Hamilton non-profits face 'infuriating' delays to build affordable housing, as city looks to change
City to present a new housing roadmap to councillors Wednesday, aiming to get more units built faster
As demolition began at the back of the boarded-up two-storey house, Renée Wetselaar beamed.
"I'm going to cry," she said, standing in the sunshine. "I'm so excited. I just can't believe it."
The executive director of St. Matthew's House's vision to transform the narrow property at 412 Barton St. E. in Hamilton is half a decade in the making. The site will eventually be home to 15 affordable units for low-income Black and Indigenous seniors.
"I'm not building an empire," said Wetselaar. "It's a bit of a vision of what can be. We're building a little community here."
On paper, the project is what all levels of government say is desperately needed to address the housing crisis.
It will add density to a sliver of downtown land. It will replace one of the street's many boarded-up buildings with rent-geared-to-income homes. It will support some of the city's most vulnerable residents who may otherwise face homelessness.
St. Matthew's House supports seniors and families in Hamilton's north end, and this will be its first affordable housing project.
The process that started back in 2018 to get funding and city approval has been long, laborious and "very difficult" — needlessly so, Wetselaar said.
For example, she had to navigate at least 10 city divisions involved with the project, undergo a complicated process of securing federal funding and then find more cash after the COVID-19 pandemic sent construction prices soaring.
And she's not done yet.
The site is undergoing a last-minute, second environmental assessment and Wetselaar's trying to fill a $300,000 shortfall, she said.
The move-in date has been pushed back by years — from August 2020 to, hopefully, April 2024, all the while the homelessness crisis — now declared a state of emergency — is getting worse.
"It's like being stuck on a wheel, around and around," Wetselaar said.
City looks to streamline approval processes, secure funding
With every passing year, Hamilton falls further behind when it comes to building affordable housing.
Between the city's social housing and the work of community organizations, Hamilton should be seeing an increase of 350 affordable units annually to keep up with the population's needs, said Michelle Baird, the city's housing services director, in an interview.
Over the last decade, however, no more than 55 units have been built a year on average, she said. Meanwhile Hamilton has lost almost 16,000 units that were renting for less than $750 a month between 2011 and 2021 — units that may have been renovated before being rented for a higher price, for instance.
In response to these shortcomings, city staff have drafted the Housing Sustainability and Investment Roadmap, which will be presented at a general issues committee meeting Wednesday.
"The roadmap is looking at, how do we work together to find ways — be it in housing or planning with our community partners — to ensure that we're actually building more affordable housing than we are right now?" Baird said.
"The idea is that we are working together as a whole of the city to recognize the homelessness crisis is something we can all play a part in."
Staff are looking at how to streamline city approval processes and secure more federal and provincial funding for both affordable and supportive housing. Supportive housing means residents with acute needs receive wraparound services, whether it be an emergency food program or on-site mental health nurses and addictions workers.
Council has also approved a $4-million affordable housing funding program that non-profit organizations can tap into to help cover the start-up costs like hiring a consultant or getting sites ready for development.
Building affordable housing has fallen to non-profits because the majority of federal and provincial funding is only available to them, rather than the city or for-profit developers, according to the affordable housing funding report.
'It doesn't need to be this way'
In a city that's under significant pressure to build more affordable housing quicker, any delays are "infuriating," said Graham Cubitt, the director of projects and development for housing operator Indwell.
He spoke to CBC Hamilton at Indwell's new apartment complex called The Oaks, on East Avenue, that includes 108 affordable, supportive units. It opened last July.
One of the most frustrating experiences he said he had over the five-year project involved garbage. It took seven months for the city to approve how the building's waste would be picked up.
"It was completely eating me up," Cubitt said of the delay.
"I'm biking to work every day and it doesn't matter which route I take, I'm going past tents, going past people sleeping rough. It's a disaster. It doesn't need to be this way."
Melanee McAulay, executive director of Sacajawea Non-Profit Housing, which assists Indigenous people, said she's faced similar delays.
One example is Sacajawea's retrofitting project on Steven Street that will create 15 affordable and supportive units for Indigenous seniors and small families. It's been delayed by about six months because of parking spots, she said.
City zoning rules stipulate they'd need to have seven or eight parking spots, but there's only room for two.
Also it doesn't make sense for what Sacajawea is building, she said.
"A lot of [residents] won't have cars and we're going to be right on the light rail [transit line]," McAulay said.
It took close to six months for Sacajawea to get the zoning by-law amendment. McAulay said the project should be done later this year.
Hamilton's chief planner Steve Robichaud said in an interview that whenever an applicant is deviating from the city's standards, like for waste collection or parking, it's going to take longer because the city has to make sure what's being proposed will still work.
"The fastest way to get approvals is to follow all the city's guidelines," Robichaud said.
He said while the planning department doesn't fast track affordable housing applications, it does have staff proactively work with the organization to get it over the finish line.
"Affordable housing is a city priority," Robichaud said. "When projects come in, we generally flag them."