Peterborough residents said housing was their top priority for the 2021 budget – here’s how it’s being addressed

In our sixth episode of the Budget Week podcast, co-publishers Ayesha Barmania and Will Pearson go over how the draft 2021 municipal budget addresses the issue of affordable housing and homelessness. In particular, we look at funding for the city’s shelters, rent supplements, incentives for affordable housing, and changes to funding from higher levels of government.

Episode transcript

Ayesha Barmania  0:02  

Hello, you’re listening to Peterborough Currents. I’m Ayesha Barmania. In this episode of the Budget Week podcast, we’re going to talk about the thing that came at the top of the list of the survey of citizens’ priorities for the 2021 budget. And that’s housing and accommodation. 

So my colleague and co-publisher Will Pearson has been following the developments on affordable housing and homelessness. And he’s with me now to tell us about it. Hi, Will.

Will Pearson  0:24


Ayesha Barmania  0:26

Um, so take us through the broad strokes of what we’re going to talk about today.

Will Pearson  0:29  

Sure, so there’s a couple things in the 2021 budget that jumped out at me when I first looked at it. The first is a pretty significant increase to the amount of money this city is spending on homelessness services. I also noticed an increase to the rent supplement program, which is great to see. 

But not everything that the City does around housing and affordable housing does get reflected in the 2021 budget. Either because it gets funded by other levels of government or because some of the ways that the City, you know, encourages affordable housing development, for example, is not really through funding, but more through softer measures like incentives to encourage development. So I think we’ll maybe  in this conversation stray from the budget itself a little bit to talk about those areas. But those first, the two things I mentioned are what jumped out at me and the budget document itself.

Ayesha Barmania  1:23  

Yeah, absolutely. And so we talked a little bit during our last episode about the funding increase that’s drafted in the budget for the shelter system. So for folks who missed that episode, what’s that going to pay for?

Will Pearson  1:40  

Sure, yeah. So the first thing to say is just that the shelter system continues to be experiencing a lot of pressures, there’s just a high level of need in the community for the shelter services. So during budget week, Council approved a plan to increase the base funding for the Youth Emergency Shelter by about $60,000 as well as increase the starting wage for shelter workers to bring it up to a living wage. So that’s kind of two of the ways that homelessness money is being increased and how that money has been spent. Most of the money increased in the homelessness program this year is going to the shelter system itself.

Ayesha Barmania  2:16  

Okay, gotcha. There was a little bit of conversation about this during the finance committee meetings, right?

Will Pearson  2:21  

Yeah, there wasn’t really a lot of debate about whether this budget line should increase. I think the councillors are pretty well on board with the idea of increasing the funding. But instead, they really used the budget meeting as an opportunity to – some councillors at least – to voice their support for the shelter system. And I think this comes– I think there’s a little bit of frustration on council for some of the ways that the media have been covering homelessness in the city. I think that they sense that maybe the media is focusing on negative stories and bad news stories and ignoring the good news. Keith Riel spoke about his wish that the media covered some of the successes of the city a little bit more, for example.

Keith Riel  3:02  

Get your story straight. This council is committed to helping the less fortunate. This council has put money where their mouth is. And we continue to do the job and to help the people that are marginalized who need the help. So why don’t we have a good news story about what we’re doing.

Will Pearson  3:23  

And then Diane Therrien spoke, you know, again, just to support the shelters, and in particular, the shelter workers.

Diane Therrien  3:31  

Of course, there’s a lot of work to do. There’s a lot, you know, a lot of work still to be done. Our shelter system, our housing and homelessness system is not perfect. You know, we do hear a lot of concerns about the Brock Mission and why the Brock Mission are doing, you know, running this service. And that it’s also important to note that there aren’t a lot of organizations that are wanting to do this work. It’s, you know, these frontline workers are not paid a living wage, they’re not paid nearly enough for the amount of time and energy that they put into trying to help people. So it’s really easy to criticize. It’s, you know, but there are people that are working in the Brock Mission, at YES, at all of our frontline shelter services that put in everything that they have for minimum wage, really, and it and so, you know, it’s easy to say, ‘do this, do that’ but folks don’t realize how much is happening behind the scenes.

Will Pearson  4:37 

So that took up most of the conversation around the budget at the budget meetings. You know, it must be frustrating because this is not the first year in recent memory that the city has increased its funding of the shelter system, right. And this comes as you know, every city official and every community partner will tell you that homeless shelters aren’t the solution to homelessness. Housing is the solution to homelessness. And, yeah, it just must be frustrating every year to see the level of need in the community for these emergency responses and the need to continue to increase funding for them when that funding could be used to fund more long term solutions, if we could just pivot to pursue some of those longer term solutions a little bit more easily. When I spoke to Dorothy Olver who’s the program manager for homelessness in the city, she said that–

Dorothy Olver  5:30

We would eventually love to see that, you know, all the funding that we have going into emergency shelters could be used very, very differently in our system if we didn’t need emergency shelters. But I think we need to acknowledge that we’re going to need to have some level of response. Our shelters will openly say to anybody, they’d gladly work themselves out of business and not need to have homeless shelters. But we’re going to be a while before we get there.

Will Pearson  5:52  

So you know, there’s a desire to get out of the shelter business, as Keith Riel has said a couple of times, but we’re not there yet. It would seem– And so yeah, the city is continuing to increase the amount of money that it puts into the shelter system.

Ayesha Barmania  6:06  

Mm hmm. Yeah, for sure. And so getting out of the kind of emergency shelter system, there’s that other level of helping folks stay in housing, what are some programs that we can see the city contributing to now that do that?

Will Pearson  6:20  

So it seems that every year during budget week, rent supplements come up. It’s usually a topic of conversation. And I think in the past three or four years, at least, council has made it the practice to boost the level of support for rent supplements each year. And that’s happening again this year.

Ayesha Barmania  6:36  

Yeah, so what is a rent supplement? What are we talking about there?

Will Pearson  6:39  

Right, a rent supplement is a payment that the city makes to help bridge the gap between what an apartment costs for a tenant and what they can afford. And they’re usually made directly to landlords. And so the money goes to the landlord from the city, and then the tenant is able to pay that much less rent, and there’s a few different kinds, some of them are rent-geared-to-income rent supplements, some are like a flat fee. So I think the Housing Choice rent supplement average is around $250 a month.

Ayesha Barmania  7:11  

And is that tied to the apartment unit? Or is that tied to the family that’s moving in?

Will Pearson  7:15  

There’s a couple of different programs, some of the rent supplements are portable, so you can move with them and they aren’t tied to particular units. And some are tied to particular units. 

And yeah, and so this year, we’re seeing a $50,000 increase for the Housing Choice rent supplement, and that’s a rent supplement that is worth – that’s the one I just mentioned – that’s worth about $250 a month. That’s the average anyway, and it’s portable. 

And I spoke to Rebecca Morgan Quin about it, she’s the manager of housing at the City. She expects that about 10 new households will be able to access that rent supplement in 2021, because of the increase. So that’s good news. 

One of the drawbacks of supplements is that often the ones that are funded by other levels of government anyway, usually have expiry dates. And so we’ve seen in the past actually situations where the City had to increase its own spending on rent supplements, not to increase how many supplements that are, but actually just to cover expiring programs, which is too bad. And the draft budget does point out that there were a few rent supplement funding programs from the provincial and federal government that are set to expire over the next five years. And that’s putting about 100 households at risk of losing the rent supplement. Councillor Kemi Akapo noticed that and asked about it during deliberations. Here’s what Commissioner of Community Services Sheldon Laidman responded.

Sheldon Laidman  8:37  

So that is a very important risk I think to the long term future of the rent supplement program and the social housing program in general, is that, as Coun. Akapo mentioned, a number of these programs are about to sunset, and they expire. And they’re leaving a large number of units in a precarious situation. So housing managers across Ontario, I know have been lobbying the government, the provincial government for many years to give some certainty to that going forward, because it is a risk.

Will Pearson  9:11  

So that’s, that’s something to keep an eye on in the coming years. I think it’s not until 2023 that the first batch of these supplements expire. So there’s a little bit of time for senior levels of government to develop programs, hopefully to replace them, but we’ll see what happens.

Ayesha Barmania  9:27  

Right. But until then, in this budget, the $50,000 that you mentioned, that’s just increased service money.

Will Pearson  9:33  

That’s new municipal money for new supplements. Yeah.

Ayesha Barmania  9:37  

Right. So these rent supplements are kind of about getting people into and keeping their housing. What about getting more affordable housing built, like just getting more units on the market? What’s the city’s role in that? And is there any investment on that front?

Will Pearson  9:50  

Yeah. So, you know, that’s not actually something that we see reflected in the budget document a whole lot. And I think that’s just a reflection of the fact that the City of Peterborough is not really in the business of building affordable housing and doesn’t really have the resources to do that. And it’s not traditionally something that’s within the scope of municipalities, that’s more something that gets funded by senior levels of government. 

That’s not to say that the city doesn’t do anything. Our listeners might remember that this year, the City took a couple of properties that it owns that are in the Parkway corridor. So they’re not going to be used for the Parkway anytime soon. And so the City kind of renovated them to create some affordable housing. 

So there’s a couple of examples where the city has taken properties that it owned, and turned them into affordable housing. But it’s not very significant or large projects, it’s usually pretty small ones. 

But one thing that the city does do to encourage the development of affordable housing is offer incentives to developers. So if someone wants to build an affordable housing project, they can apply to, for example, have the development charge that would usually be charged waived, or maybe the city can offer them reduced parking, minimum parking requirements, things like that. So just little things that the city can do to make it easier and more cost effective to build affordable housing. And that you do see that reflected in the budget. It’s a program that’s set to continue in 2021, to the tune of about $1.1 million.

Ayesha Barmania  11:16  

Okay, so that’s money that the city is foregoing. Right? They would have received it if they’d not been offering this program, but they’re choosing to not receive this money. So that affordable housing gets built.

Will Pearson  11:26  

Yeah, that’s right. It’s foregone revenue. So other developers would be expected to pay those fees, but a few, including affordable units, then you can have them waived.

Ayesha Barmania  11:36  

Okay, but aren’t there – so this isn’t necessarily about the budget, but aren’t they’re like – can’t the City, you know, talk to all the developers that are working in the city and force them to make a certain percentage affordable?

Will Pearson  11:49  

No, I think there’s a lot of people in Peterborough that wish that city council could force developers to include affordable units and the developments. So the sort of planning speak for that is called inclusionary zoning, so you zone a part of the city and say that any development in this part of the city needs to have, you know, this proportion of affordable units. And under the current provincial regulations, that’s only possible in major transit areas, which is kind of a planning designation that Peterborough doesn’t have any of those, it’s more like Toronto would be allowed to do it around a subway station, for example. 

Yeah, but that’s new regulations that were brought in by the provincial government a couple of years ago that really do curtail municipalities ability to pursue inclusionary zoning. And I know that even though it is possible in Toronto, I know that advocates for affordable housing are really pushing the government to reconsider this rule around transit areas, because it really just limits where you can pursue inclusionary zoning. And in a city like Peterborough, where these transit areas don’t exist, it’s not possible.

Ayesha Barmania  13:04  

Yeah. And I think that really echoes a lot of what I’ve been hearing in these interviews I’m doing for this podcast about the different constraints on the city budget based on these higher levels of government. So there’s these regulations that you’re talking about. But there’s also just different types of funding available. So what funding is the city counting on to pay for the initiatives that we’ve just talked about?

Will Pearson  13:25  

Yeah, funding from other levels of government is definitely a big part of how housing works at the municipal level, and during budget deliberations Mayor Therrien  brought this up and really called on the provincial government in particular to come to the table with more funding for housing and homelessness.

Diane Therrien  13:43  

These services, it is also important to note, have been downloaded from senior levels of government over the years. There’s three levels of government that we deal with, when we’re dealing with housing as a municipality, that’s the federal government, ourselves, and the provincial Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. And so I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it that we do need to be putting pressure on them to come to the table to help with these projects.

Will Pearson  14:11  

So there is a little bit of extra operating money coming from the province. And I thought that I noticed it in the budget. When I asked Olver about that, well, first she literally started to laugh. And then she said yes, there is a little bit more money, but she called it quite modest. 

Dorothy Olver  14:28  

There is a little little little bit of additional funding. That’s part of the kind of our ongoing consistent funding that we get from the province. So we generally have a couple of pots. The community homelessness prevention initiative is probably our largest. And then we have the Home For Good funding. There’s not been any change in the Home For Good funding since we started it a couple years ago, and we don’t anticipate anything so it never changes year to year. And that’s basically for some of our supportive housing programs. The community homeless prevention initiative is like the funding we use for shelter funding housing, some rent supplements, and we had a very, very modest increase for this year. 

Will Pearson  15:06  

And so I think that the City would, you know, could really benefit from what was funding.

Ayesha Barmania  15:12  

But I think if I’m following the news correctly, and there have been a number of provincial and federal announcements at a couple different moments this past year about funding, what’s up with that? Are we getting any of that money?

Will Pearson  15:23  

Right. So you’re right, that there has been so there have been some provincial announcements about funding, and that’s mainly through the Social Services Relief Fund. And, yeah, you’re right to bring that up and Olver did bring that up too and said, where the province has really come through in 2020, is with one time funding in response to COVID-19.

 And so the city did get, I’m not sure exactly what the number is, but it’s in the millions of dollars through the Social Services Relief Fund. And what that has been used for is really expenses related to COVID-19, like securing motel rooms, so that people in the shelter system can isolate if they might have COVID, moving the shelters to the Wellness Center, and then moving them back, paying for PPE, things like that. Also, expenses associated with the new 24-7 overflow shelter. So you’re right, that there is new provincial money. It’s more like a one time funding for COVID-19. And I think that Yeah, what, perhaps Mayor Therrien and Olver were speaking about is the need for or how the city could really benefit from more long term operating funding. 

Ayesha Barmania  16:34  

Sure, yeah. And so things like that one time COVID funding we might start seeing in the 2020 budget actuals?

Will Pearson  16:42  

I don’t know I’m not an accountant. So I can’t answer that question.

Ayesha Barmania  16:45  

That’s okay. But I think what I’m trying to say here is that it’s not in the 2021 draft budget.

Will Pearson  16:53  

Yeah. And I think that there are a lot there are other opportunities right now for capital funding for housing projects. So the federal government’s National Housing strategy, which was announced a couple of years ago, and has been used so far in Peterborough anyway to fund the Brock Mission development and the Habitat for Humanity development at Leahy’s Lane, that’s still in existence. So there’s still opportunities to apply for that, too, to get funding for affordable housing.

 And then there’s a couple of new opportunities too, I think that that is a capital component of the provinces Social Services Relief Fund, so that might be accessible to the City, or organizations in the city to build housing. And then there’s the federal government’s new rapid housing initiative, which is probably the biggest opportunity right now. That’s I think it is $500 million available to cities like Peterborough. So I know that the city is working with community partners to apply for that funding.

Dorothy Olver  17:45  

We’re trying really hard to do what we can to build our housing stock that we can actually dedicate to homelessness, that’s part of our challenges is, we have a binding priority list. And we need more resources actually dedicated specifically to that work to try to house people. So I think what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to expand any housing opportunities we have, where we have the opportunity to apply for any provincial or federal funding, we’re doing that with all of our community partners, or developers or folks who are able to work with us. And we’re able to meet the eligibility criteria for those programs. So there’s a heavy focus on capital funding opportunities, and we get to really have to be ready to jump on those when we can. We’re trying really hard to work with folks in the community to make sure that we jump on those opportunities.

Will Pearson  18:34  

So we’ll see if the City or some organization in the city is able to access funding through the Rapid Housing Initiative. I was interested when I was speaking with Olver about that – she brought up an interesting, not criticism, but there is a barrier with that program. And it’s that it doesn’t come with any additional money for support services. 

When you think of someone that might be moving from homelessness into housing, what do they need to get into housing? I think they really need three things. The first is housing, there needs to be a place for them to move into. And that’s what initiatives like this respond to. There also needs to be rent supplements to help them pay the rent at this housing, because as we have spoken about before, even the most affordable housing developments these days are not really affordable for someone that for example, only has their Ontario Works cheque to pay rent. So secondly, someone would need a rent supplement to help them pay the rent. And then, in many cases, someone that’s exiting homelessness likely needs a little extra support when they’re in their housing to to live successfully in that housing, if it’s either because they have mental health challenges, or they have addictions, or maybe they’ve just been homeless for a long time and need some supports settling into and learning how to live successfully in housing. That can be a challenge if you’ve been homeless for a long time. And that kind of support costs money. And so the Rapid Housing initiative doesn’t come with that kind of money. Olver says that that’s something that the federal government is aware of and working on.

Dorothy Olver  20:08  

Yeah. And in particular, like I think one of the biggest – hero might be a lofty term, but it’s probably not the right word I’m looking for right now but – the best spokesperson that we have around homelessness right now is Adam Vaughn, [Member of Parliament for Spadina—Fort York]. And he pursues every opportunity he has in the federal government. He is pushing for this funding in terms of capital. But he’s also really always pushing for the provincial levels of government to kick in the support dollars  to make these units. 

He’s hearing loud and clear from everyone that we really appreciate the capital dollars, that you’re asking us to, to help with our high security level people that need support to help them to stay where they are. So he’s really pushing the federal government to push other levels of government to make sure that the support dollars are coming. So we’ll see if that happened, hopefully, guys, because we need to support dollars for many of the programs that we would like to continue to do as we go along.

Will Pearson  21:06  

So I thought that was really interesting to hear that the federal government is currently pushing the provincial governments in Canada to step up and provide funding for support services to help make the Rapid Housing Initiative more successful, because without that funding, it might not help the most vulnerable people experiencing homelessness in Peterborough. It might not be just simply because yeah, those individuals need extra support and just giving them a house but not giving them access to put isn’t setting them up for success.

Ayesha Barmania  21:39

Sure. And this is a program that the city does run called Home for Good if I’m not mistaken. 

Will Pearson  21:44  

Right. One of the ways that the city funds supportive housing is a provincial program called Home for Good. And that that funding has flatlined, I think since 2017, it hasn’t been increased.

Ayesha Barmania  21:53  

Right, yeah. So we might be developing this capacity on all these other fronts but there’s still one area that’s not getting a boost.

Will Pearson  22:01  

Yeah, you know, it’s a puzzle. There’s a lot of pieces that go towards solving homelessness. And yeah, it’s a matter of funding them all sufficiently at the same time, and then delivering them all sufficiently.

Ayesha Barmania  22:17  

Yeah, absolutely. So I think that’s all we really wanted to talk about today. Will, is there anything else you wanted to add?

Will Pearson  22:22  

No, I think that’s all the most important things. And that’s sort of what I’m keeping an eye on for 2021.

Ayesha Barmania  22:28  

And not to spoil it, but we’re gonna have some coverage tracking all of these different developments on the Peterborough Currents  website. So thanks for joining me today, Will. 

That’s all for today’s episode of Peterborough Currents. You can find more of our city budget coverage at Peterborough Currents dot CA. We’ve also got episode transcripts of all the episodes up there. 

Music in this episode comes courtesy of Mayhemingways. 

My name is Ayesha Barmania. And thanks so much for taking the time to listen. Bye for now. 


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