The Town of Hawkesbury is looking to improve the local housing situation following a study which showed more than half of households in the community are spending more than one third of their income on housing costs, and the town has a serious shortage of housing for people with low or fixed incomes to rent or buy.

The extent of Hawkesbury’s shortage of affordable and rental housing was identified in a study released in January 2021 by the Sustainable Housing Initiative (SHI) of the Alberta-based Rural Development Network (RDN). In 2020, the RDN put out a call to communities across Ontario that were interested in building affordable housing. Hawkesbury was selected from 20 communities to receive free studies to determine affordable housing needs and feasibility.

The RDN report identified that the incidence of low incomes in Hawkesbury is nearly double that of other communities in Prescott-Russell and Ontario. Approximately 57 per cent of households which completed the survey reported paying more than 30 per cent of their gross income on housing.

According to the report, between 971 and 1,191 households in Hawkesbury will be in core need of affordable housing as of this year and single-parent families are in the most need of affordable homes. Many of these families are also living in homes which require major repairs. As a result of those factors, one and two-bedroom dwellings are in the greatest demand in Hawkesbury.

The Town of Hawkesbury has established an Affordable Housing Committee to investigate possibilities for new developments. Councillor Yves Paquette chairs the committee, Councillors Robert Lefebvre and Antonios Tsourounakis are other regular members, and Mayor Paula Assaly is an ex-officio member.

The efforts are focused on developing new, non-subsidized housing, unlike the public housing operated and maintained by the United Counties of Prescott and Russell.

Paquette said support from other levels of government is crucial for both the town and builders if affordable homes are going to be built in Hawkesbury.

“It’s pretty hard to do if we don’t have programs from the government,” the Hawkesbury councillor noted.

On April 6, the Affordable Housing Committee met in a closed session with a developer. Due to the nature of the discussions, Paquette could not disclose any details, but said the meeting was a positive one.

“We had a good discussion with the promoter,” Paquette said.

In 2019, soon after taking office Mayor Assaly first attempted to address the housing challenges in Hawkesbury through the S.O.S. Habitation meeting. A Toronto-based consultant worked with the federal Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), to develop recommendations to make affordable housing more financially feasible in Hawkesbury. According to the mayor, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a delay to the project. In the meantime, the cost of real estate, vacant land, and construction has skyrocketed.

“I had two developers interested, yet once they crunched the figures together with the assistance of the CMHC, the bottom line did not make sense,” the mayor said.

On May 17, Hawkesbury council held a public meeting to discuss proposed amendments to the Community Improvement Plan (CIP) which are designed to encourage private sector developers to build affordable homes in Hawkesbury.

Planner Manon Belle-Isle of the planning firm WSP, presented the recommended amendments to the CIP. Belle-Isle, who is the former senior planner with the Town of Hawkesbury, said the plan was first approved in 2017 to “rethink Hawkesbury as a vibrant regional hub,” through a series of grants and tax incentives to encourage commercial and industrial investment.

The original CIP offers 12 grants or incentives. If the amendments are approved by council, six more would be added. The proposed grants would cover up to 100 per cent of development charges on affordable housing developments, up to 100 per cent of minor variance and building permit fees for affordable housing developments, up to 100 per cent of property tax increases resulting from affordable housing developments, and up to 100 per cent of the property tax increase on new rental housing developments. The other two proposed grants are related to covering up to 100 per cent on building permit fees and property tax increases on new industrial developments.

Council could approve the CIP amendments by the end of June. Comments from the public can be submitted to the current Hawkesbury Senior Planner Céleste Cordonnier before the end of the day on June 7.

To cover the cost of the grants, council will have to include money for them in the annual budget. For the existing CIP grants, council has set aside $60,000 a year each year since 2017.

Councillor Robert Lefebvre said the cost of the grants could be a challenge given current conditions in the housing market. Belle-Isle agreed but noted there could be partners involved in projects such as not-for-profit organizations or cooperatives.

“This is very much a strategy to encourage affordable housing in Hawkesbury. This is the first step in the strategy,” Belle-Isle said.

“It’s trying to eliminate barriers,” said Tsourounakis.

ASCO Construction CEO Anthony Assaly asked how many CIP projects have been realized since 2017 and how much money has the town spent on them.

Belle-Isle estimated there were an average of three projects per year and they were mostly for roof and façade improvements. Belle-Isle estimated the total construction value of the projects was $5 to $7 million.

Belle-Isle said there were no CIP grant applications that have been rejected and efforts were made to promote the grants through the chamber of commerce and COMZAC-BIA.

Paquette called the CIP amendments, “good for promoters (developers), and good for taxpayers.”

Lefebvre said the COMZAC-BIA and chamber of commerce need to be re-engaged so they can make potential developers aware of the CIP grants.

“I think we need to bring it to their attention again.”

According to Cordonnier, no dwellings that fit the definition of affordable housing are included at this time in any of the residential developments currently being proposed in Hawkesbury. Those developments are new townhouses in the area of Omer and Chartrand streets, and a multi-phase development of approximately 700 units on the former PPG plant lands.