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WHAT’S AHEAD: Housing to remain top challenge for Newmarket, York

January 2, 2024

Posted on: January 2nd, 2024. Posted by: Joseph Quigley, Original Article.

‘All levels of government understand that we have to do more,’ Newmarket mayor says, while noting progress made in 2023

Newmarket and York Region made significant steps on housing in 2023 but advocates and officials say there is plenty more work to be done. 

Both levels of local municipality put funding into affordable housing, with progress made on several affordable and non-profit housing initiatives. But the region also fell well short of its affordable housing target for the fifth year in a row and is expressing uncertainty in the province’s housing targets.

Newmarket Mayor John Taylor Said he is proud of Newmarket’s track record and focus on providing many types of housing, with plenty of development applications making their way through zoning approvals. But he recognized there is more work to do.

“Are we getting to where we should be, are we reaching anywhere near perfection? Not even close, and we need more innovation, and we need greater levels of funding partnership, from the provincial and federal governments to really do that. To really achieve the kind of levels, of housing for all that I’d like to see,” Taylor said. 

Housing has remained at the forefront in York Region, with all levels of government working on the housing crisis. York Region council had a workshop dedicated to housing and homelessness in October, with plans to create a new housing plan in 20214. The region also added $12.77 million in its 2023 budget principally toward housing issues, largely carried forward in 2024. 

Non-profit housing provider Blue Door CEO Michael Braithwaite said with those added dollars, there is a lot to be optimistic about.

“A lot of great things in the works. It’s been a good year for housing. Obviously, there’s a lot more to do, but I think we’ve got momentum,” he said. 

In Newmarket, several significant developments made progress. The apartment building proposed at 17151 Yonge St. received zoning approval, which could see 60 of 201 units be affordable. The Bakersfield rental apartments advanced with the next phase to get a federal loan, with 175 more purpose-built rental units to come, joining the already completed 225 rental units. 

Non-profit housing also progressed in Newmarket, with York Region planning to dedicate funds to advance housing on Bayview ParkwayInn From the Cold also received a $7.5 million federal funding boost for an emergency and transitional housing facility with 44 beds in Newmarket. 

“We continue to lead in this area (housing), and it’s an area, in my opinion, that we have a responsibility to lead in,” Taylor said. “We’re simply doing what we should be doing, which is building complete communities.” 

Other non-profits are also undertaking projects, often with government support. Blue Door announced plans to build a new transitional housing facility on Gorham Street to replace an existing one. It also completed a new supportive housing facility for senior men in Newmarket.

Braithwaite said housing is top of mind for all levels of government and would be a top election issue.

“The province is encouraging people and trying to push and change things so we can build housing faster,” he said. “Politicians are feeling the heat and the need to make life affordable.”

However, York Region faced setbacks when it came to housing. The region continues to be unable to meet its target of 35 per cent of new homes being affordable, with the latest report revealing only 11 per cent of new units were affordable in 2022 in the region.

Newmarket and York Region also had conflict with the province over housing targets, and regional staff have expressed that localized targets imposed by the province are unlikely to be met based on the historical pace of private development. 

Local housing advocate Yvonne Kelly said she is unsure about the progress made on housing this year. 

“I know that (regional) council is waiting on some movement from the province as well as the federal government. That’s an issue …. In many ways, the region is kind of held hostage by those other two levels of government,” Kelly said. “But I would still maintain there are things they can do that they’ve chosen not to do to help address the situation.”

One of those is the vacant housing tax, a tool meant to discourage people from buying homes for speculation and leaving them empty. While the region developed a proposal for 2022, staff and much of council soured on the idea in 2023, becoming less confident in it being financially neutral if at a one per cent rate. A motion by Taylor to support the tax was defeated in November, although staff left the door open for reconsideration as part of the 2024 housing plan.

Kelly said the tax is something the region should implement, and increasing the tax to two per cent should mitigate any financial risk.

“I’m not quite sure why there’s so much hesitancy,” she said. “It’s a deterrent for speculation … the financialization of housing and the speculation, to a large extent, is what’s driving this crisis.” 

She added that some concerns raised, like cottagers and snowbirds absent for months of the year, are wrongheaded as exemptions for those can be built into the tax.

As the housing crisis has continued and worsened, so too has homelessness. Encampments have continued to spring up as people struggle to find affordable housing. Concern for unjust evictions has also continued, with advocates reporting that a lack of rent control is driving up rental prices.

“The encampment challenge has gotten a lot worse, and that’s just because we don’t have enough and a variety of affordable spaces to support people in need of housing,” Braithwaite said. 

York Region estimates a homeless population of about 1,300 today, which could grow to more than 2,000 in five years.

Rent control is needed, Kelly said, with anything built beyond November 2018 not subject to it. She said affordable housing is being lost, with the province allowing landlords to increase rent by whatever they want on vacant units. 

Braithwaite said governments should implement an acquisition program, that could allow non-profits the resources to acquire housing and keep it affordable in perpetuity. 

“We need that in York Region. We need a federal program to do that,” Braithwaite said. “New supply is great, but for every new build we do, we’re losing anywhere from seven to 15 to crumbling infrastructure.” 

Despite the issues, Taylor said he is optimistic due to the level of public interest and support for affordable housing.

“The public wants to see governments doing more. All levels of government understand that we have to do mere. There just needed to be a clear path forward. That funding partnership needs to be crystal clear, annual and sustainable,” he said.