Published July 23, 2014
The finale of a three-part Waterloo Chronicle series examining the lack of affordable housing for seniors in Waterloo Region.
The entire series is available here.
To better understand just how many seniors in Waterloo Region are looking for affordable or low-income housing, look no further than My Owen Place in the City of Waterloo.
The five-storey, 49-unit low-income seniors apartment has never had a vacancy in three years since it first opened at 364 Erb St. W., next door to Supportive Housing of Waterloo. It is one of the few low-income buildings in the region exclusively for seniors.
Not only has every unit been occupied since it first opened in February 2011, the waiting list continues to grow and someone new knocks on the door almost every day to fill out an application form.
“This product is needed in Waterloo,” said Jeff Owen, a local developer and director of operations for Newo Holdings Ltd. He built My Owen Place after realizing just how dire the low-income housing supply is for seniors in Waterloo.
“We’ve got a waiting list a couple hundred (people) deep,” added Terry Litt, building superintendent. “They give up because we just don’t have the turnover.”
My Owen Place follows the model of independent assisted living. It has 44 one-bedroom units (five are barrier-free) and five two-bedroom units. The building is near several major bus routes and has laundry services and elevator access on every floor.
It is restricted to adults over 60 years of age whose taxable income for the previous year is less than $37,104 to qualify for a one-bedroom unit and less than $43,584 for a two-bedroom unit.
Even though demand is high, developers simply aren’t building these low-income apartments aimed at seniors, Owen said.
City or regional staff can request developers set aside a handful of units in new buildings for low-income individuals or families, but those efforts are akin to tossing a pebble into a river in hopes of slowing the flow.
Unlike most condo or apartment developments in the region, My Owen Place operates on a break-even business model, which is one of the biggest barriers to building more low-income housing units in the region.
With the availability of new land shrinking by the week, and the value of that land continuing to climb, why would developers put themselves on the line to build affordable units when they can pre-sell condos for $200,000 or more per unit before a shovel is even in the ground?
“Developers would rather do condos and make their money and go on to the next project,” Owen said. “This is a long-term plan for us.”
Philanthropy aside, it never would have happened if not for financial help from the region, the province and the federal government.
The $7 million project was made possible by $5.8 million in federal and provincial assistance through the Canada-Ontario Affordable Housing Program Agreement.
The region also agreed to waive $245,000 in related development charges.
A condition of the funding requires the building to remain low-income apartments for 20 years, and without the financial assistance from the various levels of government to get started Owen said he would need to charge about $1,200 month to break even — more than double what he charges now.
“We have people living here who make less than $1,000 per month,” he added. Units range from $458.64 per month to $570.66, including water and heat. Average market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Waterloo Region in 2013 was $810. That jumps to $953 for a two-bedroom apartment.
“The reason there’s not more of these is in order to make this affordable you have to get your land at a reasonable cost, and everything has gone up and it makes it unaffordable to have rent set at $500,” said Owen.
All of these factors are adding up to an insufficient supply of affordable housing for seniors living in the region. When My Owen Place opened in 2011, there were fewer than 400 seniors on the region’s low-income housing waiting list. Last year there were 603 — a 36 per cent increase — and seniors now wait two years or more for an affordable unit to become available.
Earlier this year, the region announced it intends to build 350 new affordable rental and homeownership units by 2019, and to preserve and retain 350 existing affordable homes through renovations and repairs. None of them will be specifically aimed at seniors though, according to Deb Schlichter, Waterloo Region’s director of housing.
Coun. Sean Strickland, Community Services chair, said the region is working to build on the number of affordable housing units, but added the 2019 target isn’t sufficient.
“I don’t think it’s quite ambitious enough, I’d love to be able to do some more,” he said, but the will to do more requires stronger leadership from the federal and provincial governments — particularly in the form of a national housing strategy and more funding.
The region has also recently put the onus of more affordable housing along the light rail transit route on the shoulders of the individual municipalities through density bonusing or other incentives.
If the example set by My Owen Place is any indication, the push to create more affordable housing will be easier said than done. Owen said it took a year and multiple visits to numerous banks to even get the financing needed to begin construction because the return on investment was lower than a typical condo or apartment.
Despite breaking even every month Owen said he would “love to build another one.” The tenants have integrated themselves into the neighbourhood, and Owen and Litt have barbecues and invite bands to entertain residents several times per year.
The building has developed into a tightly knit community that watches over one another, Litt said.
With the region’s senior population set to double by 2031 to nearly 128,000, many are wondering if other builders are willing step up to repeat what Owen has done.
“That’s where the scare is going to be,” said City of Waterloo Mayor Brenda Halloran, before posing the million-dollar question: “Will we have enough affordable housing for seniors?”