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County council takes action on housing crisis: Can it be done?

Lambton County employees responsible for social housing have been given 18 months to get one affordable project built and operational.
(County of Lambton)
(County of Lambton)

Lambton County employees responsible for social housing have been given 18 months to get one affordable project built and operational.

It’s a tall order but Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley, who is also a county councillor, says he believes it’s possible and knows of other municipalities that have made it happen.

“(We need) a rapid response to what is a crisis,” Bradley said at Wednesday’s county council meeting in Wyoming.

With county council’s backing, Bradley urged staff from both the county and the city to work as a team to expedite at least one affordable housing project.

His motion, seconded by city and county Coun. Bill Dennis, was made following a presentation from Graham Cubitt, president of a non-profit development services company named Flourish Affordable Housing Communities.

Flourish was hired by Lambton County to help develop an action plan to end homelessness and address the troubling housing crisis.

He identified five sites, including four in Sarnia and one in Wyoming, where affordable and/or supportive housing could be built.  If all five go ahead at a combined cost of about $143 million, Lambton County could have about 490 new units, Cubitt said.

If upper level government funding from the province and feds is approved, Lambton County would be on the hook for approximately $43 million, according to the Flourish report.

Of the five sites outlined in his report, Cubitt only commented on one – Sarnia downtown’s Victoria Street parking lot offered last year by city council to the county for social housing.  

“That is really an excellent location…and holds true potential,” Cubitt said. He showed county councillors drawings of two buildings that could fit on the Victoria Street parking lot and proposed that one would have conventional affordable housing while the second would have specialized supportive units where staff would assist residents with challenges like addictions and mental health. There was also space to maintain public parking on the site.

Together the two Victoria Street buildings could offer 267 units at a cost of $75.7 million raised from Lambton County, the province, the federal government and donations, Cubitt said.

The key pieces are a business plan and the tenacity of the local community, he said.

“We hear about people sleeping in front of the library, destitute on our street.” The community is showing that it wants to help people experiencing homelessness to thrive again, to belong, to have a place to live, to work again, and take care of their children, Cubitt said. 

He said he believes it’s possible and told county councillors they can be the catalyst.

“It’s complicated but it’s feasible,” he said.

In making the motion for staff to pursue the projects by seeking upper level financial support and completing one project within 18 months, Bradley said there needs to be urgency at the county level.

“This helps us focus,” he said. 

Before seconding the motion, Coun. Dennis said he was “a fierce opponent” of giving the parking lot to the county for housing. But he said that if he’d seen Flourish’s drawings at the time, he would not have been opposed.

“I would have been singing a different tune,” he said, before turning to his fellow councillors and telling some of them to “Shut your mouth when I am speaking.”

Dennis said there was apprehension from neighbours and downtown businesses about social housing going in on Victoria Street but that he is “thoroughly impressed” with the proposal.

“I can see it will be quite nice,” he said.

Cubitt’s presentation followed another from former city councillor and warden Bev MacDougall who said housing people is a priority to the health and safety of the community.

“I could cry six times a day looking at people just barely existing, and that’s not enough,” she said. “It’s not enough for me, and it’s not enough for you. 

“We can’t keep our neighbourhoods strong and we can’t keep people with hope when every place you look you see trouble,” MacDougall said.