Home truths, Part 5: What Peterborough’s tent cities say about Ontario’s housing crisis

After the sudden closure of a shelter, tents sprang up in parks across the city. Many locals want them gone — while experts say they’re a symptom of a larger problem
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Aug 09, 2019
Ashburnham Bridge in Peterborough
According to a report released in 2018 by United Way Peterborough, more than one in five households in the city have an after-tax income of less than $30,000. (iStock.com/Orchidpoet)

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This is the final instalment in a five-part TVO.org series looking at how Ontario’s affordable-housing crisis is playing out beyond the GTA. Click here for Part 4.

On Canada Day, Peterborough’s Warming Room, a homeless shelter in the Murray Street Baptist Church, suddenly closed after its lease expired, forcing roughly three dozen people onto the streets. In the following weeks, four “tent cities” sprang up in local parks. The largest, in Victoria Park, across the street from Peterborough’s downtown courthouse, has about 40 tents. There’s also a small encampment at city hall.

In response, the city opened emergency shelter beds in the auditorium at the public library, but they’re operating at only about one-third capacity. According to the Peterborough Examiner, some people are concerned that there’s no space to store belongings; others are worried that they will be locked inside the library all night.

On July 23, residents, social-service agencies, and representatives from all three levels of government gathered at the Mount Community Centre to discuss the city’s housing crisis. Later that day, Peterborough mayor Diane Therrien, Liberal MP Maryam Monsef, Progressive Conservative MPP Dave Smith, and Peterborough County warden J. Murray Jones announced a 10-point “Rapid Response to Homelessness and Housing.”

Among its most immediate objectives is a plan to create an overflow shelter. The city has appealed to community groups and businesses to find available space, and Therrien says she will consider repurposing municipally owned facilities.

The city has been facing increasing public pressure. Last week saw the release of a petition demanding that the city remove the encampment in Victoria Park. Its goal is to get 1,500 signatories; as of Friday morning, it had reached the 1,400 mark. Next week, city council will vote on introducing a ban on camping at city parks. (Peterborough County, which owns Victoria Park, is expected to vote on a similar bylaw next week.)

For 14 years, Paul Armstrong, a retired teacher, analyzed housing data and published reports for the now-defunct Affordable Housing Action Committee. He has followed the “tent cities” debate and attended the July 23 meeting. He says that the camps are just the most visible example of a larger problem. Armstrong’s most recent report, compiled last year for the United Way Peterborough, found that more than one in five households in the city have an after-tax income of less than $30,000. According to Statistics Canada’s low-income measure, that means that 18.6 per cent of Peterborough residents are low-income — the provincial average is 14.4 per cent.  

“The ‘tent cities’ have driven attention to housing woes in this city, that’s for sure,” says Armstrong. “People calling it an emergency — well, maybe it’s not that, but at least it’s a precipitator to getting us closer to the truth.”

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s shelter-to-income ratio indicates that a household is considered to be in “core housing need” if its housing costs make up more than 30 per cent of its before-tax income. According to Armstrong, Peterborough has the highest proportion — 53.6 per cent — of renter households in core housing need in the country.

The new rapid-response plan calls on the city to “ensure that creative solutions” are considered to solve the housing shortfall for low-income residents. The city could, it says, amend zoning bylaws to allow for the construction of “tiny” homes, which many see as a way to combat homelessness and provide affordable housing. Tiny-home developments are either underway or under consideration in Gravenhurst, Hamilton, Kingston, and St. Thomas. A recent editorial in the Peterborough Examiner called tiny homes a “small but potentially effective step forward” and urged the city to start a pilot project.

But Ken Foulds, a housing-policy expert who consults with municipalities across the province, points to issues with the approach. Tiny homes, he says, have a higher cost per square foot than regular houses and use land inefficiently.

“Everyone is looking for a better mousetrap,” Foulds says. “There’s been a lot of airplay about tiny homes, I look at that as a fad myself. I don’t think it’s sustainable, and, frankly, I’m not sure you're much further ahead, affordability-wise, in the long-term.”

Perhaps the most ambitious plan to come out of the rapid-response meeting involves creating  2,000 new units over the next two years, conditional on funding from the federal government’s National Housing Strategy.

Armstrong, though, wonders whom those units would end up housing. 

“Who is the target audience, so to speak? Are we doing triage?” he says. “Are we interested in providing units for the most vulnerable and severely economically oppressed? These are the questions that have to be answered still.”

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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