Chad Collins can stand outside the Riverdale Recreation Centre in East Hamilton and stare straight at the problem with affordable housing.

He points out an apartment complex nearby that used to offer reasonably priced apartments. A few years ago, the Ward 5 councillor says, a Hamiltonian with a low income could walk into that building, fill out an application and immediately get an affordable place to live.

Now, the complex has been sold. And each time someone moves out, Collins said, the landlord renovates the apartment and jacks up the rent.

'When I look back at my own experience, if it wasn't for my mom's strong work ethic and her industrious nature, I probably still would be living in city housing.' - Chad Collins, Ward 5 councillor

So where does the Hamiltonian barely making ends meet live?

That question has been Collins's foremost preoccupation over the past year, ever since he became the president of CityHousing Hamilton. Finding solutions to an affordable housing crisis has become the latest project of a councillor known for taking on pet issues and pulling political strings to help make them happen.

And having spent part of his childhood in social housing, for him, this one is personal too.

Collins isn't the only city politician on a crusade to fix the affordable housing shortage. But since taking on the lead role at the city's affordable housing agency, he's become the de facto leader in searching for new ideas and new ways to put more money and land toward the complex cause.

Some examples:

  • He urged his fellow councillors to fork over more than $1 million in area rating money to repair social housing units. They all recognize the shortage of affordable housing, Collins said. So it wasn't very hard.
  • He convinced city council to offer up a vacant parking lot in the lower city to an affordable housing provider. The city will also devote some of the millions it will make selling waterfront land on Piers 7 and 8 to affordable housing.
  • He moved to look at putting affordable seniors units on top of an expansion to the Riverdale Recreation Centre in his ward. He'd like to look at doing it with other centres too.
  • This week, he urged city council to set up a subcommittee to identify city-owned properties to offer to developers who pledge to build affordable housing.

That's just the start of what the city can do, Collins said. But it's still not enough. 

The waiting list for social housing currently sits at 5,700 units, he said. That's twice what it was when the city amalgamated in 2000.

'It was not a politically cool thing to be pursuing 10 years ago.' - Sam Merulla, Ward 4 councillor

The city has a stated goal of cutting that list in half by 2023. But at the current rate, and even with an annual CityHousing Hamilton budget of more than $67 million, Collins said the list will only get longer.

"We're trending in the wrong direction," he said this week. And no matter how creative the city gets, the problem needs more support from higher levels of government.

"There's no sign, in the absence of provincial and federal funds, that the city's going to put a dent in it."

Growing up at 2 Oriole

Collins comes by his interest in the subject honestly. For six years of his childhood, his single mom, Shirley, raised him and his sister in a large social housing complex at 2 Oriole Cres.

Collins has fond memories of the experience. But it also helped him understand how important it is for a family to have an affordable place to live.

"When I look back at my own experience, if it wasn't for my mom's strong work ethic and her industrious nature, I probably still would be living in city housing," he said.

Shirley Collins went on to a life of politics, serving as an alderman, regional councillor, and from 1987 to 1990, a Liberal MP. (She later became a member of the Landlord and Tenant Board.) Collins followed in her footsteps, getting elected as a Ward 5 councillor at age 24, and has served for the past 20 years.

Renee Wetselaar, a local affordable housing advocate, is happy to see Collins join the affordable housing fight. Collins is known as a number cruncher around the council table, scrutinizing budgets to see where the city can save a few dollars.

For years, Wetselaar said, Collins and others seemed to look at the economy and housing as separate issues. Now they're connecting the two, she said, and are more willing to spend money on it.

"I'm giddy," she said.

It comes at a important time. Hamilton's housing market is booming, with home prices increasing an average of 10 per cent last year. In January, Hamilton had the lowest supply of housing stock in 10 years.

Buying time 

That influx, experts say, tightens the demand for affordable housing, and puts pressure on the rental market too. In 2014, the vacancy rate for rental units fell to a dangerously low 2.2 per cent. While it bounced back to 3.4 per cent in 2015, rents still increased 3.8 per cent.

Collins has been "very innovative and pushing the envelope" in addressing the affordable housing issue, said Sam Merulla, Ward 4 councillor. "He's done a great job."

But the community, he said, is coming on board too.

Merulla recalls a battle 10 years ago to put affordable housing units at the Perkins Centre in his ward. People protested.

"It was not a politically cool thing to be pursuing 10 years ago," he said. Now, "I'm just proud of the fact that in Ward 4, we were ahead of the curve."

What's really needed, Collins said, is stable money flowing from the provincial and federal governments for housing. Until then, he'll do what he can.

"We need to buy time with motions that find creative ways to fund affordable housing projects," he said. "We need to buy time up to the point where the new federal government comes out with a national housing strategy that gives us some certainty."