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Affordable housing is hard. A few very simple words, but they aptly summarize the extremely complicated conundrum of how to approach, plan for, and physically build affordable housing.
This refrain kicked off Janet Porter, RPP, and Melissa McEnroe’s session at the Ontario Professional Planners Institute’s (OPPI) recent annual conference. It opened the door for those in attendance to be honest about affordable housing before brainstorming ways to make it easier to achieve, by simply admitting that no one has the magic solution to providing housing for all Ontarians yet, that it’s frustrating, overwhelming, rewarding. Hard.
The provincial government defines affordable housing as the least expensive of (1) a unit for which the rent does not exceed 30% of gross annual household income for low- and moderate-income households or (2) a unit for which the rent is at or below the average market rent of a unit in the regional market area. The federal government concurs with housing costing less than 30% of a household’s gross income to be defined as “affordable.” To put that into context, the average two-bedroom apartment in Toronto rents for $2,531 per month as of November 2020 (rentals.ca), which means the people occupying that two-bedroom apartment would need to earn a combined income of over $100,000 for it to be labeled “affordable housing.” That’s certainly not doable across every profession and career level, for single-earner households or low-income earners. Therefore, specialty mixed-income and affordable housing units and rental processes are developed to create an affordable housing model.
Janet Porter, RPP, and Melissa McEnroe have been involved in the development of affordable housing in York Region from the point of concept development to the ribbon cutting. The most recently completed housing development for Housing York Inc. (HYI) is Woodbridge Lanes. It’s the tangible creative solution to a “perfect storm of challenges” in York Region, as Porter and McEnroe put it: the barriers of the cost and availability of land in the GTA, the pressures of an aging population facing housing security issues, and a built form rooted in suburban and rural growth patterns. Woodbridge Lanes is the physical culmination of York Region with involved community members finding successful ways to design universally accessible homes on a budget, to develop financial models with public funding, and to navigate the myriad local municipal requirements. But it took a lot of hard work to get there.
Before shovel breaks ground on an affordable housing development like Woodbridge Lanes, it’s Porter and McEnroe’s job to get input and support from two extremely influential groups: Council and the local community. And with the latter, that’s no mean feat when, in many cases, residents don’t actually believe that affordable housing is needed in their neighbourhood.
There is enormous stigma attached to the idea of “affordable housing” and the people who live in it, who require it. While it is different to the model of community housing, there are still assumptions made by the general public about who requires affordable housing. As McEnroe puts it, “The term affordable housing has become derogatory.” Facing, challenging, and moving past that stigma is the first challenge faced by planners involved in the development of affordable housing, and one that may never be entirely overcome before a building is underway. In fact, during their OPPI conference session on the subject, Porter and McEnroe asked attendees “What do planners avoid talking about when they talk about affordable housing?” and answers included racism, the challenges of the actual people who need it, and stigma in general. It seems that affordable housing is hard, not just because of the litany of steps required to physically create it, but because of the daunting task of pushing back against inherent social biases. Where does a planning team begin?
In the case of Stouffville (building underway, projected completion of 2022), Porter faced the stigma head-on by inviting local community members to participate in a Community Liaison Committee (CLC) meeting - including a current resident of an existing affordable housing building. At the CLC meeting and at a public information session, posterboards on easels depicted real human faces and the actual, relatable stories of people who needed the subsidized housing operated by HYI. These sat in tandem with boards depicting the building plans, the more typical visuals at these sorts of public meetings. “We made sure that we were bringing these posters, referring to them, and talking about who the people are in the community (who need affordable housing),” says Porter. “And that’s where we also had somebody who actually lives in one of the HYI buildings come and sit on that CLC committee.” The intent was to get their unique insights into the functional design of the building as well as to show that residents are real human beings with similar life experiences as the neighbours who are objecting.
York Region affordable housing poster
Outside of the organized public information session, Porter also walked along the main street of Stouffville to try and get a further sense of opinion around affordable housing, and the need for it. “We were given the heads-up early on that Stouffville didn’t feel they needed it. Stouffville residents didn’t think it was a problem in their community,” she says. “So, I went into a restaurant and I said, ‘I noticed you have a help wanted sign. How is it to find staff?’ The restaurant supervisor told me that it’s difficult and that ‘you need a car if you’re going to take a job as a waitress because you can’t afford to live here, so you have to come from somewhere else.’” McEnroe adds to this train of thought, “I think what’s hard about affordable housing (in Stouffville) is the fact that everything is a (single detached) subdivision, a vast majority, and 92% or 93% of people own their homes. We have a whole generation who is stigmatized about affordable housing.” In other words, even though some Stouffville residents, like the restaurant supervisor, came to recognize the need for affordable housing in order for valuable staff members to be hired, a huge portion of the Stouffville community do not recognize the need for subsidized housing at all. But as Porter adds, “I think it’s easy to forget that the person who’s pouring that $5 cup of fancy coffee for you probably doesn’t live in the same type of house that you do.
5676 Main St. Stouffville 3D render
There was a win for Porter and McEnroe in battling stigma, though, at the end of the public information session where vocal residents came to hear about the new HYI development and the community liaison committee meetings where members were able to meet an actual HYI resident. “We kept hearing two things,” says Porter, “I don’t want it in my backyard, and how do I get in.” McEnroe adds, “We’d get phone calls from people saying ‘I heard about this project. How do I live there?’” Ultimately, as with changing the opinion of anyone in any topic, it’s exposure to and education around an issue that helps facilitate understanding, empathy, connection and interest.
When Porter and McEnroe first started sketching out their session for OPPI’s conference, they sat down together to figure out what the focus would be. Exchanging knowledge and tips for writing effective policy around affordable housing? How to best use a budget to create a building with a successful balance of market and subsidized rents? Where to turn when that budget can’t buy you a heritage-replica brick façade? The list of planning-centric sub-topics is long. But then they stumbled into a very frank “venting session” with a handful of colleagues. Feelings of having inadequate “planning tools” to tackle these massive social issues and biases that underscore affordable housing were explored with very raw honesty, and the idea of simply discussing how hard it is was born.
Despite the heaviness of the topic and the stigma attached, responses from attendees during Porter and McEnroe’s eventual conference session is a refreshing reminder that planners come to the profession with a strong sense of doing the right thing in the public interest. When asked what they think “affordable housing” means, one conference attendee’s response was “Having a decent roof over your head and still enjoying your life.” A lofty goal, but perhaps achievable given the several responses submitted when asked for ideas to solve the problem of affordable housing.
And for those feeling somewhat paralyzed by the gravity of the subject or who have these feelings of planning tool “inadequacy,” and for students who are still in planning school, Porter suggests sticking to the basics. “A tenet of land use planning I was taught when I first started was ‘You don’t talk about a property until you’ve been there and you’ve seen it.’ I think that we often lose that because we’re so pressed for time.” Porter hopes that a positive outcome of the COVID-19 restrictions and the move to working from home is that planners will have a bit of time to focus on some of those basic tenets of planning, of going to a site and really talking to people (while wearing a mask and socially distancing) to better understand their experience. “Maybe we’re a little more human now.”
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