Complex issues can trip up any city council. I believe such a trip may have occurred last month, when Peterborough’s city council approved an alternative governance structure for the development of housing for those most in need.
At issue was who should govern the redevelopment of six social housing properties currently owned by the Peterborough Housing Corporation (PHC), a project which could see over 1,000 new affordable and market units built over the coming six to eight years.
Two options were given the most attention: The PHC proposed re-establishing itself as a new, independent non-profit that would take permanent possession of the six sites and then carry out the redevelopment. The City, unwilling to cede control of this crucial housing portfolio to PHC’s proposed non-profit, recommended incorporating its own company to take ownership of PHC’s affordable housing stock and carry out most of the development itself.
Meeting as general committee on February 16, councillors voted to take more time to ponder this significant decision and to hear from PHC before taking a final vote.
Yet, at the city council meeting just a few days later, councillors reversed that decision, choosing instead to follow the recommendation from city staff to found a new company, a government business enterprise, to take possession of PHC’s affordable housing stock.
Some of the City’s reasoning is sound. But is council’s decision ultimately the right one? The only possible one? Maybe the times do call for a different way of doing things. But maybe not.
I’m concerned that council has approved the incorporation of a new municipal company without first reviewing its business plan for the redevelopment project it will be responsible for. And I question the wisdom of launching a novel municipal enterprise when time is of the essence to build these units.
Ultimately, though, I worry that this new model, which is untried and unproven, will replace the community-driven, non-profit ethos that has successfully energized affordable housing projects in the Peterborough area for decades.
A bit of history helps. In 2000, the City took on a brand new responsibility when the Mike Harris government downloaded rent-geared-to-income social housing to municipalities. Malcolm Hunt, then the City’s director of planning and development, assumed that responsibility.
In his new role, Hunt adopted the attitude that the municipality should not only oversee and manage (i.e., control) social housing, but also partner with the community to build more housing. This approach recognized the prior success of some twenty community-based, non-profit housing groups which had developed a stock of affordable rental housing over the previous decades, and sought to spur further similar development.
Council stepped boldly into the future in 2000 when it approved “Taking Charge” – a suite of policy and funding incentives designed by Hunt and championed by Councillor Henry Clarke. It signalled a creative mindset among staff and politicians to use tax policy, land, partnerships and incentives to build housing within reach of low-incomes – because housing is fundamental to a strong community.
“Taking Charge” opened space not only for non-profit boards but also for private sector developers with similar community-minded values to build for people for whom they normally did not build. And they did. Tom Thornhill’s conversion of the Old Bread Factory on Sherbrooke Street into housing for economically disadvantaged persons is but one example.
This community collaboration approach also yielded more not-for-profit initiatives that became permanent in the Peterborough housing landscape. The Affordable Housing Foundation was formed, which in turn grew into the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough.
A novel partnership between the municipality, Fleming College and the Peterborough Housing Corporation transformed the old Woollen Mill on McDonnel Street into apartments with below average rents.
The small non-profit Homegrown Homes worked with the City, one house at a time, to acquire and refurbish properties (sometimes with sweat equity) and rent them at reasonable rates for families.
And the most recent example is the Mount Community Centre, an innovative non-profit which is still adding rent-within-reach units to its project on Monaghan Road.
As the City’s first administrator of social housing and as a former board chair of Kairos Non-Profit Housing, I’ve had the good fortune to work alongside many of these groups. Their projects were marked by mutual confidence and collaboration with the City. These qualities carried over into the City’s sole shareholder relationship with PHC, which has been used creatively since 2000 to move PHC into the role of housing construction, not just management of its existing stock.
But time passes, and our city council is facing new realities. First, the expiry of some of PHC’s debt has opened the chance to leverage asset value to build new housing or to borrow against equity to intensify or refurbish older, tired units. The PHC has been planning just such an initiative since at least 2017.
Second, the advent of a new funding model for “affordable” housing construction that provides developers with up-front subsidies and loans in return for lower-than-average rents in the short term. This approach does not achieve deep affordability levels like rent-geared-to-income housing. Instead, it turns “affordable” housing into a business model with enough potential profits to attract larger, private sector developers back into rental construction. New players, new possibilities, new choices for city council.
If the plan endorsed by council moves ahead, the City will be incorporating its own business to redevelop the properties under this new “affordable” housing model, which only guarantees lower-than-average rents for a couple of decades, at most.
To be fair, PHC’s new non-profit would also rely on this funding model to finance its redevelopment. The question becomes: who do we trust to pursue levels of affordability that go beyond the inadequate and short-term ones prescribed by the federal government’s program requirements?
Much of the debate over this issue seems to have assumed that the independent, non-profit model presents a greater risk of abandoning affordability over the long-term. Why?
Who knows what 20 years of operating the new government business enterprise will see? Will a cash-strapped City, conservative voters, or other stresses cause the municipality to abandon the levels of affordability it began with? Will future councils come to expect its housing company to generate modest profits for the municipality in the same way that the City’s renewable energy company — also a government business enterprise — does?
Land is a huge municipal need and asset. How will that be stewarded for continuing public good by any council in control of the new corporation?
Non-profit housing providers are in it for the long haul. With their community service ethos, originating in service clubs, Indigenous groups, faith communities and organizations for the disabled, may they not be more likely to keep their housing truly affordable?
I can’t answer all these questions — perhaps the new government business enterprise route is the best choice. But I can’t help but worry for the future of citizen-led housing non-profits that use the lens of justice and care for the whole community to drive their decisions.
From 2000 to 2005, Cheryl Lyon was the first social housing administrator for the City and County of Peterborough. She has also chaired the board of directors of Kairos Non-Profit Housing.