Photo of a high rise condo in Kitchener, Ontario.
SAAJAN KAR PHOTO

THE ELEPHANT: KITCHENER MOVES SLOWLY IN THE RIGHT DIRECTON 

Despite a marginal drop in interest rates from the Bank of Canada and the minimal drop in housing prices, the housing market is slower this year compared to last year. The effects of rising costs of living and a stagnant unemployment rate in Waterloo Region are causing many to adjust their spending habits.   

With the housing crisis far from over, it seems like the Region is continuously taking more action to ensure that housing demand is met with housing affordability. Although the Region has historically been reactive rather than proactive, it is clear that the city is trying to be proactive in accommodating for future growth, which is a shift in the right direction.   

Higher costs of living, inflation and housing unaffordability affect everyone, but low-income residents are hit hardest.  

For example, take Amanda Kroetsch, a Kitchener resident who has a brain injury and is currently receiving support from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), the Ontario Housing Benefit (OHB) and Ontario, who was recently featured on a CTV Kitchener article.   

Kroetsch is one of the many marginalized residents who are struggling to make ends meet due to barriers such as general housing unaffordability, housing discrimination and insufficient social benefits.   

Her sobering monthly financial breakdown showcases how, even with support like the ODSP and the OHB, she is left with only a couple hundred dollars for all her other expenses after paying for her housing costs. This experience is not unique to Kroetsch, but unfortunately experienced by low-income individuals throughout the Region.   

That being said, there is finally a shift in the right direction with the City of Kitchener passing an inclusionary zoning bylaw requiring new builds within 500 metres of major transit corridors (LRT stations) to have under 5 per cent of units dedicated to affordable housing. Kitchener aims to create 4,500 affordable units as a result of this bylaw.   

This would help those who rely on public transportation the most, such as seniors, disabled peoples and families.   

The City of Kitchener is also utilizing funding from the federal government to incentivize not-for-profit projects affordable rental and co-op housing. This incentive offers $10,000 per unit for eligible non-profit affordable rental and co-operative housing projects, with a cap of 50 units or $500,000 per project. This incentive is aligned with the Housing for All strategy and will hopefully help the city meet its goal of building 1,500 affordable units in the next three years and over 30,000 units by early next decade.   

There are still plenty of existing issues that need to be addressed, but there are important ongoing debates regarding new bylaws that can provide stronger regulations around AirBnB’s and lodgings and hold landowners accountable when redevelopment impacts their tenants.   

Lodging houses are places where five or more people reside, while short term rentals (STRs) provide accommodation for fewer than 90 days. Currently, lodging houses must be permitted, meet safety standards and be licensed by the city, but STRs do not need to be licensed and permitted. The city is hoping to change that.   

The city believes that there are over 1,100 unregulated lodging houses or STRs. The hope is that this bylaw would lead to safer conditions for residents in lodging houses and STRs, and, through licensing, there would be compliance and accountability from those who are running these living accommodations.   

Ultimately, the proposed bylaw is seeking to prioritize the needs of residents and to prevent illegal or unsafe STRs and lodging houses from popping up.   

Another bylaw that is being discussed supports vulnerable renters who find themselves uprooted from their homes due to landowners choosing to demolish the property. The Rental Replacement bylaw proposes that landowners with six or more rentals must provide compensation or alternative housing if they choose to demolish their properties.   

The options that renters have is to have free rent for a year prior to moving out of their current residence, compensation of 10 months of rent or the landowner must find them a new place to reside at an equal rate, or the developer will be in charge to pay the difference. If passed, the bylaw can take effect as early as this summer.   

Although there have been some great structural steps to address the current housing crisis in the Waterloo Region, there are some flaws as well. The inclusionary zoning efforts are unfortunately minimal; 500 metres to the LRT stations is a very limited distance, and 5 per cent of units dedicated to affordable housing is far too minimal as well. Critics of these limitations state that at least 10 to 15 per cent of units should be dedicated towards affordable housing in these new developments instead of just 5 per cent. There are also issues with the Rental Replacement bylaw, which does not protect tenants who are facing bad faith evictions and renovictions. The bottom line is that a lack of proactive renoviction bylaws in the Waterloo Region has resulted in renovictions being commonplace.   

While the proposed Rental Replacement bylaw is a good start, the scope is much too narrow and does not address consistent issues that make renters vulnerable. Even if bylaws pass that require AirBnbs and lodging houses to be licensed, there will not be a large team to enforce these accommodations, and it may be a slow and tedious process for change to happen.   

Of course, a shift in the right direction is great to see and the residents of Waterloo Region want to be hopeful, but structural and legal changes are a slow process while the reality for vulnerable renters who face housing instability is immediate and life-altering.   

Hopefully, this shift in the right direction can result in an impactful difference that can give renters a break from the constant pressures of inflation, high costs of living and housing unaffordability.