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Supply and demand: Barrie's affordable housing crunch could take years to solve

'We need federal and provincial money to help to grow the supply of affordable housing for those in deepest housing need,' says mayor

Whether you’re searching for a one-bedroom apartment or a three-bedroom house with a yard, lack of inventory and soaring rental costs are creating a real issue for Barrie residents looking for a place to call home.

The City of Barrie has been rated as having the fourth highest rental rates in Canada, information that came as no surprise to many residents, as well as Mayor Jeff Lehman, who believes it's a result of an overheated real estate market and decades of undersupply. 

“It shows that affordable housing remains one of this city's top issues,” he says, adding it's clearly a result of a supply and demand. 

“We are seeing huge growth in demand during COVID due to out-migration from Toronto. Demand was already high as so many people want to live in Barrie, (but) supply has been very slow to catch up, which is one of the reasons council has been approving more apartment buildings, and why we have incentives for affordable housing," the mayor adds. 

Lehman notes the city has increased spending by millions on growing social housing in the county and on local projects, but acknowledges the problem is simply too big for the City of Barrie to solve on its own.

“We need federal and provincial money to help to grow the supply of affordable housing for those in deepest housing need, such as supportive housing. In addition, we will need to continue to build more purpose-built rental housing, particularly the 'missing middle'  midrise apartment buildings.”

As president of Barrie and District Christmas Cheer, Cindi Tonn has seen first hand the impact the lack of access to affordable housing can have, and says you’d be hard pressed to separate the rental problems from the social problems in the city. 

“The Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) has not had regular cost of living increases and is basically still at the 1995 rate of $1,169. Plus, once an individual makes $200, that is clawed back by 50 per cent,” she notes. 

That, combined with sky high rents, near zero availability combine to perpetuate poverty in both the city and the country as a whole, she adds.

“Someone congratulated me on Christmas Cheer ‘celebrating’ 46 years and I thought how sad it is that a wealthy province like ours still needs us and the food bank more than ever," Tonn says. 

Bobbi-Lyn Fogarty works a full-time job, but after her marriage ended, she found herself needing to rent a home. At the time, she found the prices to be fair, but says now that she’s needing to move, she has been shocked to see how high rental prices have become, leaving her struggling to find affordable rent for a home that meets her needs.

“Wage increases in Barrie don’t compare to other cities with high rent,” she says. “There needs to be something done to assist renters who can’t afford to purchase a home.”

Affordability and availability are not the only issues residents face in locating housing in Barrie, says Sarah Uffelmann, a board member with Ethnic Mosaic Alliance, a not-for-profit organization that aims to enrich communities by celebrating cultural diversity.

“A few years back, I was helping a refugee family to find a three-bedroom townhouse. The family had the income to support their application for a particular rental, and the father was employed in a full-time job. However, they were turned down because they did not have an extensive work history in Canada,” she says.

The Ontario Human Rights Code restricts this kind of discrimination, Uffelmann notes. 

“That often takes months to argue and in this case would not have helped the family to get this particular rental, so they moved on and eventually found another place," she says. 

Cecilia Guy, a case worker for the Salvation Army Bayside Mission Centre, says it’s not only the high rental prices that are serving as roadblocks for her clients.

“There is also a stereotype attached to the guys here. When they go out and say they’re staying here, they get looked down upon. We are finding that to be a big hindrance to them finding a place to live,” she says, adding the rental prices are also a big issue.

"Almost everyone is just one paycheque away from having to use the resources at a shelter or food bank these days."

Guy and her colleagues do whatever they can to help their clients find a safe place to live, and are simply hoping someone will give them a chance to get back on their feet.

"Some of these guys are just down on their luck and lost their job or were injured. It’s not necessarily an addiction that’s bringing them to us," she says. "These guys have so much potential. If we can get these guys set up with resources in the community and a good apartment so they can actually starting to feel good about themselves then they’re going to work to keep that.

"If they keep getting doors slammed in their faces then they’re going to eventually think they’re they are worthless. And that’s not what these guys are, everybody deserves a second chance."

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed additional challenges, acknowledges Rob Hilton, who co-owns A.G. Secure Property Management Inc., which manages close to 800 units throughout Simcoe County and specializes in low-density rentals. 

“COVID has seen a major shift of population out of Toronto to properties in Barrie, and the move to places with grass and private entrances,” he says. “Also, with remote working, instead of driving this way for the weekend, you can live here and drive to Toronto one day a week.”

Rental units in apartment buildings and with no outside space are moving very slowly, something Hilton says often has to do with rent control. 

“People living in the same unit for over three years can not justify moving. A three-bedroom apartment three years ago is less than a two-bedroom today, so there is no point downsizing.”

Hilton adds with real estate prices going up, getting into ownership is becoming more difficult, therefore keeping people in rentals longer and putting a dent in supply. 

“Values of homes have gone up, so for some landlords now is the time to sell their rental, and it may not stay a rental moving forward,” he says. “The government focus is on adding new inventory, but nobody is watching the fact that old inventory is leaving.”

The issues of supply versus demand often take many years to resolve, Lehman says.

“Rental apartment buildings can often take at least five years from initial planning to completion, and 10 years to occupancy is often typical,” he says. “It’s only been in 2019 and 2020 that many of the proposed purpose-built rental apartment buildings in Barrie were approved through the planning process.”

Lehman says this means he now believes the city will now have enough approved rental units to help lower rents once the supply hits the market, but it will be a few years before it takes effect. 

“In the meantime, we need to push as hard as possible on creating more social, transitional and supportive housing for those most in need.”