It’s now been one year since a homeless encampment in Victoria Park made it clear just how severe the housing crisis in Peterborough is. At the time, local politicians, including Mayor Diane Therrien and MP Maryam Monsef, put forward a bold goal in response to the crisis: to move to build 2,000 affordable housing units in Peterborough within two years. (MPP Dave Smith was critical of the plan and did not endorse it.)
A few months later, during the federal election campaign, Monsef restated this goal, making it a part of her reelection pitch.
The details of the 2000-unit goal were never made particularly clear. Would all the units be built and occupied within two years, or would the projects simply be approved for funding within two years? And what exactly is meant by “affordable” in the first place?
Monsef did not make herself available for an interview or respond to emailed questions for this article. Therrien acknowledges that it was a “lofty goal.” But she says, “We need to aim high when it comes to these types of issues, because otherwise we’re not going to reach anything.”
Now, a year after the goal was first touted, it’s time to take a look at what progress has been made in Peterborough, and what’s left to be done.
Affordable, for who?
First, though, it’s important to be clear what’s meant by the term “affordable.”
The word gets thrown around a lot, says Keith Riel, co-chair of the city’s housing portfolio and a councillor for Ashburnham ward, “but what’s affordable for one person is not affordable for someone else.”
“A developer might say they’re building affordable housing,” Riel says, “but they could be building units that are $2,000 a month.”
“What about the person who can only afford $400,” Riel asks.
The rents of affordable housing units are typically calculated in one of two ways.
First, they might be set as a percentage (usually 80 or 90 percent) of the average market rent (AMR) for a similarly-sized unit in the area. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation provides average rent data for Peterborough each year, which is used in setting the rents of affordable units.
Secondly, rent might be calculated as a percentage (usually 30 percent) of the tenant’s household income. This approach, called rent-geared-to-income (RGI) housing, is a much deeper form of affordability. It means that no matter how little someone earns (and no matter how hot the housing market gets) they can still afford suitable housing.
“The biggest thing for us is the absolute need for rent-geared-to-income housing,” says Riel.
The goal of building 2,000 units in two years may have been politically-salient last summer, but does it line up with how many we really need? This week, Peterborough City Council reviewed the updated 10-Year Housing and Homelessness Plan for the city and county. The plan includes a new housing forecast that sketches out how many additional units we’ll require over the next 10 years in order to meet the housing needs of everyone in the community.
According to the forecast, the city will need an additional 2,964 affordable units over the next 10 years, ranging from supportive RGI units for people transitioning out of homelessness to affordable home-ownership units for people with relatively higher incomes.
In his report to Council this week, the City’s commissioner of community services, Sheldon Laidman, called those 10-year targets “ambitious, but necessary.”
What projects are in the works?
In February, eight rent-geared-to-income apartments were made available to single mothers and their families in the newly redeveloped McRae Building on Bonaccord Street. It was the most recent addition to the city’s RGI stock, developed and operated by the Peterborough Housing Corporation. Come the fall, the McRae building is expected to have another 26 units rented out at 80 percent of market rent. And there’s one last plan for that site: the Peterborough Housing Corporation intends to build an 85-unit seniors residence there, too.
[Prefer a more condensed rundown of these projects? Here’s the Peterborough Currents affordable housing progress tracking spreadsheet. we’ll keep it current as projects progress and new ones get announced.]
The new units at the McRae building were planned well before new federal funding for housing construction became available through the Liberal government’s National Housing Strategy (NHS) in 2018. It is this strategy that Monsef refers to when she discusses her government’s plan to get housing built in Peterborough.
NHS funding has been announced for two local projects: the rebuild of the Brock Mission homeless shelter, which will include 15 affordable rental units in addition to 30 shelter beds, and a Habitat For Humanity project on Leahy’s Lane, which will provide 41 ownership units with rent-geared-to-income mortgage payments.
Beyond that, no other local NHS projects have been announced. Riel says that some developers have applied to the NHS. Overall, though, he says initial feedback on the strategy was that applying for the financing was too difficult and time-consuming. It’s been streamlined a bit more now, he says, but the process is still very involved.
Steve Pomeroy, a housing researcher at Carleton University, says the rollout of the National Housing Strategy has been slow, considering the urgency of the country’s housing crisis. He says he’s “somewhat disappointed in terms of the pace and scale at which they’ve actually managed to do things.”
It can take almost two years to access funding through the program, Pomeroy says, which is a barrier to smaller non-profits that can’t secure bridge financing while they wait. And private developers are balking at the program because the timelines are too long and the requirements too onerous, he says.
That’s true in at least one case locally. Frank Moloney, whose development company has built several affordable (80 percent of market rent) apartment buildings in Peterborough, has looked into the program but hasn’t applied. “We have a project we’re considering it for,” he says. “But it’s not an easy task.”
“It kind of feels like it puts up a few roadblocks,” Moloney says.
“Completing the [NHS] application is complicated, requires a lot of intense work and access to data that small organizations don’t have at hand,” says John Martyn, board vice-chair at the Mount Community Centre, an affordable housing provider with rents at 90 percent of average market rent. The Mount currently has plans to build five new units, but is waiting on financing in order to do so, according to director of strategic advancement Andi van Koeverden.
On the other hand, Paul Bennett, who owns Ashburnham Realty, speaks highly of the federal government’s efforts to get funding flowing. He says Ashburnham’s planned development on Rink Street will have affordable units, as will an as-yet unannounced project in the city’s downtown.
But don’t expect deeply affordable rents in those developments. “Our goal is to just get some lower-rent supply into the market,” says Bennett, who acknowledges that even 70 or 80 percent of market rent is unaffordable for many, and doesn’t entirely meet the need in our community. To get to cheaper rents, he says significantly higher subsidies from government would be necessary to make the numbers work.
There are other projects in the works in Peterborough, as well. You can get the full picture here in this table. As announcements get made, I’ll keep updating it so we can continue to track how many affordable units are on the way.
Will we meet the targets?
All totaled, the projects I count add up to 199 units, a far cry from the 2,000 set as a goal last summer. To be sure, other projects are likely to receive financing through the National Housing Strategy. And Therrien says, “There are a lot of announcements that are forthcoming,” including a couple in the next few weeks about “significant projects.”
But perhaps the biggest opportunity to build new affordable housing lies in a plan that has yet to be announced and is still in the very early stages: the redevelopment of properties owned by the Peterborough Housing Corporation. With over 800 units, PHC is the largest provider of RGI housing in the city. Many of their buildings are aging, and, in the words of CEO Darlene Cook, “have lived their life.”
PHC is sitting on a plan from consultants on how to redevelop and intensify their properties, which could create hundreds more units. The catch is where to house people while the properties are redeveloped. But Cook says they have a plan. “It all depends on the staging; which sites you do first,” she says.
“We don’t have a green light” on the intensification plan yet, says Cook. “All it is is we’re exploring the possibility.”
This article was adapted from a Peterborough Currents email newsletter sent to our subscribers on July 9, 2020. It was lightly edited to fit the new context. To read the original newsletter, click here.