With two large encampments of people experiencing homelessness in Kitchener, housing and homelessness are among the top issues for people in the city in this municipal election.
Candidates running for mayor were asked what they would do to address the crisis during a panel discussion with Craig Norris, host of CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition.
There are five candidates running for mayor in Kitchener: Rehman-Ullah Khan, Manikantan Nair, Val Neekman, Milos Sokollu Posavljak and Berry Vrbanovic.
Khan did not respond to CBC K-W's invitation to take part in the panel. An email with the questions has been sent to the candidate and any response received will be added to the end of this story.
Nair said when it comes to affordable housing, there's a need for a collaborative effort with other levels of government.
"We have more people coming into Canada and less houses being built because right now, the federal government is promoting mass immigration and … it's not sustainable," he said.
"We can never ever fix the affordable housing issue if more people come in and less houses being built. So my proposal is balanced immigration and in the meantime increase the inventory."
He says the city should be more organized when it comes to knowing what kind of housing people are looking for and he'd like statistics on that so staff and council can make "data-driven decisions."
Nair said he'd also like to see lending practices tightened when people buy more than one home because housing has become an investment for some people. He said he'd also like to see a law where the bids on a home are open to the people trying to purchase the home.
Neekman said one of the first things he would do is address affordable rents "because this is within our power."
He would encourage homeowners to finish their basements to create affordable apartments and suggested "a four-year window where the city issues permits free of charge [and] the added value of the finished basement will not be included in property tax calculations."
He said the city could also offer grant funding to help people create these kinds of living spaces.
Neekman also said a vacant home tax is necessary.
"Just because our vacant home tax is being calculated to be less than one per cent, and it might not make enough money to warrant implementing, it does not mean that we should not do it. We should use it as a deterrence," he said, adding the city should also look at Airbnb "to figure out what we could do there."
Sokollu Posavljak said the city needs more money "to build a lot more stuff — sustainable of course."
"We need to open up the administrative pipes for efficient construction," he said.
"If I'm elected, I'm going to review all the — let's call it just paperwork. And if I find any sort of administrative constraint that was put in place because of one bad player … and any administrative stuff that we have to bring in because of those players and we have to apply to everybody. So I'm going to look to get those scrapped, start with a clean slate."
He also called on property owners who rent to cap their prices for the next three months.
Vrbanovic said the city and region have passed initiatives recently, including the official plan, that plans for growth in the community.
"From a city perspective, we have updated our new zoning bylaw and we have incorporated in that both as of right duplexing, which does allow for duplexing across the city as well as allowing for things like tiny homes, secondary suites and so on, which has been a decision of our council and really has put us on the leading edge of this as we look to create 15 minute neighbourhoods throughout the city," he said.
He said the city has provided land for affordable housing projects and removed development charges for not-for-profit housing projects. He said the city has worked with the federal government for the rapid housing initiative and with the provincial government to provide supports for people who need them, including those experiencing homelessness and mental health concerns.
How to help people who are homeless
When it comes to helping people who are experiencing homelessness, Neekman said it's important for people not to be judgmental.
"Sometimes just one chain of events puts you in a situation where you lose your job and you lose your income and livelihood, and you end up on somebody else's property in a tent," he said.
He said he visited the encampment at Weber and Victoria streets and the one in Victoria Park and found there are some who are dealing with addictions and mental health issues or other health problems that have prevented them from being part of the community.
He says the people living in encampments need to be given a comfortable space, and suggested renting container cabins at a local campground for the winter to give people a place to be sheltered.
Sokollu Posavljak said there's a need to talk to people at the sites but said if the city did more to encourage people to use Victoria Park, then the people in that encampment would "just leave by themselves."
"I'm assuming that the current administration has exhausted all administrative, sort of, polite resources in physically removing the folks, so I don't know if bringing in off duty police officers would do any good," he said.
Nair said he believes in the "philosophy of teaching someone how to fish rather than giving a fish."
"If they are healthy, we need to do a skill training program in partnership with various organizations and help them bring them to the mainstream society," he said.
"We have to de-incentivize the money they're getting because most of them are claiming the Ontario disability support money. So as long as they keep getting that, they won't work right?"
He said the only solution for people who are unable to work is "to do social service support through the taxpayer system. There is no other way."
Vrbanovic said city council and staff took a people-focused approach to the encampments and the issue of homelessness.
"While certainly there is role for local government to play, it's really going to take all of community solutions to deal with these issues, particularly with the support of the federal government in terms of building additional housing and the provincial government whose responsible for health care and funding, particularly when it comes to mental health addictions," he said.
He pointed to the city's support of the tiny home community A Better Tent City and said the city continues to work with the region to "make sure that any roadblocks are removed" for local groups who are working to address the issue.
The municipal election is on Monday, Oct. 24.
How to vote in Kitchener
Voting is in-person in Kitchener.
Advanced voting days are Wednesday, Oct. 12 to Saturday, Oct. 15 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. People can vote at any of these five locations:
- Breithaupt Centre, 350 Margaret Ave.
- Country Hills Community Centre, 100 Rittenhouse Rd.
- Doon Pioneer Park Community Centre, 150 Pioneer Dr.
- Forest Heights Community Centre, 1700 Queen's Blvd.
- Stanley Park Community Centre, 505 Franklin St. N.
On Monday, Oct. 24, people can vote between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. at any of the locations within their ward. All sites are accessible and one location in each ward will have accessible vote tabulators on voting day.
People who are experiencing homelessness can vote by using the address of a location where they most often have returned to sleep or eat in the last five weeks, such as a shelter or drop-in centre. In this case, people will be asked to fill out and sign an affidavit of residence.