Huron County is experiencing a housing crisis and officials say creative solutions to increase affordable housing in rural areas and small towns are needed to tackle the growing problem.
“What we’re seeing in Huron, for the first time in many many years, is that there is an increasing number of individuals who are unable to find a housing unit that is adequate or attainable,” said Huron’s senior planner Denise Van Amersfoort.
No longer just a big city problem, the effects of a higher cost of living are increasingly being felt by residents in rural areas.
The county defines "attainable" as someone earning $17.55 an hour spending no more than 30 per cent of their income on housing.
For someone working full time, that would equate to about $900 a month in housing expenses — a near impossible find in the region.
Even as the average price of a single-detached home in Huron-Perth has ballooned to more than $526,000, the housing crunch is also being felt acutely in the rental market.
Van Amersfoort said the county is seeing an increase in young families, for example, not being able to find suitable housing.
“When we talk about those who are vulnerable or being at risk for not having sufficient housing, it's people who haven’t traditionally come to your mind,” she said.
Huron has launched an online survey to poll residents about their housing needs, with the results informing future planning decisions.
“We are taking a really strategic look at our zoning bylaw and our planning frameworks” to see how they could be modified to accommodate more housing density, Van Amersfoort said.
Right now, she said many people in Huron County are over-housed, such as widows or single people living in multi-bedroom houses or bungalows.
She’s pushing for bylaws to make it easier to convert parts of homes into rental units, or for accessory dwellings to be added in the yards of larger properties.
“We will remove the need for zoning bylaw amendments and minor variances for a number of housing forms and applications,” Van Amersfoort said. “It doesn’t really change the fabric of the neighbourhood. It can be done so in a way that isn't intensive.”
While there are some low-rise apartment buildings throughout Huron, Van Amersfoort said there’s a “missing middle,” with a strong need for more six-, 12- and 18-unit buildings along with stacked townhouses.
Part of the solution is working with developers, encouraging them to create more rental properties or finding creative ways to incorporate a handful of rental units in new builds, she said.
As skyrocketing housing costs push more people out of cities and into smaller towns, and the appeal of rural living grows amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of affordable housing could become compounded.
“We’re at a critical moment in having the conversation about housing broaden,” said economic development officer Natasha Gaudio Harrison. “We’re interested in how (the housing crisis) is affecting the economy and our ability to grow the economy if people ultimately can’t afford to live here.”
Prior to the pandemic, the county projected a need for about 1,800 housing units by 2041, but that figure is likely to shift in the wake of COVID-19.
Gaudio Harrison hopes the survey, which closes in early May, paints a clearer picture of housing needs in the county and spurs further creativity to tackle the crisis.
“It’s really opening up the conversation and having everyone understand housing affects everybody,” she said.
Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press