Thoughts from the town hall Ward 3 Meeting

Councillor Ainsworth and I recently hosted a virtual town hall meeting for Ward 3 residents. Below, I have included the reflections I shared during the meeting:

There are two pressing issues that I want to talk about and both are intertwined in a very interesting way. The first is the need for affordable housing, the second is our discussion around boundary issues and tackling urban sprawl.

Affordable Housing is important to start with. It has become an even more pressing issue in the last year and a half with many moving to our city from out of town. While it is certainly great that interest in our city has increased in many ways because of the pandemic, the impact of increased housing prices for many Orillians has been devastating. I have heard of stories where Orillians with full time jobs are having a tough time retaining their present living scenarios because of the ever-increasing cost of living (especially rent). I have also heard of the significant competition for apartments that many Orillians are experiencing because of limited apartment options. One constituent I was talking to told that she was competing against 200 other people for the same basement apartment with 1 window. The challenges are simply becoming more extreme.

Additionally, just this past week we received very ugly statistics from the county suggesting the number of homeless within Simcoe County has gone up by 16% since last year. This represents a record high number in the county. It’s heart breaking to think not only of the county’s homeless, but also of those struggling to get by. It might mean a mother of two can’t feed her children. It might mean someone has to move to the street in the heart of winter. It’s easy to forget that lives are at stake in these scenarios and that many are dealing with tragic situations.

Despite these challenges building over the course of the pandemic, there are some successes that council can be proud of.

Obviously, the County’s ODCVI site is a great positive step. It means 127 units of affordable space will be added to Orillia’s housing inventory. There are some other projects on the go as well that we can be looking forward to. Raising the Roof is one non-profit that in the last few months announced that it is hoping to establish a location in Orillia above the post-office downtown. Raising the Roof is a well-established non-profit in the GTA with a long history of providing affordable housing. They are planning to build 40 or more units, at least 27 of which will be affordable and will be made available to women fleeing domestic violence.

There has also been another site identified in town which has been discussed by several non-profits and churches as a potential site for affordable housing for women and families. Hopefully, more news is to come in the next few months.

The city has also started to look at acting more directly to address housing affordability. Complimentary to the approximate 1 million dollars given to the county each year for affordable housing, the city has begun to build an affordable housing reserve. Non-profits looking to build housing within the city will be able to take advantage of the reserve to offset some of the costs of affordable housing projects built in city bounds.

 

In the last 3 years the reserve has accumulated a total amount of $300,000. During the past budget cycle, I was extremely pleased to see that council supported a boost of $20,000 more per year to this reserve. The reserve is expected to grow even further as it is anticipated that a city property on Benner street will be sold for the purposes of adding to the reserve.

However, is the problem solved? No, absolutely not. We are still facing a housing crisis and we need bigger commitments from all levels of governments (especially the County and the Province) to address the situation head on. Locally, bigger annual allotments to the affordable housing reserve, making meaningful planning adjustments as well as taking on an Affordable Housing Coordinator for the city could do a lot to address this crisis and help many in need.

But it’s not just a charitable benefit. Giving individuals better opportunities and the potential for a higher quality of life can ensure services within our city are not stretched to the limit and that many more individuals can contribute meaningfully to the community.

On the other side of the coin is another issue that is close to my heart: the boundary expansion and tackling urban sprawl.  This is a big issue for our city and will impact what our city looks like for generations to come.

Some may think that these two issues clash: the simple logic being that affordable housing requires land. But I believe advocates for both issues share a similar mindset and desire to improve the community they live in. These objectives can actually go hand in hand.

For those unaware, generally, urban sprawl refers to large parcels of land being zoned for single family houses or low density builds. Essentially sprawling out the city.

Why this practice has been so controversial is because of the significant environmental impact of expanding outward at all beyond our current boundaries. There are a host negative implications that are associated with urban sprawl including (but not limited to):

(This according to Nature.com (the Knowledge Project))

-air pollution resulting from automobile dependency

-water pollution caused in part by increases in impervious surfaces

-the loss or disruption of environmentally sensitive areas, such as critical natural habitats (e.g. wetlands, wildlife corridors)

-reductions in open space

-increased flood risks

-and overall reductions in quality of life

I have also been made aware of negative health impacts and increased infrastructure costs for municipalities as a result of urban sprawl. We keep our communities healthy and reduce our costs by limiting our expansion outward.

I recognize that if we are growing in population, expanding boundary is likely a part of reality. However, I also believe that we as a municipality should be looking to reduce our overall imprint as much as possible through doing our best to avoid urban sprawl.

 

After consulting with several council members in other municipalities, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to speak to this issue is to focus on principles of design that you want to see in your municipality. With this in mind, I thought that I would identify some of these principles that I see as important for our city to embrace going forward.

Principle #1: The 15-minute community.

Neighbourhoods should not be one thing they should be many things to promote the concept of a 15-minute community. The 15-minute community is a community where someone can walk from their front door to get most things they need in 15 minutes. Increasingly, we see designs of cities where residential is one form (single family houses) and are in a large section of the city, while another section is large stores, and another section is zoned for public use. We are building that way by design because our official plans have created these large zones that are single purpose. Instead we need to be focused on creating the 15-minute communities. That means putting residential beside commercial on top of public institutional. Mixing and matching so a neighbourhood is not one thing but many things.

When we look at downtown Mississaga Street, there is commercial on the ground level interspersed with office buildings, residential units, and public builds such as the library and hospital. There is even a little industrial with a small factory at the far end of the downtown, as well as some light manufacturing on Peter Street. This is the type of community we need to be building. If we’ve done it before, surely, we can do it again.

Principle #2: Holding on to the community feel of Orillia and building up through the "missing middle" as much as possible.

I have been sensitive to height that goes above 6-7 storeys in Orillia’s downtown because I wanted to ensure that the character of the community is maintained (that is the small town tight-knit community feel). Additionally, it is often presented that you need to build up if you’re not building out. However, I believe building up does not have to take one form. Allowing neighbourhoods throughout the city to accommodate medium density building could really alleviate the demand for building really tall while still maintaining the character of a neighbourhood.

A common problem that cities throughout Ontario are facing is the missing middle. We have a lot of single-family homes and tall high rises. However, medium density builds such as compact duplexes, triplexes, 3-5 storey residential buildings are less common. However, these are the types of buildings that can be added to a neighbourhood that do not change its complexion, but overall can do a lot to reduce sprawl. A handful of 3 storey buildings can accommodate much more than 1 larger 8-9 storey tower.

I believe that we should be making changes to our planning rules to encourage these types of builds rather than focus simply on building out solely with single family homes. Allow for sensitive build up.

Principle #3: Be sensitive with where you develop.

The final principle that I think we need to be aware of is doing our best to ensure any development is done so with environmental stewardship in mind. This means, preventing development on environmentally sensitive areas such as wetlands, embracing policy that better protects environmental features and limiting sprawl as much as we can. It is important that we involve environmentalists more in the conversation and assign value to a property’s environmental benefits rather than just it’s capacity for development.

 

Changing our boundary will impact for sure what our community looks like into the future and it will also impact the surrounding environment and quality of life. We need to be willing to get creative and stand up for principles that will protect our city and make it more affordable so that it can continue to be a wonderful place to live for generations to come.

If you have any questions about the ward meeting, feel free to reach out to me by email (jfallis@orillia.ca) or by phone (1-705-279-3249). I am always interested in hearing from you.

Thanks for reading and hopefully, talk soon,      

Councillor Jay Fallis                                   

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