A troubling definition of ‘affordable’
by Mike Sullivan
The City of Stratford is convening a public meeting on the subject of housing and homelessness on Thursday, Nov. 23, at 5 p.m. at city hall. Recently, a local advocacy group, the Stratford Affordable Housing Alliance, raised the issue with a number of councillors and began collecting signatures on a petition asking council to, among other things, release a list of city-owned properties that may be developable as housing. The group is also asking the city to explore a form of co-operative housing called “community land trusts,” whereby the value of the land is separated from the value of the house and made more affordable by keeping the land in trust.
In Stratford, the 60th percentile earns $96,000 a year, so incomes of the upper middle class. If a builder puts up houses that households earning $96,000 can afford, then hey presto, the builder’s development and other charges must be waived by the city. The rest of the middle class and below – well, let’s just say there’s nothing in the province’s plans for them, as there will be no incentives to price lower than that 60th percentile of income.
I wrote to our MPP, Matthew Rae, who is the assistant to the minister of housing. I complained that the 60th percentile rule is not fair to those most in need. He replied that both Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and the Association of Municipalities of Ontario agreed. I checked. Both agencies agreed that affordable should be defined as up to 30 per cent of a household’s income, with no reference to the 60th percentile income. I pointed this out to Mr. Rae. He then advised the City of Stratford used 80 per cent of market as its guide for rental housing. I asked the councillors chairing the subcommittee responsible for housing and was told the city was using the province’s definition of 80 per cent of market because the province made that a requirement for provincial funding. However, the only city bylaw on housing still defines “affordable” as up to 30 per cent of income, with no percentile qualifier. A very circular set of arguments from Mr. Rae.
So what are we to think before this upcoming meeting? First, the province seems to be defining things to suit developers. If “affordable” is defined as for the upper middle class, developers get a free ride from cities for doing what they are already doing.
More worrisome is the city’s position on the matter. If our council accepts the InvestStratford definitions of attainable at 90 per cent of market and affordable at 80 per cent of market, most housing in Stratford will be neither, but council will be asked to give more money to developers by forfeiting the development charges they’d otherwise collect to build affordable homes and pay for infrastructure (roads, water, electrical) for new developments. If 80 per cent of market is the new city standard for rental housing, woe betide those who fall beneath that limit.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and the city’s own bylaw define affordable as 30 per cent of household income. There is no income qualifier. I would hope the city will tell the province that Stratford will be sticking with its 30 per cent of income definition for all income levels. Since our bylaw’s definition of affordable falls beneath the province’s 80 per cent of market ceiling, holding fast to it should not disqualify us from accessing provincial funding.
And I would hope the city looks seriously about where it has property and developable land that can be held, by the community, in land trusts as a way to bring the cost of housing down.