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No place like home (three-part series)

A three-part Waterloo Chronicle series examining the lack of affordable housing for seniors in Waterloo Region.

Part One: No Place Like Home

By James Jackson
Waterloo Chronicle
Published July 9, 2014Gael Gilbert, executive director of Supportive Housing of Waterloo, says more should be done to help seniors in need of affordable housing.

More of Waterloo Region’s most vulnerable seniors could end up on the streets as the municipality prepares for the arrival of thousands of new residents over the coming decades.

Gael Gilbert, executive director of Supportive Housing of Waterloo, worries the numbers of homeless or under-housed seniors could climb sharply over the next 20 years unless something is done soon to provide more housing options for at-risk seniors.

“I’m not sure at this point that it’s seen as much of an issue (and) I think it’s going to be,” she said. “It really concerns me.”

SHOW is a non-profit organization aimed at designing, building and operating permanent affordable and supportive housing in Waterloo for those experiencing persistent homelessness or who may be hard-to-house due to a past history of drug or alcohol abuse.

Gilbert is also the co-chair of the housing committee on Waterloo Mayor Brenda Halloran’s task force for an age-friendly city. That group is working towards establishing a housing strategy for hard-to-place seniors who can’t afford retirement homes or who may be rejected by nursing homes because they either have a drug or alcohol addiction, or are fighting one with methadone or another treatment program.

Waterloo Region lacks sufficient housing for this at-risk population of seniors, Gilbert said. Only 17 per cent (roughly 1,600) of all community housing units are dedicated to seniors.

“That just doesn’t exist here. There’s a whole population of individuals that we could place in that housing or support system that are using the Out of the Cold programs, living in very marginalized boarding homes or rooming houses, and we really need a much better level of service.”

By 2031, Waterloo Region’s population is expected to swell to about 742,000 — a 46 per cent increase over the 507,096 that called the region home in 2011. But the number of seniors is expected to more than double over that same time frame, from 62,590 to 129,725.

It’s an emerging trend across the country as the Baby Boomers get set to retire. According to Statistics Canada, seniors are the fastest-growing age group in Canada. An estimated five million Canadians were 65 or older in 2011, a number expected to more than double to 10.4 million by 2036.

This growth in seniors, combined with the low birth rate, means that for the first time in Waterloo Region’s history there will be more residents over the age of 65 than under the age of 14 by 2031.

Canada has done well to reduce poverty levels among seniors in recent decades. The percentage of seniors living below the low-income cutoff fell from 36.9 per cent in 1976 to 3.9 per cent in 1995.

But those numbers have been quietly creeping up into the double digits in the last decade. The percentage of seniors living below the low-income cutoff hit 10.2 per cent in 2005 and rose to 12.3 per cent in 2010, according to Statistics Canada.

Last year, the low-income cutoff for one person was just over $23,000, or about $29,000 for two people, according to Statistics Canada.

Gilbert said women in particular are at risk, and statistics support that claim. Between 2006 and 2010, about 60 per cent of the estimated 160,000 seniors living in poverty in this country were women, particularly those over the age of 75.

This is largely due to pension allowances that have traditionally been linked to employment history, reports the Conference Board of Canada, a not-for-profit think tank.

Gilbert said the number of seniors living in poverty will likely worsen in the coming decades since two-thirds of working Canadians don’t have a company pension plan and only one-third contribute to Registered Retirement Savings Plans.

Housing costs are also increasing more for seniors than any other segment of the population. According to the Waterloo Region Housing Action Plan, released earlier this year, between 1996 and 2006 housing costs rose from $467 per month to $663 for seniors, a 42 per cent increase.

An estimated 26 per cent of seniors in the region also rent their homes, and a quarter of seniors pay 30 per cent or more of their monthly income towards housing, the highest of all population groups, according to the housing action plan. That report also notes there is a limited range of housing options for low-income seniors.

While the church-based Out of the Cold program, which provides a hot meal and a place to sleep for the homeless from November to April each year, doesn’t officially track the ages of its visitors, the number of people using the service has increased steadily in the past decade.

The number of overnight guests at Out of the Cold rose about seven per cent to nearly 12,000 people last winter. The program also served more than 26,000 meals.

At SHOW, two of the 30 residents are over the age of 65, and another eight are not officially seniors but are so prematurely aged due to their lives on the street some suffer age-related illnesses or other problems, such as dementia, Gilbert said.

“We’ve had three tenants die here in the last two years and the average age was 50,” Gilbert said. “Bodies aged way beyond their years.

“I find it appalling that this is what our seniors have to look forward to.”

The region is responsible for affordable housing but Gilbert said they’ve done as much as they can do. There needs to be more support from the provincial and federal levels of government, she said.

My Owen Place, a five-storey, 49-unit apartment building aimed at seniors 60 or older in need of affordable housing, has helped, but those kinds of projects are few and far between, Gilbert said. She knows of no new affordable housing projects for seniors coming at the regional level, and that must change before the problem worsens.

“I think we’re being incredibly shortsighted and we need to be building for the future, because the future has a habit of coming fairly quickly,” she said.

Too often we try to play catch-up with these kinds of problems, she added, “and we don’t do it all that well."


Part Two: Out of Reach

By James JacksonChuck Rosart, 60, has been living at the Charles Street Men’s Hostel since March and says Waterloo Region has a serious lack of affordable housing for anyone over 55. He’s spent the past forty years living in low-rent apartments, emergency hostels and on the street.
Waterloo Chronicle
Published July 16, 2014

A stack of paper lands on the desk as Chuck Rosart settles into a chair inside a small office at the Charles Street Men’s Hostel in Kitchener.

He begins flipping through the 18 pages one by one. It’s a list of rental units across Waterloo Region, from Kitchener and Waterloo to Galt in Cambridge and dozens of listings fill the pages, starting at about $375 per bedroom per month.

Scanning the information, which he gleaned from local online classified websites and printed at a nearby employment office, Rosart knows only a handful of the ads are worth replying to.

“They put ‘student preferred’ (in the ads) so I’m not going to waste my time going there just to have them say, ‘sorry, we’re looking for students,’” said Rosart. “Legally they’re not allowed to, but it’s not worth the hassle.

“There is a serious lack of affordable housing for anyone over 55. A serious lack.”

Rosart, 60, has spent the past 40 years living in low-rental housing, emergency hostels or on the street. Originally from Hamilton, he left home when he was 21 years old because he was tired of listening to his parents fight.

Rosart has been living in the Kitchener hostel off and on since March. The building has 39 beds and provides emergency shelter and meals for homeless men over the age of 16.

He admitted to smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol in the past, but said he’s been clean for 35 years. Living from place to place for four decades has taken its toll on Rosart’s body, though, and he walks with a cane and has nine different medications for a range of health problems, including heart disease.

“It’s rough,” he said of living on the street now compared to when he was younger.

“You’re dealing with crack addicts and hustlers trying to separate you from your money, and guys try to prove they’re tough by smacking around an old man.”

Rosart didn’t graduate from high school and has never held a steady job. His doctor has declared him medically unfit to work and Rosart now relies on Ontario Works payments for food and shelter, about $750 every month.

“Most places want first and last (month’s rent),” he said. “To do that I’d have to hand over my entire cheque and even that wouldn’t be enough.”

Under the leadership of Premier Mike Harris, the province downloaded the responsibility for affordable housing to municipalities back in 2000. Since 2001, the Region of Waterloo has created 2,062 new affordable housing units and is now responsible for approximately 10,000 units in total, including rent geared to income and below average market rent units.

But between 2012 and 2013, the affordable housing waiting list in Waterloo Region increased by four per cent to 3,287 individuals, couple or families — up from 3,162 in 2012 — and 603 were over the age of 59.

The wait list for seniors is two years or longer, the shortest wait time in Waterloo Region, and the municipality has about 1,900 community housing units reserved for seniors. Non-seniors can wait six years or more for an affordable unit.

Getting an accurate idea of how many homeless seniors there may be in the community is difficult. An estimated 52 adults over the age of 65 accessed an emergency bed in 2013, nearly double the 30 adults who accessed one in 2008, but some of those visits may be duplicates from more than one site, while others may have chosen not to make use of an emergency bed during the year.

There are growing concerns among those who work with the homeless or under-housed in this region that with the senior population expected to double by 2031 to nearly 128,000, the wait list and the number of seniors without an affordable place to live could grow in the coming years.

“Seniors are not alone in having that need, but there is a growing need,” said Deb Schlichter, Waterloo Region’s director of housing. “Every group we’re dealing with — seniors, singles or couples and families — all those groups have a need for more affordable housing.”

Some seniors may be living in their own home but can’t afford their property taxes, while others can no longer afford rental increases on a fixed income.

About 26 per cent of seniors in the region rent their homes, and a quarter of all seniors pay 30 per cent or more of their monthly income towards housing, the highest of all population groups, according to the region’s housing action plan released this spring.

The No. 1 barrier to building more affordable housing is funding, Schlichter said. Over the past four years the region received a total of $12.8 million from the federal and provincial governments to build more, but it’s never enough.

About $10 million of that went to establish 83 affordable housing units in three different developments — Supportive Housing of Waterloo and My Owen Place in the City of Waterloo and MennoHomes Inc. in Wellesley.

The region is close to formalizing a new five-year funding plan with the federal government and the province, though the final dollar amount still hasn’t been set. That makes it difficult to plan ahead when funding comes in short four- or five-year phases, Schlichter said.

Canada has not had a national affordable housing strategy since the Liberal government axed the program in 1993, but re-establishing that strategy would help create a long-term, reliable funding source.

“It’s very frustrating because one funding period ends and then there’s a lull before we find out if the next one is going to start up,” Schlichter said. “It drives you crazy.”

It’s almost as crazy as watching seniors like Rosart trying to eke out a life on the street. With no family to turn to, all he wants is a safe and quiet place to live.

“I’m trying every day to get out of this place,” Rosart said of the hostel. “Put it this way, some days I want to cry … but I just can’t.”


Part Three: Breaking Even

James JacksonBuilder Jeff Owen, left, sits on Katie Halsband’s couch in her apartment at My Owen Place in Waterloo. It is one of the few low-income buildings in the region exclusively for seniors.
Waterloo Chronicle
Published July 23, 2014

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?”

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