Newsletter: Accessible library services, local housing news and more

You’re reading the March 23, 2021 edition of the News & Updates email from Peterborough Currents. To receive these emails straight to your inbox, sign up here.

Good morning, and welcome to the News and Updates email from Peterborough Currents.

My name is Will, and I send this email out every second Tuesday morning. Today, I’ve got a story about accessible library services in addition to my usual roundup of housing news. Let’s get to it!

Accessible library services given one-year reprieve from proposed funding cuts

Karla Buckborough is the CEO and librarian of Cavan Monaghan Libraries. Her father, who is 85, has lost his vision. Earlier this month, Buckborough helped her father to set up an account with the Centre for Equitable Library Access (CELA) — a federally-funded organization that produces and distributes books in accessible formats for people with print disabilities.

Buckborough helped her dad to borrow a special audio device through his library and order MP3 audio discs from CELA.

“He feels there’s only so much CBC Radio and CNN you can listen to,” Buckborough says, “and so he’s very pleased. He’s been listening to books and he thinks it’s a great idea.”

But the day after Buckborough first spoke to her father about setting up an account with CELA, she received an email from the organization stating that its funding was in jeopardy and that it might be eliminated in the coming years.

In its Fall 2020 Economic Statement, the federal government proposed cutting the budgets of CELA and its partner, the National Network for Equitable Library Services (NNELS). The budgets would be cut by 25 percent per year over the next four years, leading to the agencies’ elimination in 2024. The two agencies together currently receive $4 million per year.

The federal government’s reasoning for the cuts is that the publishing industry ought to be producing books in accessible formats to begin with, instead of relying on organizations like CELA and NNELS to produce and distribute accessible versions after the fact. In its 2019 budget, the Liberal government directed $22 million to help Canadian publishers ramp up production of accessible books.

But the vast majority of Canadian books continue to be published without audio versions or braille versions, CELA states. After CELA and NNELS launched an advocacy campaign this month, the federal government granted them a one-year reprieve — $1 million of funding has been reinstated for the coming year.

In a statement released last week, the cabinet minister responsible for this file, Carla Qualtrough, said that the pandemic had delayed the transition to industry-based production of accessible books. The reinstated funding will “keep us on the path to accessible publishing, and ensure that persons with print disabilities continue to have access,” Qualtrough said.

As for Buckborough, she still plans to write to her MP, both in her capacity as a library CEO and “as the daughter of someone who has lost their vision.”

Buckborough says that her letter will “thank them for extending the funding for this year, and say we hope that it will not be something we have to worry about next year.”

Modular housing plan nixed after funding denied

The federal government has denied Peterborough’s application for funding through the Rapid Housing Initiative to build 10 modular housing units at 681 Monaghan Road for people experiencing homelessness.

The Rapid Housing Initiative is a $1 billion program that was announced last year, with applications due on December 31.

The program has proven extremely popular — municipalities, nonprofits and Indigenous communities applied for over $4 billion worth of funding, greatly exceeding the program’s initial capacity.

While Peterborough’s application was denied, the federal Liberals have hinted that their next budget will include additional funds for another round of the Rapid Housing Initiative.

In the meantime, city council decided last night to redirect the other money that was earmarked for the modular housing project. $604,000 will now go to the Mount Community Centre for the construction of three more affordable units there instead.

City staff will continue to explore options for an affordable housing development at 681 Monaghan, a staff report states.

Neighbours Podcast: Voices of the opioid crisis

In case you missed it last week, we just launched a new podcast! It’s called Neighbours, and we’re going to use it as a platform to introduce you to individuals in our community.

My colleague Ayesha Barmania is producing the first season of Neighbours, and they’re focusing it on the local opioid crisis. In each episode, Ayesha will interview a different community member who is experiencing the harms associated with drug use, or working to reduce them.

Here’s a link to the series webpage. You can also find it in all the most common podcast player apps.

Unanswered questions regarding PHC redevelopment

One of the Peterborough Housing Corporation’s many rent-geared-to-income properties, photographed on February 13, 2021. (Photo: Will Pearson)

On February 22, Peterborough’s city council made its choice for how to move forward with the proposed redevelopment of six social housing properties currently owned by the Peterborough Housing Corporation. At that meeting, they opted to incorporate a new municipal business entity to take over the properties and lead the redevelopment.

But that doesn’t mean everything has been made clear. I still have a lot of questions. Here’s one: How much financing will this new municipal company be eligible for, and how might that affect affordability?

The redevelopment project will require a large, partly-forgivable loan that will be provided through the CMHC’s National Co-Investment Fund.

According to the CMHC’s guidelines, municipalities are eligible to receive financing for up to 75 percent of a project’s total costs while non-profit organizations can receive up to 95 percent of a project’s total costs. Similarly, while a municipality is eligible to have 30 percent of its project costs covered by a forgivable loan, a non-profit can receive 40 percent of project costs forgiven.

To put that more clearly: there appears to be a lot more federal money on the table for non-profits than for municipalities. And for a project of this magnitude, the difference could work out to tens of millions of dollars. That’s important, because the less construction costs, the lower rents in these buildings can be over the longterm.

In an email, the City’s commissioner of community services Sheldon Laidman writes, “We will need to rely on CMHC during the review of our application to determine the category that they consider the application to be in and the level of funding.” But Laidman adds that he expects the City’s government business enterprise would fall under the same category as PHC.

That’s not how Darlene Cook, CEO of PHC sees it. “As a not-for-profit we can access more in loans … and more in grants than can a municipal entity,” she writes.

I’m still in the process of confirming with the CMHC what kind of eligibility a government business enterprise might have for Co-Investment Fund financing. But I wanted to share these thoughts now, as an example of the kinds of important details that still haven’t been discussed publicly.

The PHC redevelopment will come forward at this week’s Peterborough Regional Liaison Committee meeting, at which the County of Peterborough will be looking to learn more about whether the plans will impact their delivery of affordable housing.

Until then, we’re trying to keep the conversation going. Here’s a column from Cheryl Lyon, former social housing administrator for the City and County of Peterborough. Lyon argues that non-profits might be better stewards of affordable housing than municipalities.

Photo of the week

Brad Brackenridge posted this photo of his aunt, Betty Sanders, at the Evinrude Centre during her vaccination appointment last week.

While our community continues to suffer losses due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is heartening to think that the spread of COVID-19 will slow in the coming months.  

As of this week, any individual who was born in 1946 or earlier is eligible to book an appointment to receive a vaccine. Here is Peterborough Public Health’s guide to the vaccination clinics.

That’s all for this week’s newsletter. Thanks so much for reading, and take care!

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