Leamington council has approved a new policy that grants some boarding houses permits to make safety upgrades — even though those houses are prohibited under the municipality's zoning by-law.
The 'change of use' permit is only allowed if in connection with an existing accommodation for workers under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program or Temporary Foreign Worker Program. It's an interim measure as council waits for a report on the results of a boarding house study expected next month.
At that time, council will then determine whether boarding houses should be allowed, and where.
According to officials, this policy allows the building operators to improve conditions in the meantime, without needing to reduce the number of workers living in a home.
"What we're trying to accomplish here is to make safe the current accommodations as best as we can, even though we know that they aren't great," said Peter Neufeld, Leamington's CAO, during Tuesday's meeting.
"My concern would be, if we were to, for example, enforce through the zoning by-law, we would have a number of people who would be displaced out of their homes, and then where do they go? And they could end up in places that are in worse conditions than what we currently have. Our focus is on safety."
Migrant workers in Leamington and Kingsville were hit hard by COVID-19, with more than a thousand cases in the agri-food sector.
The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit has repeatedly pointed to congregate living as a major factor in the spread of the disease.
According to the report submitted to council, the use of single-unit dwellings as housing for migrant workers is "currently necessary to the agriculture and greenhouse industry."
A number of safety issues
The report on the policy presented to council stated that it's become increasingly common within the greenhouse and agricultural industry for single-dwelling units to be used to house multiple seasonal and temporary workers, in the form of a boarding house, resulting in a number of safety issues.
As a result, inspections of these homes by the fire inspector have led to a number of orders being issued under the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, requiring owners to either reduce the number of workers per home down to a maximum of four, or make the necessary housing improvements so that they meet the standards set out in the building and fire codes for boarding houses.
To do so, a permit is required. But there was a catch.
Prior to Tuesday's council decision, the owners of these houses were unable to get permits to improve their boarding houses because that type of dwelling is in violation of zoning rules. Council's decision allows for an exception to be made.
Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald said council had to find a solution because of the municipality's housing shortage.
"We're ... partway through the middle of a season and to say to a grower, you have that house with 12, you can only have four. Well, what's he going to do with those eight people when we already have a housing shortage?"
'We're supportive of this decision'
The Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers said it welcomed the news.
"We're supportive of this decision and we're very thankful that council has taken this pragmatic approach to addressing this very complicated issue," said Justine Taylor, the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers' science and government relations manager.
Taylor explained that there were many conversations with the group's members leading up to the meeting.
"They were very concerned that council might not approve this temporary measure and that they would be required to reduce the number of occupants in some of their properties," she said.
"That's a big concern for us because growers are today doing the paperwork for employees that they will hire next year and as part of that paperwork, they have to demonstrate that they have housing, that it's been inspected, both by the health unit and by the fire department, so that activity is happening today."
She explained that if the measure had not been approved by council, it would have resulted in a "very serious housing shortage" for next year's employees.
Migrant worker advocate disappointed
Justice for Migrant Workers' Chris Ramsaroop says the new policy does little to ensure workers will be provided with safety and housing.
"Migrant workers will continue to be denied the ability to exert their rights as both tenants and workers as a result of a myriad of municipal, provincial and federal legislative exclusions," he said in a statement to CBC News.
"Growers continue to control the lives of migrant workers who are provided with no recourse to address concerns over deplorable housing (and working) conditions. Until steps are taken where migrants are provided with the full protections under the Residential Tenancies act, migrants will continue to be denied decency and fairness."
While the municipality of Leamington will be taking a closer look at its zoning bylaws with regards to boarding houses in September, until then, they continue to be in violation.
"Yes, it's true they're not legal as per zoning definitions and as per use definitions," Taylor said.
"But they are inspected every eight months by the health unit for adherence to the temporary foreign worker program requirements and the health unit does those inspections, and also provides that information to the fire department, so there have been inspections ongoing throughout this entire period, although as we have talked about, because of the zoning and use requirements, they are technically out of compliance."
The federal government announced in July it will be investing about $59 million to help migrant farm workers by addressing outbreaks farms, to improve the health and safety on farms and in employee living quarters, and that it will be reviewing the Temporary Foreign Worker program.
"While provinces and territories are responsible for housing in the agriculture sector in their respective jurisdictions, the Government of Canada is committed to further federal action to help to reduce the incidence and impact of on-farm outbreaks, and protecting those who are part of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program," a representative with the Ministry of Employment and Social Development Canada said to CBC in a statement earlier this week.
CBC did request an interview with Leamington Mayor Hilda MacDonald, but she was not available in time for publication.