Questions on housing and homelessness posed to Region of Waterloo chair candidates
Panel also covered police budget, climate change, engaging youth and building community
The need to address housing and homelessness are among the top municipal concerns voters have raised with CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.
Responses to a survey on the CBC K-W website helped inform the questions that were asked of candidates seeking the position of regional chair in Monday's municipal election.
There are three people seeking the top elected job in the region. Karen Redman is hoping to remain chair of the Region of Waterloo, but Narine Dat Sookram and Brendon John Da Costa are hoping to unseat her.
Redman and Dat Sookram took part in a panel interview with CBC K-W's The Morning Edition host Craig Norris about top issues in Waterloo region.
Da Costa declined the invitation to take part in the panel. He was sent the questions by email after the panel took place. His responses are below.
The questions for the regional chair candidates covered: housing, homelessness, climate change, their thoughts on re-allocating the police budget, engaging young people in the community and community building.
The full audio of the panel can be found at the bottom of this article.
When it comes to housing, Dat Sookram says he sees it from a different perspective than others.
"When I look at the housing issue, I'm seeing it to be an institutional crisis," he said. "When we talk about housing, we fail to dig deeper to understand what's really causing this issue."
He told a story about how a friend invited him to dinner, but despite having a lot of food and drink, the friend didn't prepare any food Dat Sookram could eat.
"He did what was best for him and I think that's where we fail, so I think to really get started, we have to get the people who are affected to be part of the process but also we need to be more creative."
Redman says she's proud of the official plan the region has completed and how it manages growth in the community.
She says the official plan gives a path forward for the region to build houses "under the province's aggressive 1.5 million new houses in 10 year plan."
"But what I'm most excited about it is the result of dealing with developers, civil society, area municipalities looking at where we can have complete and completed communities so that you can live, work, buy groceries and get professional services within a 15 minute radius of where you live in every corner of the region," Redman said.
Redman says it's important to protect the urban-rural communities while also building aggressively.
"We're building single family homes, the missing middle and high rise as well," she said.
Redman says she's heard lots of people mention homelessness as she's knocked on doors. She said the reasons people find themselves experiencing homelessness "are complex and are as unique as the individual."
She said it's a national and global problem and the region has looked to experts to get advice.
"We've asked staff to come back in December to the new council with a master plan. Right now, staff are looking at all kinds of innovative things," Redman said.
The managed encampment is one of those ideas, which Redman said is "not necessarily A Better Tent City 2.0" — referencing a tiny home community in Kitchener — "but it certainly isn't an unsanctioned encampment that all of a sudden we say it's sanctioned. There will be supports there."
Redman said there's no easy solution, and local groups are working to help, but local experts say there are spots along the system where the region could alleviate pressure. Redman says that includes more subsidized housing so people living in supportive housing could move and "make it on their own and it frees that space so that more people can come in."
Dat Sookram said having people living in tents "trigger us to say, you know what, 'hey, we have an issue here' and it's not necessarily homeless pieces that we're seeing. It is about the institutional crisis that I talked about earlier," he said.
"You want to make sure you meet people where they're at and understand what their needs are," he said.
He said people are in the encampments for many different reasons, including mental health concerns.
"I see it as an opportunity for us to really utilize the skills and the strengths that the folks have there," he said.
"Homelessness is not only about building homes. It could be as simple as people finding the right fit in terms of jobs and creating opportunities for them."
Municipal election day is Monday.
LISTEN | Regional chair candidates on housing, homelessness, climate change and more:
Q: Please introduce yourself.
A: I'm not a career politician. Like most people in Waterloo region, I'm a middle class worker, born from an immigrant family who left Portugal some 40 years ago.
I'm a financial planner by trade, and have been working in the financial industry for well over a decade. I have a degree in psychology and criminology at the University of Waterloo, where I also ran a small volunteer organization.
I jumped into this election because I didn't see fair representation at the regional chair level, and I'm a big complainer who believes that we all have a responsibility to get involved.
Q: In a survey on our website, voters told us overwhelmingly that housing and homelessness are top of mind in this municipal election. Let's first touch on housing specifically. What needs to happen in the region to create more housing that's affordable?
A: Our rent is out of control. A population that cannot move from rent to home ownership is a stagnant one: the rental bubble cannot be corrected by adding more houses, as those are snatched up by investors or large corporations. Until our own residents can afford to become homeowners, they will continue to consume the rental supply.
I propose the region work with developers to create low-cost, minimal profit condo-style residences and restrict the sale of them to Waterloo region residents who qualify for the first time home buyer'sprogram on a first-come, first-serve basis to eliminate the problem of blind bidding, over-bidding, and foreign or non-local investment.
I propose that the region refrains from collecting property taxes for the first five years on these properties to allow for buyers to qualify with banks more easily.
Additionally, I propose that the region reduce property taxes on a month to month basis for all landlords who rent to Waterloo residents proportional to a discount in their lease contracts/market rent.
Lastly, I propose the introduction of a non-resident of Waterloo region tax for investors who are attempting to purchase secondary residences in Waterloo region, but whose primary residences are in other municipalities.
Q: We know homelessness has become a bigger concern over the last four years in the region. We've seen encampments grow in Cambridge and Kitchener. What steps would you like to see taken in the coming months to help people get out of tents and off the streets?
A: We need to develop a fully funded mental health and addiction centre, equipped with trained healthcare staff and personnel. We need the placement of these facilities to be away from the city centres, along with all safe consumption sites, with a development of semi-permanent residences within the boundaries of these facilities.
We need to constructively contain these populations to allow for easy patrolling of the residents, access to systems and services that will attempt to treat them, collection of data to ensure we are adequately identifying key information about these people, a safe-zone for them to participate in consumptive activity, and to make cleanliness a simpler issue to manage.
For the population who are not mentally ill, or addicted, but are disabled, or escaping domestic abuse, or other concerns, we must provide staff that can work to assess the particular needs and challenges of each person/family on a case by case basis, and work to constructively prioritize access to affordable housing based on individualized needs assessments until we have enough space for all residents who need it.
Furthermore, we must cut red-tape and fees for development (including non-affordable developments) to encourage more expedient prioritization of affordable units.
Q: One of the most criticized lines in the region's budget is policing. During deliberations for this year's budget, the MP and the MPP for Kitchener Centre wrote to the region asking councillors to defund police. What do you think of the idea of reallocating money in the police budget?
A: Everywhere we see that police are defunded, we in turn see a rise in crime. This is grossly apparent in many U.S. cities, and we are starting to see this become the case in Canada, and specifically Waterloo region, where our crime rates have been soaring over the years just as our solve rates have been declining.
Canada already has some of the softest on crime policies, and we are suggesting that we remove resources and equipment from our police services (discouraging our men and women on the ground) which will prevent them from having both the presence, and ability to respond to crime.
The defunding of these integral enforcement systems signals to criminals that we have no interest in bringing them to justice — it makes Waterloo region a playground for crime; an open-season invitation for drug dealers, human traffickers, and violent offenders.
I would oppose defunding our police, in fact, I believe that the WRPS requires more funding to dedicate towards proper training, practical equipment, and more quality officers on the ground.
Q: Another major issue voters told us was important to them is climate change and addressing it at a municipal level. Over the next four years, what concrete, tangible steps would you take to address climate change?
A: A major problem when we consider the effect of the climate on Waterloo region is how we prioritize projects and what we spend our limited resources on.
If we want to be serious about green energy, we need to look at options that promote Ontario's major energy supply lines: nuclear (which provides about 60 per cent of Ontario's energy supply) and hydro-electric (which provides about 25 per cent of Ontario's energy supply), both of which are extraordinarily clean sources of energy.
We must also forego the idea of 15 minute communities in favour of a more strategically interconnected Waterloo region — this area is far too vast and expansive for commuters. We have to look at real data and determine the best solution, and more and more people are choosing less and less active modes of transport.
We should therefore be favouring a renewed public transit grid: one that utilizes bike and pedestrian trails that connect neighbourhoods to parks, downtown/uptown cores, and to our bus systems, which in turn should connect to the LRT. A central hub for parking non-motorized vehicles may be possible to encourage this more, but we cannot ignore the fact that over 90 per cent of commuters use motor vehicles.
Q: CBC K-W's The Morning Edition host Craig Norris recently had the opportunity to visit Eastwood Collegiate Institute in Kitchener and he spoke with high school students about this municipal election. They all told him they didn't feel like municipal politicians cared about what they thought or what they wanted to see. What do you say to young people in this region who don't feel like their opinions matter?
I say get involved, reach out to your politicians, make your voices loud, show up to local events, and demand their attention. If you can, vote, or talk to your parents, teachers, and networks about which candidates best represent your needs.
Local politicians have been largely ignoring Waterloo region residents in general, not just younger audiences. We can see this in the polling, even most recently regarding speed limit changes (which evidently more than 70 per cent of residents opposed).
Part of the reason I have gotten involved was because I failed to see the region listening to its people, especially the younger generations that will feel the brunt of future policy changes. I hope that, as a fairly young man myself, I can inspire younger generations to get interested in partaking in the political process.
Waterloo region has an embarrassingly low voter turnout and the younger the resident, the less likely they are to vote. We need to make politics more engaging for our youth earlier on and it involves getting out and actually speaking with them.
Q: The past two-and-a-half years have not been easy for people. For local politicians, there's been a rise in vitriol from people upset with decisions they're making. Some local residents have complained they don't feel listened to by politicians. What steps would you take as regional chair to build community across the entire region?
A: First of all, we need to understand why people are upset. Demonizing someone for voicing their opinion, especially in a time when they've felt unheard, is not a practical solution. Responding to frustrations (which often are because residents feel their money isn't being best utilized) by spending funds on security for example, is completely tone-deaf.
We need to listen, even when those voices seem angry. I have not personally encountered any vitriol, the reason why is because I have spent this campaign going out and speaking with residents directly. Hearing what their needs are, listening to their concerns, offering actual solutions instead of empty promises.
We need to spend more time properly engaging our community, hosting a wider array of opportunities for them to get to know our politicians by speaking with them in less formal settings. And when decisions need to be made that might be difficult, we need to be fully transparent about why we are making it, where the resources are or are not going, and how this is in the best interest of everyone.
Approaching situations with the objective of balance is often the most efficient — you can catch more bees with honey than vinegar, after all.