Changing role of municipal support of affordable housing in Ontario | Laura Gurr

By Laura Gurr

Law360 Canada (January 22, 2021, 11:21 AM EST) --
Laura Gurr
The importance of safe, adequate and affordable housing to a household and community cannot be overstated. Recently, comments have been made in London, Ont., by elected officials that affordable housing could “harm” neighbourhoods. I disagree.

In London, approximately 5,000 Londoners are in need of affordable housing. The impact of the housing crisis is amplified as it is layered on top of the ongoing opioid epidemic and the financial and social impacts of the pandemic.

I fundamentally believe that there is a strong public interest in relieving poverty through affordable housing. The National Housing Strategy Act recognizes that “Housing is essential to the inherent dignity and well-being of the person and to building sustainable and inclusive communities.” Affordable housing is not unidimensional support.

Clearly immediate needs for shelter are met by affordable housing projects, but that is not the only benefit to the individual or the community. affordable housing contributes to achieving beneficial social, economic, health and environmental outcomes. It has been shown to improve the physical and mental health of households, reduces stress and help improve the economic vibrancy of a community. Affordable housing frees up income for households to spend on non-shelter related costs in the community and has a positive economic impact on a community by improving the ability to retain and attract residents and staff of local employers.

In order to address this housing crisis, there is a role for all levels of government, the private sector and non-profit organization. I am very proud to support the non-profit housing sector by sitting as a board member of Homes Unlimited and its sister corporation, Odell-Jalna Residences of London. Homes Unlimited is London’s oldest and largest non-profit housing provider. Founded in 1972, we own and operate nine housing projects with 540 units. For our last two projects, 22 units at 77 Tecumseh Ave. and 54 units at 770 Whetter Ave. we received capital funding from the city of London and the province of Ontario 

The landscape for affordable housing development has changed. In 2017, with the federal government’s national housing strategy, the funding that allows organizations like Homes Unlimited to build new affordable housing is now available direct from the federal government through the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). Our current project, 110 units at 99 Pond Mills Rd., will start construction in the next few months. It is being built with equity provided from Homes Unlimited’s reserves and a very low interest long-term loan from CMHC. There are no direct city or provincial grants or loans being used to fund this project.

In this environment, the city’s role in developing affordable housing has changed. Non-profit affordable housing developers need the city’s support and help in expediting planning and approvals, in reducing or eliminating development charges and other fees and in providing rent supplements and supports so we can house the most vulnerable and most in need tenants. Our new projects are now in competition with other projects from cities across Canada and the funding is going to the projects and municipalities that are aggressively supporting new developments. While the financing models have changed, municipal support to non-profit rental housing developments remains a key factor in CMHC prioritization and selection. In this context, municipalities play a key role to support affordable housing providers. Many of the tools we need to continue our successful development of new affordable housing are available from the various city departments and through property tax exemptions that make the projects financially viable.

With respect to property tax exemptions, municipalities can support qualified non-profit housing providers in seeking and obtaining property tax relief and property tax exemptions. This financial support is a key way that municipalities and the government can support the creation and maintenance of affordable housing projects.

Under Ontario’s Assessment Act, an affordable housing provider may qualify for a property tax exemption for “land owned, used and occupied by ... any charitable, non-profit philanthropic corporation organized for the relief of the poor if the corporation is supported in part by public funds.” The specific purpose of this exemption, found in subparagraph 12(iii) of s. 3(1) of the Assessment Act, is to grant relief from property taxation to non-profit corporations “organized for the relief of the poor” because the public interest in granting these organizations additional resources to relieve poverty outweighs the public interest in generating revenue through the taxation of property.

The importance of affordable housing is clear. Given the new landscape for funding affordable housing development, municipalities still play a key role in supporting the development of affordable housing within their communities. We would encourage municipalities to create a priority, politically and administratively, to support new affordable housing development and allow non-profit organizations like Homes Unlimited to continue to build and operate these important resources.

Laura (Glithero) Gurr is a partner with Cohen Highley LLP in London, Ont. She provides risk management and regulatory compliance advice to condominium corporations, property management companies and non-profit housing providers.

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