Subsidized housing resident hopes for more than ‘just talk’ from Sudbury’s mayoral candidates

Colin McKerral, a community leader and housing advocate for Sudbury’s Louis Street neighbourhood,  says politicians’ concerns for affordable housing is “just talk.” 

Louis Street, one of Sudbury’s subsidized housing properties, occupies a single roadway a stone’s throw from the city’s downtown core. It’s seen its share of assaults, arrests, and drug use over the years.

Despite that, community linchpins like McKerral do their best to keep the tight-knit community safe and inviting to newcomers. 

But McKerral isn’t impressed when politicians – like the nine running for the mayor’s chair in October’s municipal election – say affordable housing is a priority.

“It’s all verbal, literally. It’s always, always just talk,” McKerral said. “Nothing gets done.”

Although social issues that plagued the neighbourhood, like visible drug use and crime are getting a “little bit better” since he first arrived four years ago, McKerral said tenants’ concerns, specifically about the state of the buildings and run-ins with a handful of drug dealers who frequent the area, sometimes fall on deaf ears.

“I’ve seen quite a few things. I’ve been assaulted. I’ve been attacked with a weapon a few times doing what I’m doing, but I still keep going,” McKerral said. 

“A few times I’ve even had had to push junkies away because they’re going through the kids while they’re waiting for the bus.”

On the campaign trail, six of the nine potential mayors have so far publicly stated that getting more housing in the community is a prime objective for any new mayor.

But what housing means, and what city hall can do to achieve those goals, can be a complicated, multilayered issue.

Former Sudbury MP Paul Lefebvre is one of nine candidates running for mayor of the City of Greater Sudbury. (Jonathan Migneault/CBC)

Mayoral candidate Paul Lefebvre said the past two years have placed residents of the Nickel City in a “tough situation.” The reason, Lefebvre said, is the lack of housing supply at all levels.

That includes not only new home construction, but accommodating a 1,000-plus person wait list for subsidized housing.

“I think from the mayor’s point of view, the question is how do we address this?” Lefebvre said. “What’s the role of the city, what’s the role of the province? What is the role of the federal government?”

“For me, it’s how do we make sure that we have plans already in place when the programs open?”

In August, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that 17,000 new housing units will be built across Canada as part of a $2-billion federal plan to address living affordability, while Ontario passed a bill earlier in 2022 that, in part, takes aim at delays within planning at the municipal level, suggesting the approval process in place slows down home construction and drives up prices.

Both federal and provincial governments also offer programs to offset the costs of building housing units targeted at subsidized markets.

“Once these programs open, if you don’t have a plan, they’re going to close on you and then you’re too late to the game,” said Lefebvre, who also served as Member of Parliament for Sudbury from 2015-21. 

“I see this opportunity as being ready, willing and able to move forward with these plans. And on the transitional housing side, let’s not wait for them to open the programs.”

“We know it’s coming.”

Don Gravelle stands in front of a colourful mural painted on the wall of a coffee shop in downtown Sudbury.
Sudbury mayoral candidate Don Gravelle says the city should be devoting more money to repairing the current stock of subsidized housing, much of which was built in the 1970s-80s. (Casey Stranges/CBC)

Don Gravelle, who is taking his first run at the mayor’s chair, said although the need for more new housing across the spectrum is apparent, the city – and any incoming mayor – needs to first address a rapidly deteriorating swatch of subsidizing housing properties like Louis St., first.

“Just like any infrastructure, if maintenance is not done, eventually it’s going to cost you a lot more in the long run to replace it,” Gravelle said.

“And we’re getting fairly close to needing a replacement because of lack of maintenance in a lot of these complexes.”

Mayor touts past advocacy

In an email to CBC News, incumbent Brian Bigger said he will “continue to advocate for more [housing,]  as there is always more the be done.”

Bigger said all-of-government approach is the best way to address the complex challenges related to homelessness in Ontario, noting that chronic homelessness persists amidst a lack of supportive housing for people with complex health needs, including mental health and addictions.

“We cannot wait for upper levels of government to respond,” the email reads. “As a result, I remain committed to providing an essential increase in supportive housing availability for the most vulnerable, with our Lorraine St Project.” 

Candidate Evelyn Dutrisac, who sat on council from 2006 to 2018, said it will important to forge tighter connections with developers and entrepreneurs to first build more housing, but also allow for creative new approaches to the shortage.

“It’s it’s come to a point that there’s a lot of discouragement, a lack of hope,” Dutrisac said. “And I think that the three levels of government really need to work with the private entrepreneurs, the builders, with the non-profits that are reaching out into the community to really understand the problems, the issues that our people are facing, and to come up with solutions.”

“Not only solutions, but action.”

The Louis Street neighbourhood consists mostly of townhouses constructed in the 1970s. (Angela Gemmill/CBC)

Candidate Bob Johnston said he would approach the housing shortage in a twofold strategy.

“Number one is for seniors when they turn 65, I’d like to give them a $500 rebate after taxes,” Johnston said. “So they can actually afford to stay in their houses. At 70, I would like to just freeze their property taxes.”

“One of my goals is for the next two years is to find out exactly the true numbers and start rebuilding some of the existing stock of of properties and rebuilding what we have,” he added. “Because there is a lot of property out there.”

But addressing any housing shortage might not be so simple. 

Bob Johnston has a plan to freeze property taxes for seniors if elected mayor. (Erik White/CBC )

Melissa Riou, a senior planner with the city, said plans for easing development fees, a simplified rezoning process and helping developers “stack” funding from different federal and provincial programs are all incentives that have been on the books since 2016, with varying degrees of success.

That includes a 50 per cent reduction in development fees for multi-unit residential development, incentives to build on unused, big-box-style commercial land, and more incentives for developers to construct affordable housing.

“I think it’s a combination of tools, I wouldn’t say that it’s one particular tool that is going to hit the mark,” Riou said.

Despite those incentives, the number of housing permits issued in 2020 and 2021 – 1,893 and 1,839, respectively – were below the five-year average of 1,952. 

In an email to CBC News, the city said there have been 3 affordable housing projects that were built over the past five years – 1351 Paris, Bancroft Drive, and 200 Larch Street – 2nd floor.

City staff are also awaiting the results from a supply-demand analysis of Sudbury’s housing market – that’s expected to be presented to council in early 2023 – which should help the new council make decisions on any further plans to address shortages.

“It’s going to look at essentially different income brackets and what’s affordable within each income bracket and how does that match up with our existing supply of land, both from an affordable or from an ownership perspective and a rental perspective,” Riou said.

But even with the incentives in place, mayoral candidate Devin Labranche, a real estate agent, said the city hasn’t taken full advantage and created an adequate housing supply.

“The reason [demand] is high is because we have a massive amount of migration from the south,” Labreche said. “A lot of new Canadians are coming up, which is a great opportunity for the community.”

“So the way we get more housing or better housing or better prices for housing would be to encourage development. The way to do that is to review the current charges for development fees, and the way we do permits, severances and how speedily you can get this process done.”

“The more units you have, the cheaper it is to rent. The cheaper it is to rent, the faster you can save money to buy a home. The more homes available, the more people will move up and more space will become available.”

But will government programs and campaign promises trickle down to the residents of Louis Street? McKerral has his doubts. He does, however, have a word of advice for the candidates hoping to be Sudbury’s next leader.

“Come talk to the tenants,” he said. “They’ll put you guys straight.”

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