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Group advocating for more affordable housing amid surging costs

Waterloo Region Yes In My Backyard wants the region to develop more affordable housing as a way to both help solve homlessness and lower costs in the competitive housing market
(stock photo)

Although the pandemic has wreaked havoc on Canadian’s financial stability, in the past year, Kitchener-Waterloo has seen an increase of over 30 per cent in costs of everything from detached houses to apartment-style condos, according to the K-W Association of Realtors.

Yet, the average household income is at or below $101,000, according to manager of Affordable Housing Development for the region, Ryan Mounsey. In response to this disparity, in 2019 a group of locals launched Waterloo Region Yes In My Backyard, or WR YIMBY.

Since launching, members have been speaking to council about housing developments, advocating for multi-residential housing. One of their main concerns right now has been the minimum separation distance bylaw in Kitchener, which prevents one lodging home from being built within 400 metres of an existing lodging home in almost all residential zones.
“That prevents our city from having as much lower income housing as it could have. So we're trying to change that,” said WR YIMBY member Martin Asling.

They have the opposite approach of the “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) mindset, where people typically objects developments in their neighbourhoods -- something Asling says is unnecessarily exclusionary. 

“Housing scarcity and the NIMBY logic that drives it hurts both middle class and poor people, but the people most hurt by NIMBYism are those most at risk of homelessness,” he said.

“While allowing for more housing to be built would help a broad spectrum of people, and should appeal to people across a broad political spectrum, it also requires addressing our longstanding classist and exclusionary practice of discouraging multi-residential housing, which is more likely to be affordable, in relatively wealthy, so called “stable” lower-rise neighbourhoods.”

But one issue with developing affordable housing, which is usually in the form of multi-residential buildings, is that communities often oppose the developments in their neighbourhoods. 

“A lot of the conversation has been about what I see as relatively minor inconveniences for people who are living close to new multi-residential housing, when, to me, the people most affected by new housing are the people who could live in it,” he said. 

They also believe more housing in general is needed. With the shortage of housing in the region, especially affordable housing, he says unhoused people are left to compete for the few units there are. 

But the shortage of housing also impacts a broader range of buyers and renters.

“There’s been quite a bit of research on the effects of shutting off the supply of housing and how that affects prices, so we’re very concerned about that,” he said, which is why they believe in a three-pronged approach. 

“We need more housing supply, we need government investment in housing, and we need tenant protections.”

Each of these prongs, he says, addresses a different part of the housing crisis -- social housing being the most immediate solution, directed specifically towards those who need it the most.

“If a new housing development comes up, and 100 families are housed by that development, that’s 100 fewer households competing if you’re looking for housing,” he said. “So that’s an immediate effect. But there is the long term effect of having greater housing stock, and how that affects housing prices.”

Ultimately, he said restrictions on multi-residential housing will hurt the affordability of housing in general, as well as the ability for us to have “walkable communities, which makes us more car dependent, and makes it harder to support a strong transit system.”

The region is in the process of adding more affordable housing as part, including one development in Cambridge for Indigenous individuals, and one in Kitchener for youths, as part of a strategy to add 2,500 new affordable homes over a five year period. 

However, Mounsey added that the region has nearly 7,000 community members on a waiting list for affordable housing - a number he says continues to climb. Beyond NIMBY attitudes and zoning problems, there is also the rising cost of construction and supply chain issues caused by the pandemic to consider.

"That has had a big impact on our projects," Mounsey said. Land scarcity is also a problem, which is why he says they are working on the more inclusionary zoning WR YIMBY and other groups have been advocating for. 

Asling also notes that outreach workers' jobs become more difficult with increased evictions and removal of encampments, as it becomes harder for them to reach the people who need their help when they are forced to move around so much. 

Asling himself spent several years working at an emergency shelter, which he says “drove home the importance of building strong relationships of trust and mutual respect with the people you’re trying to support.” 

“This isn't easy, given that homelessness is itself an extreme form of exclusion and marginalization. When an encampment is forcibly broken up, that trust and connection the residents may have had with outreach workers is damaged, and it becomes harder to help them find housing and to help them get to a place where they can find and maintain housing,” he said. 

“More importantly, it means that they might end up setting up camp somewhere further from public view where they are less safe, and where they might lose contact with outreach workers. This difference can be a matter of life and death.”

He believes much of the opposition to allowing encampments comes from NIMBYism, where nearby residents complain about the encampments without thinking of the consequences of forcing homeless people out of their ‘backyard’ and therefore making them less visible. 
“However, a lot of it also comes from a sincere but very misguided view that evictions are for their own good as it would encourage people to go to housing. This overestimates the degree to which housing is readily available, and severely underestimates the degree to which people in encampments already have it rough.”
“If evicting an encampment does not lead to them accessing housing, it puts them at greater risk of death, as they are further from their support networks. I'd like to think this would be obvious to anyone who hasn't worked with people experiencing homelessness, but my work experience has certainly driven home to me that you can't just shrug your shoulders when a housing type that can serve lower income people is discouraged, on the grounds that it can be accommodated ‘somewhere else.’”

There are simply no other options to replace it, he says, given the scarcity of housing, “especially for low income people.” 
“If someone loses their housing, even if they find another option soon afterwards, that's one less option for another person. We can't afford to put unnecessary barriers up for much-needed lower-income housing types such as lodging homes.”

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