KUT meets with the Housing Task Force

The following minutes were taken at our latest meeting, when we sat down with two members of the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing to discuss issues of affordability and life in Kingston. The Task Force members were Mary Rita Holland and Ted Hsu. There was a decent turn out to the event, and I greatly appreciate everyone for showing up and speaking their mind. As you’ll see, we received no promises or affirmations from the city; We were concerned that our meeting will be used opportunistically to legitimize their future plans on housing, but at least we took the time to let them know how we feel.

After a brief round of introductions, Mary-Rita Holland (herein, MR) began the meeting by saying that there was a lack of tenant advocacy in the city. She said she was concerned about a number of things related to housing. For one, she said, it is hard to keep track of property standards. Moreover, despite trying to do outreach, there is no one single experience, so, for the city, it is a matter of collecting different stories. Mary Rita said that the City has a mandate to increase supply and affordability; Analysis to date tends to be economic (I’m guessing she means quantitative, as opposed to qualitative analysis). MR said that information KUT provided can help bridge this knowledge gap. In addition to the Mayor’s Task Force, part of the City’s mandate is to report on housing situation in Kingston; in this regard, it is important to know stories.

Ted Hsu said that he believed there is a tradeoff between aesthetics and solutions. People were confused by this, and so he gave an example: One solution to housing may include a large 50-story buildings, which some people do not want for aesthetic reasons.

Tenants then expressed frustration over a lack of affordability; some KUT members discussed their belief that the working class needs a basic/increased income, rent controls, inclusionary zoning. There was a lot said during this portion of the meeting, and so I’ve listed other potential solutions and frustrations in point-form below:

  • more social housing – there should be more social housing in existing buildings 
  • why is state funding new vanity buildings for St. Lawrence and Queen’s when there is so little housing for the poor?
  • housing first/social housing is not a viable option for raising healthy families – it needs to be more comprehensive and address issues like mental health, access to food, medicine, etc.
  • inspections of buildings for code requirements and basic shelter expectations
  • slumlords walking all over tenants, especially lower socioeconomic class, disabled; These people are regularly faced with threats and neglect.
  • cost of rent in kingston is ridiculous
  • city funded advocate for tenants facing eviction after property standards problem
  • permanent tenant committee on council
  • tiny housing / co-ops
  • how can municipality put pressure on other levels of government to support/prioritize housing issues? rent capping, how can it be done? 
  • allowing zoning for coop and tiny housing communities
  • landlords interest to evict long term tenants; rent freeze, etc. 
  • problem: need to provide solutions that address housing problems
  • problem: committee appears biased toward developers; solution: better/more representation of those actually dealing with housing problems from tenant perspective 
  • social housing that  is not attached to money
  • law that ensures 1/3 income maximum for rent
  • get problem-creators (landlords, corrupt developers) off task force
  • allow lots to be split
  • concerns there has been student housing development, but none have been required to include affordable housing; there’s nothing wrong with mixing housing

After KUT members listed their concerns and frustrations with the Task Force, we took a brief break. Once we came back, KUT asked the following questions:

  • “As you’ll hear, everyone here has a story about being treated like crap by a landlord. Why is it that the city has picked people whose class interests are completely opposed to the majority of the people who live here to work on a housing task force? These are the same people who’ve exacerbated the crisis – why are they in charge of solving it?”
    • Ted Hsu’s response: one of the mandates of the TF is that it was supposed to provide evidence-informed recommendations; the number of people who agree with something on TF is not going to decide by itself – what’s important is the facts that are behind it
      • Ted says what he needs is to convince other people of a certain idea
        • These ideas have to be informed by facts
      • The important thing to keep in mind is that goal of TF is to convince other members of TF
      • Ted said the TF was chosen to have diversity of members (of information and points of view) 
        • At this point I interrupted and explained that he was not answering my question. I said that I could pick a million different places that have evidence about social housing being effective, from Berlin to Zurich, and in different regulatory and political contexts, from the USSR to Medicine Hat. So when we’re talking about evidence, what evidence counts?
          • Ted responded by saying the Task Force  is working in the context of Ontario, so the Task Force is looking at what happens in other cities and towns in Ontario
    • MR added that there is a dynamic that people don’t see: developers are frustrated with the city
      • Developers say it is too difficult to build, too many reports need to be filed
        • They are frustrated with city staff
      • Developers want politicians to get rid of regulations, planners and staff want to protect the public
        • Our feedback is valuable because it will help inform ideas
        • developers at the table to solve problem
    • KUT members expressed their concerns about whether we were being used as pawns, then: Does this meeting have to do with legitimacy, wherein the city is framing their consultation with us as “important dialogue” to help developers make money?
      • KUT said that, of course, developers want to make money
      • KUT’s concern is that we have developers and politicians who are careerists: when you frame the issue as Mary Rita just did, it makes us fearful
      • Why take Mayor’s framing as legitimate
    • MR then said that supply is huge question

KUT then posed its next question: All sorts of time and resources have been dedicated to this, reports have been made, etc. what sort of new and innovative solutions has the City proposed?

  • MR: tiny homes has put forward as priority – city providing land
    • Council made decision on tiny homes, not Task Force
  • TH: the city has changed bylaw to allow secondary suites
  • KUT asked what innovative approaches to funding had been made
  • Mary Rita stated that there was nothing innovative on funding, yet
  • A KUT member stated that the City might have a mandate, but it does not sound like it is to help individuals struggling: what are the problems, what are evidence based solutions? 
    • what is lacking is having a different body that is there to stand up for the people
    • we need people to help us
  • Why aren’t there more tenants on the board:
    • Mary Rita and Ted both acknowledged that this is a question for the Mayor because he chose them

Following this brief Q&A, the questions became more pointed around certain local issues:

  • One member asked, “Are you ok with homeless people in Kingston?”
    • At which point does it become unacceptable for you?
      • MR: we try to find ways to support that group to make sure shelter system is working
      • MR said she believed everyone deserves to have a home
    • TH: federal govt spending 50 billion on homelessness
      • KUT pushed back on this, saying that the National Housing Strategy was unveiled years ago and that it has not been effective.
    • “What is so hard about building housing geared to income housing for 2200 people to house homeless?”
      • “You have deficit spending and taxing powers”
      • Mary Rita expressed concerns over the cost of building – city has approved $16 mil to 90 units
        • She stated further that the operating budget is $400 million approximately
      • Ted Hsu said the Task Force is going to try to convince other people that recommendations can be followed
  • KUT  expressed concerns about systemic housing issues:
    • housing is way too expensive
    • finding a bachelor for $500-600 should be a reasonable thing
    • experience looking for housing with 3 people  or smaller really struggles
  • One member said it was impossible for single parent to make it in this city. They are confused and angry with long process for figuring out long term housing solutions. They said that landlords have raised rent without telling them. They have spent a year and a half looking for housing and cant find anything
  • Another member told their story:
    • They lost everything to floods in Ottawa in 2017, and they came to Kingston with dreams. They said they have lived under the poverty line whole life, despite having skills. Upon arriving to Kingston, so many people in their old building have nobody to advocate for them. They had an absentee property manager, who, despite being sent letters of complaints from multiple tenants, sent no response back. In their building, one gentleman slept in two sets of overalls all winter because heat didn’t work. When the property manager did finally come around, they asked for n11 for mutual agreement, and the company acting like they were doing her a favour. She expressed her disappointment. They moved here because they wanted to set roots
  • Another KUT member expressed their concerns: 
    • The shelter system is not good at addressing needs, same with motels
    • library has been shamed into letting homeless stay there
    • need to look at social impact of not having housing: medical, mental health, on children, poison food
    • if sustainability doesn’t include those who are in poverty, then this whole thing is pointless
    • developers have had opportunities to build 
    • AirBnB is also exacerbating the problem
      • Another member pondered: why not ban airbnb, develop similar software that uses part of the proceeds to fund new housing? 
  • A KUT member said that there is evidence showing that one way to solve homelessness is to build units
  • Another KUT member said that it’s the Mayor’s task force, which has manoeuvred in ways that won’t allow for progressives to have a say
    • We’re playing this game of capitalism, where developers run the show. The reality is that they want return on investment
    • In this person’s mind, the city can cap rates of return at 1%, and can have daycare, housing, etc. that doesn’t have to run a profit
    • Further, this person stated, we need to have mixed communities and mandate this: not with 5 years clauses, but in perpetuity 
    • we need councillors who think this way to bring this forward – it takes leadership, we can’t just wait for task force to unfold
    • developers and real estate agents are really the cause for the problem
  • Another KUT member said that the city needs to get in “the game” and invest in property
    • they further stated, “why are we advertising Kingston as a  place to  live when working class s people can’t afford to live here?”
    • “developers have set up the game to win; they are playing Monopoly”
  • A KUT member said they would like to see city spend as much time as they did on the new bridge on issues pertaining to housing
    • They proposed no new funding for St L and Q infrastructure unless its for housing
    • funding from feds and province should go to housing
    • Another member added, “why are we taking away housing when we can’t find one?” (with bridge development)
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