Mississauga Has a Real Affordable Housing Crisis On Their Hands

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When activists and politicians say the words "affordable housing," people might assume they're using a politically correct catchall term for "subsidized housing" or perhaps even "welfare." In some cases, they might be. In the case of Mississauga, however, affordable housing means just that -- housing that the average social worker, accounting clerk or retail employee can afford.

Now, a four-bedroom home is monumentally expensive -- a fantasy for a family with two modest incomes.

A generation ago, a family with a modest income could afford a spacious town, semi or detached home in the city. Now, a four-bedroom home is monumentally expensive -- a fantasy for a family with two modest incomes.

Many people who grew up in Mississauga and spent their summers playing in sprawling backyards with fishponds and swimming pools have been forced to move to less built-out cities, often quainter places like Georgetown and Milton.

Last Monday, city councillors and Mayor Bonnie Crombie gathered for a planning committee meeting to discuss the pressing need to tackle the city's mounting affordable housing problem. The mayor and councillors addressed a lengthy -- and much lauded -- Housing Gap Assessment and Municipal Best Practices report produced by SHS Consultants on the issue that laid out several options for the city to potentially tackle.

While discussions have been ongoing for some time -- and affordable housing has long been identified as one of Crombie's priorities -- one city councillor who has been out in front of the difficult (and sometimes contentious) issue is Carolyn Parrish.

At the planning committee meeting, Parrish was firm yet optimistic. She acknowledged that the challenges were great, but insisted that they could be met by exploring myriad options (some that would, yes, cost the city a few pennies).

"We're not in very good shape and there hasn't been a lot of concern about people not being able to buy housing in Mississauga because we thought everyone was okay because we were," she said to the intimate crowd of councillors and attendees gathered to hash out the report. "It's not just poor people or people who need subsidized housing; people can't afford rent in the city. There are a million things you can do and it's hard to know where to start. It doesn't take big drama, it takes little steps."

After the meeting, Parrish emphasized that the challenges for average residents are great.

"One third of people pay more than they can afford for housing,"

"One third of people pay more than they can afford for housing," she said over the phone. "Two people with a combined income of $90,000 can't find affordable housing."

The point about affordable housing being an issue for the average resident is an incredibly salient one. According to the report, Mississauga suffers from a supply issue. There is not enough housing available that meets standards of affordability for lower and middle-income earners. In the report, "affordable" is defined as housing expenses sucking up 30 per cent or less of a household's income.

The numbers speak for themselves.

According to the report, there are currently 234,600 households in Mississauga. At present, 74, 575 households fall within the low income bracket, bringing in less than $55,500 a year. As for middle-income households, there are currently 67,480 households that bring in $55,000 to $100,000 a year. Thirty-nine per cent (or 92,530) households house higher-income earners who net over $100,000 a year. While it looks like the city is still home to a decent amount of higher-income households, the numbers speak of a disturbing trend -- the shrinking of the middle class and the growth of individuals and families who, despite working full-time hours in professional occupations, cannot make ends meet in the city they want to call home.

For lower-income earners, an affordable house should cost $221,000 or less to own or $1,390 or less to rent. For a household with a more moderate income, an affordable home would cost $398,000 or less to own or $2,500 or less to rent. According to the report, housing affordability is an issue for one in three Mississauga households. For one in eight households, affordability issues are serious, with over half their income going to housing costs. Some households -- one in twelve -- spend over 70 per cent of their take home pay on housing costs. For renters, the situation can be dire. The report notes that a whopping 42.5% of tenants spend more than a third of their income on housing costs. A full 20.4 per cent spend over half.

Why is this happening?

Well, a few reasons.

According to the report, vacancy rates in the city are low. At present, the vacancy rate is 1.6 per cent (an ideal one is three per cent). Mississauga is also hurting for new affordable rental housing. In fact, a brand new Daniel's development in Erin Mills is the first rental-only building in two decades and it's a luxury property that boasts top-notch amenities. So while it's certainly good for tenants looking for long-term leases, it's not ideal for a low-income family or individual.

Housing prices are also high, with the average home going for $546,720 (up from $421,096 in 2011). In terms of inventory, there are currently 35,218 units available for rent for lower-income earners. As for households in core housing need, the report notes, "core housing need refers to the ability to meet standards of affordability, suitability and adequacy. In 2011, 15.3 per cent of Mississauga households did not meet these standards. Over 90 per cent of these households lived in homes that were not affordable and almost a quarter in homes that were not suitable. Approximately eight per cent lived in homes that were not adequate."

At present, there are 13,132 subsidized rental units in Mississauga and 5,688 households on the waiting list.

As for actual subsidized housing, the waiting list in Peel in general is notoriously long. At present, there are 13,132 subsidized rental units in Mississauga and 5,688 households on the waiting list. Forty-three per cent of people on the list are families and 33 per cent are seniors.

To add more complications, large swaths of affordable rental units are located in Cooksville along the Hurontario corridor -- the same area that's going to fundamentally change (and likely increase in value and therefore price) once the LRT starts to take shape.

Affordability issues in the city are worsening, but it must be noted that a lot of the driving factors are out of Mississauga's control. While the city is being tasked with addressing the issue, it cannot do much to rectify, say, the growing divide between home prices/rental rates and wages.

That said, the report focuses on what the city can do.

To help alleviate the issue, the report recommends that the Mississauga Affordable Housing Program focus on producing more rental housing while protecting the rental housing that already exists. In the same vein, it also recommends increasing the amount of affordable (or, yes, subsidized) units operated by the government or not-for-profit organizations. The report also encourages the private development sector to build affordable rental units that would "meet the affordable rental threshold at which point rent and income subsidies could be layered in by senior levels of government." The report also says "there is a need to encourage more affordable ownership housing suitable to larger households."

Other recommendations include density bonusing, fast tracking development approvals, provision of land, capital loans and grants and Tax Increment Equivalent Grants (TIEGs).

For Parrish, some solutions are apparent and involve legalizing more second units (typically basement apartments), incentivizing developers to set aside affordable units that may be operated by an organization such as Habitat for Humanity or another not-for-profit and making use of land that the city already owns and isn't doing much with.

"There are 30,000 illegal basement apartments," she said. "Legalize them, make them comfortable and safe."

She also explains the idea of having a set amount of affordable units -- say, 10 per cent or so -- set aside in new developments for residents in need. Those units would cost no more than 30 per cent of the lodger's income and the unit would remain affordable indefinitely, free from upward fluctuations in the market.

"If the municipality decides the critical point for the inclusion of affordable units is a 300 unit building, let's say we suggest 10 per cent should be maintained as affordable,"

"If the municipality decides the critical point for the inclusion of affordable units is a 300 unit building, let's say we suggest 10 per cent should be maintained as affordable," she explains in an email.

"Those units are sold at today’s market value before the building is constructed, they are scattered throughout the building, and they don’t increase in price as the building is completed and the sale prices go up 5-10 percent from the drawing board stage. Those 30 units would have fixed rents at 30 per cent of a (pre-registered and evaluated) family’s income and when that family chooses to move, the next family comes in at 30 per cent of their income for rent. The other units in the building become more and more expensive with each resale. The designated units under non-profit management like Habitat for Humanity won’t ever increase in value and will never require a 'profit' element. In a 300 unit building, the other 270 owners won’t know who the 'affordables' are nor will they be paying more for their units, but they will be making money as their units are flipped to second and third owners."

Parrish has already been involved in offloading some otherwise useless properties to Habitat for Humanity.

Recently, the city sold two properties -- one on Victory Crescent in Malton and another on Mariner Court -- to Habitat for $2. The $2 was necessary to offer for legal reasons, but Kevin Whyte, manager of government relations and special projects with Habitat, says that the properties were actually free.

"By donating the properties, the city is providing a subsidy," Whyte says. "But our families pay a mortgage to us based on their income that's no more than 30 per cent of their pay. We reassess their financials every year and readjust accordingly. It helps people when they need help and we re-invest their money into other builds."

While the properties -- a former meth lab and fire station that will be renovated to house several residents -- are certainly helpful, they're special in the sense that they're only now becoming affordable housing stock. In Mississauga, the fact that the city is largely built out presents a problem.

"There's no land left in Mississauga to develop, so prices are bound to go up," Whyte says.

Fortunately for a needy family, the Mariner Court home will provide much-needed space.

"We have a six-member family living in a two-bedroom apartment going to Mariner Court," Whyte says.

As for Parrish, she says there are other lands the city could use to house low and moderate income earners.

"The numbers [of people needing housing] are overwhelming and we can't give up on it,"

"The numbers [of people needing housing] are overwhelming and we can't give up on it," she says. "We can't say we're all built out. We bought $15 million of land for Sheridan College and they only took $4.8 million. They didn't want to lease the parking. We have two huge chunks of land for Green P and it should be designated [for some affordable housing]. We can put an art gallery on the ground floor and housing above it. Paris and London do this and they don't have land -- they build above old buildings."

While a lot of the ideas are good ones, Parrish is honest about council's uphill battle to get higher-income residents on board.

"Only 25 per cent of people [in Mississauga] vote and most voters are property owners and their concerns become our concerns. You have to not worry about the people who come to all the meetings. All the people object to intensification and high-rise buildings. They set the tone at city council. Now we have younger councillors like Matt Mahoney and John Kovac. Hazel McCallion was never interested, but Crombie has made affordable housing a priority. It was one of the platforms in her election campaign."

At both the meeting and on the phone, Parrish discussed some of the difficulties of working within a regional system.

"The region is in charge of [affordable housing]," she says. "I'm not advocating pulling out of the region on this basis."

At the meeting, she recommended working with the region to give the city more control.

"We could form our own housing strategies. How can we take a proportionate amount of money from the region and set up our own panel because we do development charges and charges for plan processes and we make policies, but in the end, the money is sitting up in the region and we can't access a lot of it. So that's one I'd like to look at."

Parrish also isn't afraid to look to other cities for inspiration and is a fan of mixed-use developments that house residents of all incomes, as doing so prevents the formation of ghettos. She also says that, with an organization like Habitat involved, unruly residents can be more easily removed.

"When Habitat [operates units], you can give disruptive people 30 days and remove them. It's easier than in landlord/tenant situations."

That said, bringing skeptics into the fold will still be a challenge -- one that city council will have to face no matter what. For councillors, a significant issue is money, as some will have to be proffered to address the issue. Everyone knows the idea of new or increased spending will be unpopular amongst voters, especially those who have never had to struggle with affordability housing in a meaningful way.

"A lot of people [on council] ask about money and cost. There are a lot of ways to fix the problem and it's going to cost us money. People are comfortable and no one likes change," she says. "You have to get past it and tell people that this is the way it's going to be. If you want to live in the GTA, this is how it's going to be."

As for what solutions the city will ultimately endorse, that remains to be seen.

But least solutions are on the table.

"It's encouraging to see a panel put together," Whyte says. "It's yet to be seen what will be adopted, but the steps the city is taking are positive. This is a public health issue. Can people afford to eat? What's the impact on people's mental health? The city is heading in the right direction."

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