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By Chris Marchand
The Kenora District Services Board (KDSB) says the next few years will see some meaningful steps taken to address the region’s challenges around social housing and homelessness.
For the first time in a long while, KDSB Chief Administrative Officer Henry Wall says the issues and strategies to address them have become a priority for both the provincial and federal governments, a fact that is reflected by a significant boost of funding to the sector.
“The resources that the province and the federal government has already started to invest in the Kenora District has been unprecedented compared to the last 10 years,” said Wall.
The investment also reflects a significant need. At the end of 2011, just over 400 households were housed or awaiting social housing in the Kenora District, a number that has basically doubled to 817 this year.
“It could be a number of things — for one I’d say poverty and the housing crisis in the Far North has had a huge impact,” said Wall. “We’ve also been very successful with providing supports to keep people housed, meaning we have less unit turnover. We’re evicting less, but we’re also taking in less as a consequence. Those two factors are really driving our wait lists.”
Wall says the Board projects they will have to build between 113 to 141 new units per year in the next eight to 10 year period to stabilize their wait list.
One way the district is dealing with the demand is through participation in a pilot project for families affected by domestic violence. The KDSB will receive approximately $1 million over the next two years for a ‘portable’ housing allowance program — which allows those who qualify the flexibility to secure housing outside the social housing system to stabilize their family situation or even re-locate to other communities if they so wish.
“If they need access to education that might not exist in Dryden, or they need access to certain medical services, the portable housing allowance will follow them throughout Ontario,” said Wall. “That’s what makes this really unique. Traditionally, when we talk about the affordable housing the KDSB is involved in, it’s been ‘here are the units, put your name on a wait list and once it’s your turn, you get to move in’. This way the individual gets to decide, within parameters, where they live and with support and help we’ll find that place. It’s not determined by what ourselves and the non-profit housing corporations under our umbrella have to offer. It is district-wide and includes the private sector as well.”
Wall says the KDSB expects the pilot project should be able to help up to 50 households per month in the region over the next two years.
Another funding stream, the Investing in Affordable Housing Initiative (meant to bolster housing infrastructure), has been more than doubled, from a lean $500,000 per year to $1.1 million in 2017— a figure Wall says will help them make some progress.
“Half a million doesn’t get you far — you might build a four-plex,” said Wall. “Now it’s a bit more to play with in terms of leveraging additional builds. We’re looking at doing something in almost all the communities.”
Wall says needs vary in the district with Kenora, Sioux Lookout, Red Lake and Dryden in need of more housing while assets in places like Ear Falls, Ignace and Vermilion Bay may be more suited to conversion to market rent units or accessibility upgrades to accommodate elderly tenants.
The funding boost comes amidst high level national discussions on social housing strategy which Wall says have been long overdue.
“I think its fair to state that the federal government has been absent from the housing business for the past 18 years,” said Wall. “We’re getting federal funding for existing projects but they’re 20-30-40 years old and it’s just funding to pay the mortgage for the units. To at least ask the question ‘what should the strategy be?’ is a good first step. We expect it to be very high level, but at least it means the federal government is stepping back into the housing business and we need that.”