50 percent of Muskoka households can not afford housing in the district - Housing review concludes

Agatha Farmer

MUSKOKA- For at least 50 percent of Muskoka residents accessing 1 to 3 bedroom units is not possible.

This stark stat among others were presented at a district of Muskoka Special Community and Services committee meeting on Oct. 9 by the District’s 10 Year Housing and Homelessness Plan consultants Judy Lightbound and Lisa Kotsopoulos.

While Muskoka has a housing plan in place which was established in 2013, under legislation the district must initiate a five year review of its plan to reflect local priorities.

Given the housing crisis in the region this plan review is essential to meet the local needs.

Fifty percent of Muskoka households earn less than $39,000 annually.

The presentation acknowledged that there is a high need for affordable rental housing in the district.

“Our understanding is that the average rents here are higher than the CMHC average rents,” said Kotsopoulos.

To rent the average priced house in the region a Muskoka resident would need to have $100,000 in income in order to access that.

The above issue is combined with a very low vacancy rate in the district of 1.7 percent, in a healthy economy a rate north of 3 percent is generally seen.

“Housing has such an integrated link to community economic prosperity and growth. In order to grow economically you need to really consider affordability,” said Lightbound.

The consultants conducted online community surveys and concluded that the results really underscore how important issues of homelessness and affordability are for residents within Muskoka communities.

Biggest barriers to accessing housing are high rental costs, high cost of ownership and not enough housing options.

What’s most needed:

Increasing affordable housing supply and access to funding to build affordable housing.

The need to consider outside of the box thinking and innovation such as tiny homes and shared accommodations as well as a long term strategy to consider seniors issues.

The need for emergency and transitional housing is also great.

The consultants will be working with the district to come up with a comprehensive long term asset management strategy as well as environmental sustainability.

An updated housing and homelessness plan can achieve new rental housing and offer increased affordable housing options.

The presentation also brought up the fact that this update is essential for Muskoka employers to retain employees and meet their housing needs.

Gravenhurst’s Mayor Paul Kelly gave his feedback on what he thinks needs to be addressed within the new strategy.

“We have significant housing issues in Gravenhurst .... one thing that we need to talk about is advocacy ... and I can think of one specific advocacy issue and that’s the landlord and tenant act,” he said.

Kelly talked about constituents who have told him that they turned their long term rental into an Airbnb due to issues with tenants.

“I know many homes that could be rented out but they are choosing purposefully not to because of that issue ... we need to figure this out,” he said.

It’s a theme that the consultants said they have been hearing as its squeezing supply in the region.

Lightbound noted that there will be further conversation about a new growth strategy and the pace at which it will proceed.

Committee chair and Huntsville councillor Nancy Alcock along with Lake of Bays Coun. Mike Peppard suggested that in law-suites should be encouraged and incentivized with grants and subsidies, “whatever it takes” to promote secondary units.

Muskoka Lakes councillor Ruth Nishikawa suggested having students moving in with seniors, which she said had been an idea brought up in the past.

Currently the district housing plan adds 200 affordable units in the 10 year horizon.

The consultants say that what is being currently done is the leveraging of federal and provincial money, working in partnership with the private sector, and that investment by district is still needed to continue at current rate.

However, to increase the growth rate to meet the current trend would mean adding about 1000 new units over the next 10 years. To scale up to that level of growth the district would need to increase equity investment to $230,000,000 which could include land donations, money from reserves, government grants and mixed market rentals.

“What you’re struggling with in the district is that private builders can build expensive units with high margins so why would they give you the time of day to build affordable? ... the money is in retirees moving up from the city who have money to spend. So how can the district provide more of a development role,” said Lightbound.

This opened the conversation to explore how the district can be an affordable housing developer in partnership with a municipal non-profit as a development agent.

The update provided was at a district committee meeting, however, given that housing is the number one issue within Muskoka the lack of attendance by other mayors, (including one who is a current federal candidate) councillors, and the current slate of federal candidates was not missed.

Heather Berg is the founder of the Table Soup Kitchen Foundation in Huntsville and runs the only men’s shelter in Muskoka. She attended the meeting.

"Walking into the council chambers, I thought that the meeting must have been cancelled. Despite the importance of the issue at hand, there were so few district councillors and public present. Housing and homelessness needs our attention and action now. It's time Muskokans accept the hard facts and reality for half of our population,” she said.

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