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County eyes 'data-driven' approach to meet 'desperate' housing crunch

County surpassed its 10-year goal 'but it's nowhere close to matching the need,' conceded official, who says county will take a different approach
County officials were at a special meeting of council Wednesday to give an overview of the housing and homelessness services it offers, and to discuss its plans for the future. Pictured, from left, are Wendy Hembruff, Mina Fayez-Bahgat, and Brad Spiewak.

The County of Simcoe exceeded its recent 10-year goal for creating affordable housing units, and has now turned its focus to the coming decade and how it will meet a "more desperate" need for affordable housing.

The county has created 3,134 new units since January 1, 2014, which is several hundred units in excess of its 10-year minimum target of 2,685 units by 2024.

In total, the county has approximately 4,100 units in its system across Simcoe County, many of which are operated by non-profits, as well as owning and operating 1,652 units in the county (with 1,292 rent-geared-to-income units, and 360 affordable units) through the Simcoe County Housing Corporation (SCHC).

There are currently 792 social housing units in Orillia, with an additional 130 units soon to be added to the inventory through the county hub project on West Street North, anticipated to open next spring.

County officials gave an overview of its services at a special meeting of council Wednesday at the Orillia Opera House. At that meeting the city also endorsed an affordable housing action plan in an effort to increase housing affordability in Orillia in the coming years.

“Currently, at SCHC we have 146 units in Orillia, which represents about 9 per cent (of the county’s total). With the addition of the West Street building, when that opens in April, it's almost doubling it up to about 16 per cent,” said Brad Spiewak, the county's director of social housing.

Over the past ten years, Spiewak said the goal was to bring 164 affordable housing units to the city, which the county more than doubled.

“We actually created 314 units in Orillia, so that represents about 10 per cent of the strategy, but about 190 per cent of the Orillia target,” he said.

Spiewak said the city receives a large proportion of the county’s roughly $100-million social housing budget.

“Orillia has, in most cases, on average, 15 to 20 per cent of the housing,” he said. “The costs being paid are actually below 5 per cent.”

Looking to the future, the county is working on an SCHC master plan, a 10-year affordable housing and homelessness prevention strategy, and a Housing ASAP (attainable supply action plan) to develop strategies to bring “missing middle” housing to the county.

“For the (SCHC) master plan, it will be a strategic direct response to losing development charge revenues for affordable housing,” said Mina Fayez-Bahgat, the county's general manager of social and community services.

“One thing we have been doing is strategically trying to acquire things that come up that are neighbouring, like sharing property lines with our assets, so we're trying to land bank to intensify, as well.”

Following the presentation, Coun. Jay Fallis questioned how the county will ensure it meets demand over the next decade.

“How is the county going to ensure that our next 10-year plan target is going to not only … meet and surpass the existing target, but also how's it going to meet the need, not just right now, but over the next 10 years?” he asked. “With every indication we're seeing this is going to become more and more desperate.”

Fayez-Bahgat said the county is going to take a data-driven approach over the next decade, as opposed to setting hard targets for housing numbers.

“I'd like to take the approach of goals or targets based on percentages: we're going to increase affordability by X. We're going to decrease, you know, homelessness by Y,” he said.

“Ten years ago, we thought we were ambitious, and we exceeded it – great – but it's nowhere close to matching the need, so we don't want to repeat that target again and work off of an inaccurate goal," said Fayez-Bahgat.

“With the 10-year plan, the province requires us to do five-year reviews of it and readjust, so we will be, obviously, constantly working on moving the goalposts to where they need to be based on the need assessment,” he said. “I think the next 10 years will look a little bit more data-driven and not just counting doors or rent subsidies and things like that.”

Fallis also questioned whether the county will be working to increase the affordability of the West Street North affordable housing hub – as the bulk of its units will be priced at 80 per cent of market rent, with a handful of rent-geared-to-income units.

Spiewak replied that 10 per cent of the building’s tenants will be part of the county’s housing first program, which houses people experiencing homelessness, and many of whom will qualify for rent subsidies that reduce the total rent they are paying. 

“Ten per cent is what's been standardized across all of our new builds. They're not necessarily paying that full rent and, often, rent subsidies and support services go along with those types of units," said Spiewak.

“From a rent collection point of view … the building, let's say, is getting that 80 per cent of average market rent, but it's very important to remember that doesn't always mean that's what the tenant is paying.”

Coun. Ralph Cipolla questioned whether the West Street North project will include access to social services, similar to Elizabeth Overend non-profit housing on Fittons Road.

“There's a significant amount of services in the West Street building – it'll be more than we have at any other sites,” Spiewak replied. “Not only do we have our own tenant navigators who helped with some of those types of skill-building for the various tenants, but with Ontario Works there, as well as the province being there, and we're looking at even employment services … being located there.”

Coun. Tim Lauer questioned what will be done with the remaining pieces of land on the West Street North property.

Spiewak replied there are no immediate plans for the remaining property, but suggested they could be subject of future affordable housing development or a second phase of the project – as is the possibility for a variety of land the county owns.

“Some of these second phases are going to be things identified in the master plan, and again, because we already own the land, there's cost savings there,” he replied.

“Those are going to be some of the proposals that we're going to have to bring forward to county council for review, and certainly those two remaining parcels at West Street will be included in that plan.”


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Greg McGrath-Goudie

About the Author: Greg McGrath-Goudie

Greg has been with Village Media since 2021, where he has worked as an LJI reporter for CollingwoodToday, and now as a city hall/general assignment reporter for OrilliaMatters
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