I frequently hear people comment about the lack of affordable housing in Meaford, and there's no doubt that if you're trying to find an affordable apartment or house to rent in this town, you've got your work cut out for you.
To address the problem, we must first understand the problem, and if you talk to people about 'affordable housing' you'll quickly learn that the term means different things to different people.
When affordable housing was raised at a recent council meeting for example, Meaford's Treasurer suggested that, with the average price of a house in Meaford being in the $300,000 range, and the average household income for a family in this town being in the neighbourhood of $85,000 per year, the average household could qualify to mortgage a home valued at more than $400,000, so by extension, the Treasurer suggested, housing is affordable in Meaford.
Sure, the Treasurer is correct if we're talking strictly about the ability for the average household to afford to buy a home in this town (though I think the median household income, which is significantly lower than the average household income, is a better gauge to use when talking about affordability, but that's a different argument for a different day), but affordable housing is in crisis at the lower end of the spectrum, not so much in the middle of the spectrum – in small towns at least.
When I first moved from Barrie to Meaford a dozen years ago, we bought a home, and certainly, compared to the housing market in Barrie, Meaford homes were very affordable to buy, and compared to larger markets they still are. In recent years I've been renting, however, and that's a completely different story.
I know from personal experience how difficult it can be to find an affordable place to live in Meaford, particularly if you're single (there are many more supports and programs available to families), and I can tell you it is indeed very difficult to find affordable apartments to rent in this town. I've looked at one bedroom apartments in pretty rough shape in Meaford that were asking $800 to $1,000 per month – far beyond my ability to afford. If by chance you find an apartment that is actually affordable (say in the $500 to $600 range for a one bedroom apartment for a single person) that is not in complete disrepair, it is a minor miracle, and you'd best snap it up quickly as I did a couple of years ago when I found a one bedroom apartment in the $500 per month range that was clean, had no holes in walls, and no mould growing in the walls. If you're a lower income family of four and you'd like three bedrooms and maybe a small slice of a back yard, $1,200 to $1,500 per month is about as affordable as it gets in this town – a major problem if, for example, one of the adults in your family receives their monthly income from a disability pension, or even if one or both heads of the family work at jobs that only pay minimum wage.
Given some of the poorly maintained one bedroom apartments I had looked at for double what I'm currently paying, I count myself very fortunate to have found a clean, safe apartment to rent, but many others aren't so fortunate.
As more and more of the baby-boom generation continue to retire and live off pensions, if they're lucky enough to have them these days, affordable housing is bound to become more and more of an issue, and it won't be an easy problem to solve. And if you're in a small town, the solutions certainly won't come from your municipal council.
Meaford isn't alone in its lack of affordable housing. Just this week I read an article on the CBC website about the frustrations experienced by those who need both affordable and accessible housing, and there have been several articles in recent months about the challenge to provide enough affordable housing in Ontario and across the country.
While those of us living in small towns struggle to find rental homes we can afford, in the greater Toronto area they are experiencing a different affordability issue – middle income housing. This week mayors from across the GTA met with developers and industry stakeholders to discuss a recently released report called "Understanding Ontario's Housing Affordability Challenge: A Big Data Evaluation."
The report explores more than 40 factors dating back to the early 1980s that have contributed to Ontario's affordable housing crunch, and some of the findings in that report are pretty interesting, and they serve to highlight a very big divide between those at the top of the heap as compared to those at the bottom. Among the interesting notes in the report are that, while one in eight Ontarians is “under-housed”, more than half of Ontarians are “over-housed”, in that they have more bedrooms in their homes than they need. According to the study, there are more than five million empty spare bedrooms in this province, and more than 400,000 homes in Ontario have three or more empty bedrooms. Add to those facts the fact that since 1990 the rental stock per capita in the GTA has plummeted by 30 percent, and you can see why big cities have affordable housing issues as well.
The problem is especially difficult in smaller municipalities, which unlike larger urban municipalities simply don't have the funds, or the experience, to delve into the housing game by building municipal rental units, and subsidizing the costs. If smaller communities like Meaford are to help solve the affordable housing crisis we're seeing, the funding will have to come from upper levels of government.