Home truths, Part 3: Is it too late to solve Kenora’s housing crisis? 

The city has a housing shortfall of about 600 units, but new housing isn’t being built. Council is trying to encourage affordable development — but critics say it’s not enough
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Aug 07, 2019
Kenora, Ontario
Kenora has a housing shortfall of about 600 units, or 10 per cent of the existing housing stock. (iStock.com/Backman)

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This is Part 3 of a five-part TVO.org series looking at how Ontario’s affordable-housing crisis is playing out beyond the GTA. Click here for Part 2; watch for Part 4 on Thursday.

Nan Normand, a community legal worker supporting low-income residents, knows one thing for certain: Kenora has a housing problem. She sees it every day at work, where low-income residents are often one rent cheque or heating bill away from homelessness.

“We don’t have a lot of apartments and low-cost housing in the area,” says Normand, who notes that the existing housing stock is in poor repair. Electricity prices can be a problem, too, she says: “Part of being in the north is that energy costs are incredibly high. I’ve also seen evictions based on not paying utility bills.”

The numbers paint a clear picture: Kenora has a housing shortfall of about 600 units, or 10 per cent of the existing housing stock; home prices are outpacing average incomes; new housing isn’t being built (84 per cent of the city’s stock was constructed before 1990, and old homes are typically more expensive to maintain); and the region has among the highest poverty and child poverty rates in Ontario.

In July, a press release from the city that announced a restructuring of the Kenora Non Profit Housing Board declared the situation “effectively a housing crisis.”

Kenora is a small city, with a population of about 15,000, but it’s also a key service centre, drawing in many impoverished and homeless people from throughout the region and its surrounding First Nations. “There are lots of people requiring services, who then require housing, and the result is a crunch across the community,” says Normand.

Housing dominated last October’s municipal election. Mayor Dan Reynard spent much of the campaign promising to address the housing shortfall. He proposed the development of an assisted-living complex and more housing opportunities for young families and newcomers.

Normand, though, worries it’s too late. “I think we just missed the boat when the issues first started building, and now we’re playing catch-up. We thought there was an ebb and flow of people coming into the community, but, really, it’s just been a flow. We didn’t realize there was no ebb coming.”

“You have a large population of poor people in an area with few housing options to begin with,” says Normand.

The result is a persistent homelessness problem that has reached a crisis point in recent months. In March, Kenora opened a brand-new, $1.1 million facility — its third attempt at a homeless shelter in just four years. The centre, though, is now closing for review; at a July 31 town hall meeting, MPP Greg Rickford declared, “We want our city back, and we don’t feel like we have control over it, and we don’t feel like some of the services that are being offered are living up to their mark.”

The effects of the housing shortage aren’t limited to low-income workers and the homeless. “When we’re hiring at the legal clinic, and someone is interested, the first thing we’re looking for is housing for them,” Normand says. “No housing? Then we can’t keep them. It’s that simple.”

And that problem may soon get worse. The region is set to open a new hospital within 10 years, and the local government hopes that that will bring more professionals into the city. A new casino is also being discussed. But local leaders are concerned that, if there isn’t sufficient housing, workers will take their labour elsewhere. “These things could mean even more people,” says Reynard. “We need to address this housing shortage now.”

Local politicians are taking steps to address the issue. This week, Kenora council discussed its application to be named a “designated community” as part of the federal government’s Reaching Home initiative. The program provides direct funding to successful applicant communities to develop solutions to homelessness. Kenora has until September 20 to submit its proposal. Of the 16 communities on the shortlist, including nine others in Ontario, between four and six will be chosen.

Council is also hoping that a bylaw passed in July will encourage more affordable-housing development. The Municipal Capital Facilities Bylaw allows the municipality to offer incentives — in the form of grants and tax exemptions, for example — to developers.

“Some of the current grant programs that are available, the feedback has been that it’s not enough,” says Adam Smith, Kenora’s manager of development services. “It’s about finding a tipping point that will bring an affordable-housing project to fruition. Otherwise, the market aspects just don’t work.”

Like any municipality, though, Kenora must weigh the benefits of new housing with the drawbacks of lost tax revenue. “Municipalities have tools,” says housing-policy expert Ken Foulds. “But they’re also trying to balance the books. That’s the big challenge, especially as you get into smaller jurisdictions.” Foulds says that incentive programs such as Kenora’s are appealing but that municipalities need to exercise caution when implementing them.

The concern, according to Foulds, a former manager of housing programs for the City of Ottawa who now works with municipalities across the province, is that, while developers may appreciate grants and tax breaks, the city relies on tax revenue to fund services. “The municipal tax base is being asked to do an awful lot of things these days,” Foulds says. “Especially with regards to social housing.” When the province transferred responsibility for social-housing programs to municipalities in 2000, Foulds and other housing policy experts cautioned that it wouldn’t be sustainable to fund social housing through the municipal tax base.

Nan Normand, who has been living and working in Kenora for two decades, says she’s seen this cycle before. She doubts that incentives will be enough to entice developers into creating more affordable-housing units.

“There have been many versions of this over the years, where governments try to encourage private developers to get involved in affordable housing,” says Normand. “But the incentives aren’t enough to get them to agree to a contract. It just doesn’t make sense for them. Quite simply, the

developer is there for profit.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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