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“Whole of Hamilton” approach to Hamilton’s housing affordability crisis

Steps away from where Hamilton Councilors discussed housing affordability, an encampment of unhoused persons

As the realization takes hold that addressing Hamilton’s housing crisis must primarily be driven by Hamilton Council, a cross-departmental Affordable Housing Secretariat Division within the Healthy and Safe Communities is being proposed. A phrase that is being increasingly heard around Council is “working on the side of the desk”—a reference to staff taking on projects and trying to squeeze in time to work on them along with the regular workload. That has been how the housing issue has been addressed in Hamilton with a number of city departments having some involvement in housing but lacking a coordinated focus. The Secretariat as proposed would have the full responsibility coordinate the development of policies to attack the acute shortage of social and affordable housing working across city departments.

A roadmap has been developed to drive the process is based on four pillars:

  1. New construction of affordable housing: This is becoming more difficult owning to high interest rates and inflated construction costs but it is still a key component to addressing the housing challenge. 
  2. Acquisition of affordable housing: This is a new concept presented to council earlier this year. While acquiring existing rental investment properties does not create new supply, it does slow the erosion of modest-rent units, which is happening at a substantial pace. Due diligence is required to examine buildings and land to maximize opportunities to continue to offer affordable rents. 
  3. Preserve and maintain existing affordable housing: Community housing vacancy rate is currently above the healthy rate of 2-3%, at approximately 6%. One of ways to improve this vacancy rate is to repair offline units. This repair work will also allow increased number of individuals to be housed.  
  4. Provision of housing-based supports:  Many individuals who need affordable housing are not successful as tenants due to addiction and mental health issues. They also need personalized human service supports to ensure successful tenancies and well-being. The availability of income-based and personal supports is one of the most important tools to end chronic homelessness.

The plan presented to council calls for the engagement of a coordinator to head the project, and as the City Manager noted Tuesday, the city has been advertising for someone to head the project without success. A head hunter has now been engaged to try to get someone in place. In the meantime, a consultant has been hired to keep the project moving forward.

Money continues to be the biggest challenge, and to address that part of the plan, involves a ramp-up of government relations efforts to make sure Hamilton obtains its share of provincial and federal programs. So-called Social Purpose Funders, essentially not-for-profit entities, were described as a growing potential source of funding for smaller scale projects. With construction costs at a prohibitive level, rent subsidy in some cases, is the most cost-effective way to keep people in their homes.

The council action comes two years after the announcement of funding for the proposed LRT project by former Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna in which she raised expectations that, with the transit project, would come “conditions” (and presumably funding) for affordable housing. As it became evident that neither housing conditions nor funding were attached to LRT, staff and council started working on what is now being described as a “whole of Hamilton, whole of city government” approach.

Meanwhile significant ground has been lost on housing affordability. Hamilton’s housing market between 2011 and 2021 while transit dominated the agenda, has lost almost 16,000 lower rent units. Between 2011 and 2016 the number of rental units in Hamilton below $750 declined by 10,400; with a further 5,500 lost between 2016-21. The systemic affordability challenges seen in Hamilton were further impacted by a significant change in the percentage of households who are renting. In 2006 71.6% of households owned their home; by 2021 this had declined to 65.7%.

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