"I really wonder if we are doing enough" - The 'Ambitious' Muskoka Housing and Homelessness Plan

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MUSKOKA - A draft Housing and Homelessness Plan has been accepted by the district's Community and Planning Services Committee last Thursday Nov. 21.

The next step is for the plan to be approved by council in December, then it will be sent to the province for approval. Following those steps the plan will have to be shared with area municipalities. The next piece is phase two of plan implementation which includes finalizing the district's asset mangement plan of the current housing stock which will also have to go back to council. Following that staff will have to come up with a vision on a strategic plan for social housing assets, it seems Spring 2020 might be when the above steps are completed.

On Nov. 21 consultant Judy Lightbound hired by the district to draft the 10 year plan outlined some of the key points of the document.

Lightbound referred to the plan as highly ambitious and noted this several different times during her presentation. One of the major initiatives this plan highlights is the need for more staff to adequately deal with implementing this ambitious plan.

Councillors "need to recognize that they have a very small team right now that is driving the current growth but an investment in staff resources and capacity will have to be made in order to deliver on this plan."

In addition to investment in staff the plan is also dependent on increased spending; contributing funds in new ways, potentially borrowing, contributing additonal dollars to look at community stock in more detail, etc.

Not to be underestimated in how ambitious this plan is the consultant stressed the need for immediate action to meet achievements outlined in the plan.

"There must be work that must begin in 2020 to achieve some of the shorter term objective. These include identifying district owned properties that can support attainable housing development, ensuring that they are zoned and serviced so that the district is in a position to find opportunities when they become available ... recognizing that if you wish to be building new developments four or five years out work must commence now to be able to achieve that target." - Muskoka Post will follow up on how much of this work is currently underway.

Coun. Don Smith noted that going forward with this plan is important and he did not wish to sound negatively in his comments but had the following to share.

"I recall asking earlier this year about what is an acceptable waiting list and the reply came back quite quickly that we shouldn't have anybody on that list. We have had the wait list at around 500 for some time and we are looking at a population of 10,000 more which will continue to put pressure on the system," he said, " I guess what I'm trying to clarify in my own mind is the report and what it’s proposing, and you refer to it as ambitious but are we going to say in five years time that this list going to be significantly addressed and in 10 years time that wait list is going to disappear. I guess I wonder if it’s really ambitious enough. It's great to have the report it‘s great to have the perspective but the reality is there are a lot of people out there with some serious concerns ... I really wonder if we are doing enough."

Jackie Mattice, district program director, clarified that she doesn't think that there will ever exist a time without a wait list for housing in Muskoka. However, a dent can be made which could result in the reduction of the wait list.

She also noted that the district does not want to just look at the need for immediate social housing, but would like to address broader middle income needs so that people can be moved along the continuum of the housing and shelter conveyer belt.

Lightbound underlined the importance of continuing with the current district housing and homelessness programs and objectives in addition to new key initiatives.

The Plan builds on what the district has provided over the last five years;

New attainable rental units

New affordable housing units

Rent subsidy units

Loans under the secondary suit program

Establishing Muskoka Housing Taskforce

Rent Smart Training Sessions

$6.5 million of provincial and federal funding has been implemented

$476,000 in capital improvements has been made

Time line objectives within the drafted plan range from 1 to 10 years.

Lightbound outlined some key statistic which interestingly enough contradicted some of her original data provided at an October CPS committee plan meeting.

Nov. 21 slide - average Muskoka household income $88, 996

Oct. 9 slide - 50 percent of Muskoka households make less than $39,900

- In the Nov. 21 draft plan presentation the average Muskoka household income is just under $89,000, however, in an October presentation to the CPS committee the same consultants presented a slide indicating that 50 percent of district households make less than $39,900.

- From the 2011 to 2016 census Muskoka has seen growth and is forecasted to grow further in population in the next 20 years and beyond.

- The consultant is anticipating modest growth in the region in the next 10 years.

- There has been an increase in the over 60 demographic and a decrease in the under 19 demographic.

- 82 per cent of households are owners with 18 percent being renters.

- 50.8 per cent of tenant households spend more than 30 per cent or more of income on shelter costs.

- The district has a 1.7 percent vacancy rate which is very low in comparison to the average 3 percent in healthy economies.

- 57 percent of individuals on the social housing wait list are singles with no dependants.

- In 2018 the district undertook its first homeless enumeration with 142 people surveyed out of the 60,000 in the district with a conclusion that 57 percent are hidden homeless.

- Most of Muskoka residents rank housing and homelessness as a very important issue facing the community and would like the district to facilitate more affordable rental housing.

The consultants met with a homelessness sharing table excluding, however, meeting with the only men's shelter in Muskoka. They have identified a number of priorities for the district including innovative alternative housing forms such as tiny housing, shared accommodation and thinking outside the box, taking risks, as well as the need for supportive emergency transitional housing.

The Muskoka municipal non-profit housing corporation noted the importance of proactive strategies to optimize the current housing stock and acknowledge that if they take on an expanded development role that would require a new governance model.

The Muskoka 10 Year Homelessness and Housing Plan

The goal of the plan is Housing for Everyone and housing as an economic driver which is also embedded in the district's official plan.

Enabling a range of housing options for all.

The focus has been on attainable housing which is broader than affordable housing according to the experts.

The four main objectives driving the plan are:

Drive creation of new and attainable housing

Provide support to improve housing stability for all

Optimize current housing assets

Partner to create supports to address homelessness.

"As the district grows so must the economy and in order to support that economic growth attainable housing options must be available for everyone," Lightbound said.

Highlights for the next two years;

To be agile enough to jump at different funding opportunities

The draft would be a living document which sets the district visions with a broad plan but which also creates a two year window on action oriented items with provided annual progress reports.

According to the consultant the plan is a moving target with a detailed list of activities under each objective such as;

- Explore pilot opportunities such as Community Land Trusts, Head Lease Arrangements

- Advocate for permanent funding for new affordable housing programs and regeneration of existing Community Housing buildings

- Advocate for review of the Residential Tenancies Act and the Landlord & Tenant Board

- Expand the funding allocated to support existing housing stability resources and the emergency voucher system to stabilize housing without the use of shelter beds.

- Work with local agencies, the Homelessness Sharing Table, and the Muskoka Housing Task Force to investigate and establish emergency shelter/transitional housing options for youth.

- Expanding the Housing Taskforce to help guide and act as community liaisons.

These key objectives would explore what it would mean for the district to start moving toward a housing first approach ... and understanding what that would look like for Muskoka.

Implementing the plan;

The plan will be implanted through advocacy, investment partnerships and innovative solutions while taking a data driven approach.

Coun. Paul Kelly asked if any developer and investment interest has been generated through the Housing Taskforce.

"I don't believe that we have seen an increase interest on the private developer side," Mattice said.

Coun. Mike Peppard inquired if staff had already looked at district properties which can be suitable for attainable housing projects and "maybe has already grabbed the low hanging fruit" or is this a new initiative.

Mattice said district had not looked at the existing stock previously, not specially in terms of divesting or re-developing and had a status quo plan.

Here is the link to the Full Plan & Appendices:  https://muskoka.civicweb.net/filepro/documents/34724?preview=34732

We have also inquired about immediate housing and shelter strategies specifically for men and district steps for addressing shelter and homelessness during winter 2019/2020 and will be providing that information in a follow up article.

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