Affordable housing is the top issue in Waterloo region, chair candidates say

The four candidates for regional chair were asked how they would tackle the lack of affordable housing in Waterloo region.

'The region needs to take a role in terms of leading the charge,' Rob Deutschmann says

In July, a group of people who are homeless camped out near downtown Kitchener to bring attention to the lack of affordable housing in the region. (Carmen Ponciano/ CBC)

All four regional chair candidates say affordable housing is the number one issue for all levels of government right now.

Rob Deutschmann, Karen Redman, Jan d'Ailly and Jay Aissa weighed in on the issue in a panel discussion with CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

They also all agree it's an issue the Region of Waterloo cannot face alone.

Redman, who has worked with Habitat for Humanity, said last year, her colleagues for the Ontario caucus of the group lobbied the government for more money for social housing.

The federal government, she noted, has pledged $15.9 billion over 10 years.

"It's really important that we look to work in concert with the provincial government, the federal government," she said.

Deutschmann agreed, saying the region needs to work with community agencies, governments and private developers "to try to create as many spaces as we can by all means possible as quickly as we can."

No more boarding houses

Jan d'Ailly said the region needs to create an ecosystem where everyone works together.

But there's more the region can do, he said. One is to advocate for services like minimum guaranteed income. Another option is to look at ways to provide "ultra-low cost housing," he added.

In the past, boarding houses were ways to get people off the streets, he said.

Boarding houses are places people can rent a room but share common spaces including washrooms, kitchens and living rooms.

"It wouldn't be great housing, but it's much better than the street and the shelter," he said.

"With the gentrification of the cores, those boarding houses are no longer available. So that natural flow from the street to a shelter to ultra-low cost housing and then moving up the system has been blocked."

Candidates for regional chair sat down with The Morning Edition host Craig Norris, left, on Oct. 9 to talk about the issues in this municipal election. They are, from left, Jay Aissa, Rob Deutschmann, Jan d'Ailly and Karen Redman. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Help people pay rent

Jay Aissa says the region has not done enough to create more affordable housing.

"We fail miserably on that side, and the reason why we fail miserably is because people are waiting over seven and a half to eight years to get into affordable housing," he said.

Instead, he wants the region to help people pay their rent.

"Work with the province and trying to split rent with some of the people, trying to help them out to get into places, instead of trying to build. Because building is going to take two to three years, and we're still going to have a backlog," he said.

"For a quick solution right away is to split the rent, help them out to get into houses, and then start building to catch up with the backlog that we have."

Plan to end chronic homelessness

The region has a plan to end chronic homelessness by 2025.

Called Housing First, it's a program that gets people into their own homes more quickly with support for rent, while also providing other services such as addictions and mental health.

The program received $3.27 million in March from the Ontario government. The region will receive the money over the next three years.

At the time, Deb Schlichter, the region's housing services director, said the new money from the province will mean they can roll the program out on a larger scale to help more people.

"It doesn't mean people will never be homeless in the future. It just means when they come into an emergency shelter system, that they maybe land there only for, let's say, 30 days," Schlichter said.

In a previous interview, Regional Chair Ken Seiling has said the region offers incentives to developers to create affordable housing. He says those incentives mean the region is probably one of the top municipalities in terms of getting affordable and social housing built.

"Admittedly, it's not enough. Our waiting lists don't get any smaller, but at least we're creating hundreds of units every year, whether through subsidy or through building with non-profit and other groups," Seiling said.

A group of youth who are homeless camped out in Kitchener's Victoria Park in the summer of 2017. They said there weren't enough options for them for housing. (Danielle Kappele/CBC)

Tent cities in Cambridge, Kitchener

For those on the streets, there are few options.

Cambridge and Kitchener have both seen people who are homeless set up encampments.

Often "tent cities" are set up in hidden spots in urban areas, but sometimes those living in tents set up in more visible areas to draw attention to the lack of affordable housing.

One such protest took place this summer near downtown Kitchener on the grounds of the Provincial Offences Court on Weber Street E.

Samantha Stoner, who took part in the demonstration this summer, said she would be on the waiting list for affordable housing for two years.

"I have nowhere to go right now. I know there's not a lot of us, but it keeps us off the streets," she said.

She can't go to Mary's Place, an emergency shelter for women in Kitchener, because she has two dogs. 

"I know I have nowhere to go and that's why this is super important for me," she said. "If it wasn't for this, I don't know what I'd be doing right now."

Devon Roussell was part of the group that camped out in Victoria Park in the summer of 2017.

He said he lost his partner, his job and his home in one week. Struggling to get back on his feet, he lived in a shelter.

"They do their best to clean up, but it's not a place where you want to shower. And if you do … you've got to constantly look out the shower curtain to make sure no one is taking your things," he said. "You don't feel safe."

Various reasons people are homeless

Tiny, or micro-houses, are an idea that's been raised with Redman.

It's a solution similar to what's seen in other jurisdictions like Los Angeles, Hamilton, Nak'azdli Whu'ten First Nation and Fredericton.

Redman said the small homes could be an interim solution for people looking for affordable housing, but the region also needs to provide wraparound services for people on the streets because there are many reasons they're homeless.

"It's isolation, family breakdown, mental health, drug and alcohol addiction," she said.

"It's establishing trust. It's having people working with drug-addicted people who have lived experience, and then we can get them into some kind of housing."

'Get out of their way'

Redman says there are organizations ready to help, now the region needs to get out of their way and let them do their work.

"Good leadership, especially at the regional level for an issue like this, is knowing when to help the community address these issues and when to get out of their way," she said.

"There's lots of people that are working on that inclusionary, wraparound, prevention, harm reduction, treatment and everybody needs to feel safe, so that needs to be a component as we go forward."

Deutschmann said rather than stepping aside, though, the region needs to take the lead on these projects.

"There are too many organizations that are working, almost in silos, and the region needs to take a role in terms of leading the charge with respect to this issue," he said.