6 ideas to create more affordable housing in Hamilton

For National Housing Day, local experts shared ideas on how more affordable housing could be created in Hamilton.

More Hamiltonians living in unsuitable, unaffordable or inadequate housing in 2016 than in 2011: Census

George and Mary's Tavern and Banquet Centre was an east-end landmark where owners rented substandard rooms to tenants. Local nonprofit Indwell is turning it into more than 100 affordable apartments. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

The share of Hamilton households in "core housing" need rose to 13 per cent in 2016 from 11 per cent in 2011.

That number, released as part of the 2016 Census, means 36,810 households in Hamilton live in housing that costs more than 30 per cent of their income, doesn't have enough bedrooms for the number of people in the household and/or requires major repairs.

That core housing need and affordability concerns were the focus of a National Housing Day event in downtown Hamilton, coinciding with the day the federal government is outlining its strategy on combating unaffordable housing nationwide.

In Hamilton, the conversation between a few experts yielded some ideas that could help reverse that growing trend of inaffordability and unsuitable housing:

Bank for-sale schools and other public lands instead of selling them privately to build/facilitate affordable housing.

"Have we protected public lands every time they've come available?" asked Paul Johnson, the city's head of LRT. He suggested that one place where government can make a big impact on the creation of affordable housing is in owning land and making affordable housing creation a condition of its sale.

Prompt developers to build affordable housing using a mix of policies like inclusionary zoning or density bonuses.

Steve Robichaud, the city's head planner, raised the caveat that the city currently gives incentives to developers just to build anything downtown, and so requiring them to add on a wrinkle like affordable housing may defeat the point of the initial incentive.

Make facilitating affordable housing a required consideration in big public projects like LRT.

Johnson said Hamilton is focusing on social benefits like local jobs and affordable housing as it develops its LRT plan, but he'd like to see creating affordable housing built in to big provincial projects as requirement in a similar way that environmental or historic protection is.

Allow and encourage affordable housing units to be built on top of rec centres or adjacent to other public projects in the form of laneway or accessory units.

Suzanne Mammel, executive director of the local homebuilders' association, said that could help make a project go from unfeasible to feasible.

"It's expensive to build," she said. "How do you lower that cost?"

Give grants, not just loans, to developers of affordable housing.

Mylène Vincent is the director of building services for the YWCA in Hamilton. That organization is currently in construction on its Ottawa Street property to make room for 50 affordable housing units. But to build new buildings is expensive in Hamilton – the project costs $17 million, she said.

"It is very, very difficult to get $17 million, over and over, to build 50 units at a time," she said.

She acknowledged federal and provincial programs that help get a project going, but said they're commonly in the form of loans. Getting the units built is the barrier.

"The business plan to operate a 50-unit affordable building is surprisingly affordable," she said. "It's not developer affordable – it's not going to make anyone millions of dollars."

She said if the seed money to get the buildings off the ground was in the form of grants, it would allow more to be built and sustained over time.

Look into models that allow homebuyers on the edge of ownership to borrow part of their down payment from a developer.

The panelists highlighted a group in Toronto that allows households who can't save a full 20-per cent down payment as fast as the market is appreciating a chance to get in to a property with just five per cent down, and then repay that loan as a percentage of the purchase price when they go to sell it.

About the Author

Kelly Bennett

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Kelly Bennett is an award-winning reporter who lives in Hamilton. She grew up in Victoria and covered economics and arts as an investigative reporter in San Diego. She loves digging into great stories, hiking and playing the violin. Drop her a line anytime at kelly.bennett@cbc.ca.