

Aside from projects by the likes of MennoHomes – the Foundry in Elmira, for instance – or Habitat for Humanity, affordability isn’t a given when expanding the range of options.

Across the country, the cost of renting an apartment is outpacing wage growth, particularly those working at or near the minimum wage.

There isn’t a single neighbourhood in Canada’s biggest cities – the Greater Toronto Area and Metro Vancouver – where a full-time minimum wage worker could afford a modest one- or two-bedroom apartment without spending more than 30 per cent of their earnings, which is Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s income threshold for spending on core housing needs.

One of the most significant drivers of rental wage increases since the 1990s has been the drop in new purpose-built rental construction (apartments) in favour of condominium buildings

The rising cost of buying a home is ultimately reflected in higher rental rates – the issues are linked. Not by any stretch of the imagination could it be said that buying a house in this area is affordable, particularly for first-timers. The crunch gets even larger the closer one gets to the GTA.

Housing prices have been over-inflated largely by easy credit, a situation the federal government has moved on, but prices continue to rise. There has been some movement on creating more affordable house – rent-geared-to-income projects, for instance – but demand far outstrips supply. There’s some indication housing prices may fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant downturn in the economy, but they have yet to materialize.

Ontario’s Ford government has targeted planning and growth restrictions imposed by its predecessor as a culprit in housing shortages. Opening up more land to development and easing restrictions on developers would increase supply and, thus, lower costs over time. It’s a dubious assumption, particularly in the GTA where the influx of newcomers will undoubtedly outpace new construction.

Even leaving aside the environmental concerns and the benefits of axing sweeping policy restrictions imposed on all municipalities, there’s still a real fear that Ford’s moves will favour a handful of supporters at the broader public’s expanse – sprawl, congestion, changed neighbourhoods – and still do nothing to make more housing available, particularly the affordable kind.

There’s a gap between increasing housing prices and stagnating wages at the heart of affordability crisis. Nothing will be resolved until population easing dramatically reduces demands and wages grow to close the gap.

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