Kingston Council seeks information report on options to fund housing and homelessness initiatives

During a meeting held over Zoom on Tuesday, Sep. 5, 2023, Kingston City councillors debate a new motion to direct staff to prepare an information report on options to fund affordable housing initiatives. Screen captured image.

After a lengthy debate, Kingston City Council has voted to direct staff to consider “all financial tools and options, including a special levy” to fund housing and homelessness initiatives in the City. The new motion, moved by King’s Town District Councillor Gregory Ridge and seconded by Mayor Bryan Paterson, noted, “Affordable housing and homelessness initiatives require significant investments which have been primarily funded through the Municipal Capital Reserve Fund and other provincial and federal government programs.” 

In addition to support from the federal and provincial governments, Ridge’s motion indicated the City must consider a wide range of options to increase its support of affordable housing, including powers and duties assigned to the Mayor through the so-called ‘Strong Mayor Powers,’ which “cannot be delegated.” 

During the City Council meeting on Tuesday, Sep. 5, 2023, Ridge explained the motivations behind the new motion. “We need more affordable housing. We all know this: we made this one of our key priorities [during] strategic planning, and there were a lot of great discussions during that session,” he said. “We have examples of really great initiatives… but this affordable housing requires money, and there are only so many mechanisms that we currently have available to us to [fund] affordable housing. The spirit of this motion is to ask staff to present an information report that will give us all the options that are available.”  

Given that the motion makes use of the controversial Strong Mayor Powers, many of which Paterson delegated back to Council and City staff in July following Council taking an official stance opposing the concept, Ridge also addressed concerns he’s heard from fellow councillors and constituents regarding the powers.

“This is a new budgetary preparation and presentation process that we will be participants in… For me, it was more a question of making sure we are able to have this information available — for us, for the Mayor, and for the public, for transparency purposes,” remarked the councillor. 

Ridge also noted that the motion’s inclusion of a special tax levy is key for councillors to be presented with “all the financial instruments available.”

“That is one of the options that is available, and I think it’s important for us as decision-makers to have all of those options available, including the potential of a levy,” he explained. 

“That levy would have to exist within the order that is given by the Mayor, in terms of the maximum 3.5 per cent tax increase for the next year. If that tax piece was to be part of a potential solution during the budgetary process, it would not be increasing the tax rate beyond that cap.”

Despite Ridge’s assertion, not all of his fellow councillors were in agreement. Meadowbrook-Strathcona District’s Jeff McLaren argued such a measure is akin to “new taxes.”

“As you know, we’re living in a very inflationary world right now. Inflation is rising, [and] people are suffering as a result of increasing prices on food…  We’re essentially turning up the dial on heat on people who pay taxes,” he said, noting that the direction to hold taxes at 3.5 per cent could be impacted by the budgetary demands of Frontenac Paramedic Services, which Kingston City Council does not have any control over. 

With his objections to a potential tax levy noted, McLaren then introduced a motion to amend the new motion, which would have removed the levy from the list of options staff could include in the report.

“This would have the effect of not putting people in harm’s way. The higher we raise these taxes, the more likely it is going to affect, detrimentally, those who are housed but on the margins,” he remarked. 

Countryside District Councillor Gary Oosterhof then spoke in favour of the motion to amend, saying, “I have been contacted by constituents, and I would say there’s an uneasiness towards the [idea] of a levy. Councillor McLaren’s amendment does free us of that statement that does not sit comfortably… We shouldn’t be jumping in where other levels of government, provincial and federal, should be… There needs to be more done.”

Before weighing in on the various options staff could include in the report, the City’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Lanie Hurdle noted that, regardless of the motion to amend, staff do not intend to raise taxes beyond 3.5 per cent.

“The Mayor has been very clear that the budget direction is 3.5 per cent maximum for operating and 1.0 per cent for capital. From a staff perspective, whatever options we bring back to Council cannot exceed the direction from the Mayor on the budget. I want to be clear about that: we are not going to come back with something that’s going to increase the taxes. Taxes are not going to go any higher,” she said.

In terms of the options which could be further explored in the information report, the CAO said, “We do leverage a 1.0 per cent capital [levy] every year. Right now, this 1.0 per cent is allocated over a number of different projects [and] initiatives across the city. One of the things we could look at is making a dedicated effort to use a portion of this 1.0 per cent levy… specifically for affordable housing.” Other options noted by Hurdle included using resources from the Build Faster fund, as well as redirecting portions of the City’s property tax revenue. 

Despite Hurdle’s comments, many councillors remained concerned about a potential levy. Sydenham District Councillor Conny Glenn called the term a “trigger” to some constituents, saying, “Although Mayor Paterson has a direction of 3.5 per cent, and another 1.0 per cent in the capital area, this is something that we don’t want to push too far… My concern is we are going to end up with more unhoused people, more people who cannot stay in their home.”

Pittsburgh District Councillor Ryan Boehme echoed Glenn’s sentiments and also took issue with the motion’s use of the Strong Mayor Powers.

“There was quite a debate about the enhanced mayor powers not that long ago, and it was one of those things where a lot of people were scared about what it could bring. It seemed like the consensus was a lot of people weren’t really in favour of them,” the councillor said.

Brandon Tozzo, representative for Kingscourt-Rideau District, noted that the intention of the original motion was to seek “information” from staff: “We owe it to our citizens to get as much information as possible and then let politics come in and actually have a good political fight over the information.”

Lakeside District representative Wendy Stephen agreed, saying, “We owe it to ourselves and to the public to get all the information and then make a really informed decision.”

Mayor Bryan Paterson then took the floor and addressed the various concerns that had been raised, including the motion’s use of Strong Mayor Powers.

“There is a Strong Mayor Power that I cannot delegate: [it] is now a duty and responsibility of mine to present the budget to Council… That’s why I have directed staff to prepare the budget, and I’ve provided some guidance and direction to staff,” Paterson said of the direction to limit property tax increases to a maximum of 3.5 per cent.

The mayor also noted that directions given to staff came from priorities councillors supported during strategic planning.

“I’ve directed staff to spend more money on affordable housing, more money on fixing roads, more money on a few other priorities that we identified as Council, and, conversely, less money on things we didn’t identify as priorities,” he pointed out. 

The mayor then expressed a rather blunt opinion on the motion to amend: “I could care less whether or not the amendment passes or not because I’ve already provided that direction to staff. I feel very confident with the direction I’ve given because it was the direction [City Council] gave me.” 

Following a lengthy debate on the motion to amend, McLaren eventually took issue with some of Paterson’s comments: “Mr. Mayor, you don’t care which way it goes; you don’t see an issue here. Those were your words. If you’re wrong, there could be an issue here.”

McLaren also pushed back against the idea that Council should be presented with as much information as possible.

“We have a limited amount of time to debate this at the next [meeting], and [with] seven options, it’s less time per option to debate that. You take one out because that’s what we’re supposed to do… take out the things we do not want,” he said.

“We know, right now, that a levy is going to cost somewhere. It’s either going to be controlled, or it will be uncontrolled by taking the money from somewhere else. We heard, on one hand,  that there will not be anything higher than 3.5 per cent. But we know at the same time that we cannot control the amount that [Frontenac Paramedics] charge us. We have no representation but taxation. If they give us 4.0 per cent, that’s going to be taken out from something else, or we have to raise taxes.” 

The motion to amend the original motion was rejected by a vote of 8-5, with Boehme, Glenn, McLaren, Oosterhof, and Collins-Bayridge District Councillor Lisa Osanic in the minority.

Once the amendment was voted down, debate returned to the motion as originally intended. Glenn sought clarification on whether the information report would include non-financial options, as well. Hurdle responded, “We would look at anything in terms of benefits that we could contribute to affordable housing… All of those will have a value. Even if we talk about contributing land, there may not be an actual cost to the taxpayer, [but] there’s still a value to the land.”

Despite his support for the intentions of the motion, Oosterhof indicated that he would be voting against it, due to the language surrounding a special levy. “I do not support a special levy… We will remember this conversation. We better understand the spirit of this because we will have a robust conversation again in a few months when [the report] comes forward,” he warned. 

Similarly, Boehme noted his opposition to the motion to due its inclusion of the levy option: “Around this table, I’ve yet to hear a single person say they’re in favour of raising taxes, so I can’t understand why we have a special levy in there if nobody’s in favour of it… If you’re going to spend time on an option no one seems willing to use, you’re spending the resources [and] having [staff] look into something we’ve all pretty much declared that we’re not interested in using.”

Osanic warned that by approving a motion with the wording “special levy,” Council may be perceived as supporting a tax increase.

“I do like information reports,” she said, “but sometimes you have to watch out about media spin — and already word is out there that we’re proposing a new tax… I don’t want that perception to be there.”

Not all councillors were against the motion and its language. Portsmouth District’s Don Amos said it aligns with concerns he’s heard from residents.

“For the past four weeks, I’ve been wandering through my district, trying to have conversations with some of my district neighbours. A lot of the comments were around affordable housing and their children not being able to afford housing of any kind. When I saw that this information report was coming forward, that’s what triggered me to say this is matching what my constituents are asking for,” he noted.  

Before councillors voted on the motion, Paterson presented another amendment, which proposed to give staff more time to prepare the information report. While the motion originally requested the report by November, Paterson’s amendment pushed the date back to January and passed by a vote of 12-0. 

Ultimately, the new motion was approved by a vote of 9-4, with Boehme, McLaren, Osanic, and Oosterhof opposed. Staff will now have until January to prepare an information report for Council, which is set to include all the various financial tools and options available “in part or through mayoral decision,” including a potential tax levy. The upcoming report is expected to influence Council decision-making as representatives debate the 2024 budget in the new year. 

Members of the public can view the full agenda from the meeting on the City of Kingston’s City Council meetings webpage, and the meeting can be viewed in full on the Kingston City Council YouTube channel.

One thought on “Kingston Council seeks information report on options to fund housing and homelessness initiatives

  • I hope that instead of just adding an additional tax, call it what you want, to ratepayers the report is going to consider other options. For instance a sizeable contribution from Queens and St Lawrence as pressure from their constant growing student numbers is a major factor in the shortage of rental accommodation in Kingston.

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