Opinion: Too Little, Too Late – Reflecting on the City’s commitment to affordable housing on the first anniversary of the Mayor’s Taskforce on Housing Report
The following is a submitted opinion piece. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Kingstonist.
Today marks one year since the Mayor’s Taskforce on Housing presented their report on Kingston’s decades-long housing crisis to City Council. In their report, A Foundation for the Public Good,the Taskforce made 40 recommendations to Council to increase Kingston’s housing supply. In addition to these recommendations, the report revealed a number of staggering facts about Kingston’s housing crisis, suggesting that it is not only a crisis of housing supply, but of affordability, too. For example, the Taskforce reported a shortage of more than 3,900 affordable housing units in the city, with more than 7,000 households in core housing need. They also recommended that, in order to keep up with the demand for affordable housing in Kingston, at least 100 affordable housing units would need to be built every year.
While the report was not perfect by any means, many people, myself included, welcomed it with the hope that the City would not only double-down on its efforts to increase the housing supply in Kingston, but invest in equitable and innovative solutions for safe and affordable housing. Needless to say, we have been sorely disappointed by the City’s actions over the last year.
Two weeks after the Taskforce presented its report to Council in March of last year, the WHO declared that the spread of COVID-19 had reached the level of a pandemic. We all know what happened next: the world shut down. And while many of us stayed home, we watched the city’s housing crisis manifest to a degree not previously visible in Kingston, as dozens of unhoused people began camping in Belle Park and other places across town.
I’m not going to re-document what happened in Belle Park last summer. Our local journalists have already done an excellent job keeping us informed of these events, including: the establishment of a tent encampment by unhoused people; why the encampment was created and people’s concerns about shelter conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic; and how the City chose to forcibly evict the people living in the encampment after promising not to do so. What I will say here is that the events involving the unhoused community over the past year – in Belle Park and otherwise – cannot be dismissed as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather, these events reflect a lack of political will on the part of the City of Kingston to actively engage with the needs of unhoused people as an important part of solving our city’s affordable housing crisis.
How has this lack of political will been demonstrated by the City? It was upsetting to read about the City cancelling regularly scheduled meetings of the Housing and Homelessness Committee during the summer because of “a lack of time-sensitive business,” even as more than 40 people camped at Belle Park. A few weeks later, it was infuriating to watch the City contribute to the criminalization of unhoused people by partnering with Kingston Police to forcibly evict the community of people living in the park. This past January, it was almost laughable to listen as the City approved a 2021 budget that slashed the Capital Budget for housing by almost $5 million from the previous year. Even a quick trip down Princess Street towards downtown, where half a dozen condo and townhouse developments are being built for students and young professionals, is a painful reminder of the City’s strong commitment to the gentrification of our downtown core, rather than the provision of affordable housing.
While the City has made strides to increase Kingston’s affordable housing in the past year, it’s not enough; the building at 805 Ridley Drive remains empty, 1316 Princess Street is still an empty parking lot, and dozens of people wait outside of the Integrated Care Hub each day for a place to stay.
The last twelve months – even despite the COVID-19 pandemic – should have been a landmark year for Kingston’s brand as a “liveable” city, where the City could have taken up the events of last summer as an opportunity to meaningfully engage with unhoused people and to collaborate with them on both short- and long-term solutions to homelessness in Kingston. Instead, it was a landmark year in a dreadful sort of way, one that has many of us less convinced of the City’s commitment to affordable housing than ever before.