Northern Housing Summit results in action to address housing shortage
Tim Brody - Editor
The Northern Housing Summit hosted in Sioux Lookout in late June is being called a success by both organizers and attendees.
More than 100 delegates representing government, non-profits, and the private sector attended.
The summit focused upon four key topics impacting housing in communities across northern Ontario, affordable housing, the workforce, the environment and attainable housing.
Participants brainstormed to develop solutions to housing needs across the region using Sioux Lookout as a case study.
Information released from the summit clarified each of the four key topics discussed during the summit.
“• “Affordable housing” relates to supportive and subsidized housing. It is used to supplement the needs of lower-income individuals and families, and other social services. Stable living situations are integral to better provide opportunities for residents and therefore up lift a community.
•“Attainable housing” relates to the private sector. It means that if the cost of living in a home is over 60 per cent of one’s income, it is not economically viable.
•“The workforce” is a barrier when the amount of available employment exceeds available lodging. People will not be attracted to communities where housing is not available, therefore the community will not grow.
•“The environment” barrier speaks to a number of difficulties including where you can physically build a home, the logistics of heating and cooling a home, and the restrictions that standard housing methods have on residents of the north.
Sioux Lookout Mayor Doug Lawrance stated, “By studying us and learning from us they (delegates) will be able to take what they’ve learned here and bring it back to their home communities.”
Sioux Lookout economic development manager Vicki Blanchard said the goal of the summit was to find actionable items to address the housing shortage in Sioux Lookout.
“We had done many, many reports over the past 20 to 30 years, always telling us we had a housing issue. What’s most critical now is that housing issue is also now a barrier to employment and retention in our major industries, so the level of participants were decision makers. They were the final decision maker and that is what we wanted to attract to address the issues and the concerns of our local constituents and to be able to have action decisions made at the event.”
Just this spring Roxanne Hammond of Sioux-Hudson Employment Services shared the organization had well over 100 jobs available on its job board.
“We’re trying to think outside the box. We’re trying to connect the dots,” Lawrance added.
Two announcements of action were made by Lawrance before the conference wrapped up.
“The goal of the northern Housing Summit was not only to find solutions to immediate issues, but also to build relationships. Because of the summit, the Municipality of Sioux Lookout is pleased to announce in partnership with Lac Seul First Nation and the Natural Resources Institute of Finland a sustainable housing demonstration project to be unveiled by 2020. The municipality of Sioux Lookout was also pleased to announce partnerships with the Municipal Economic Development Department and Société Économique de l’Onario to place an Employability and Entrepreneurship Counsellor in Sioux Lookout,” a news release explained.
Blanchard shared, “I sent out to all of our major industries, all their HR people, that individual out of Thunder Bay is travelling down east and internationally and he is taking all of our job profiles and descriptions and working now directly with our organizations and this is free service for our community.”
Lawrance added, “They’re going to set up and office here in Sioux Lookout. This person and agency specializes in bringing immigrants in and matching immigrants to positions in Canada. We’ll have that office here. We certainly have the employment opportunities, perhaps we’ll see more immigrants coming here as a result.”
Commenting on the housing demonstration project Lawrance said the homes created would showcase heating solutions developed in Finland.
The five to 10 houses created would be put on the market as well.
“They’ve said the intent is to use as much local product, some of that would involve the Lac Seul First Nation and their forestry products, and use as much local contractors, developers, sub-trades, labourers as possible.”
Blanchard shared, “The trade show was full of contractors, financers, community partners and they got chatting during this event and determined that that eco-village demonstration project would be an excellent one for Sioux Lookout and they are now currently, I received a call yesterday and Finland is now talking to China as well and in partnership with Lac Seul First Nation as well as the contractors and they are setting up a consortium that will be a local company. This national corporation will be located in Sioux Lookout and they will be working towards the demonstration project to be unveiled in 2020.
“That’s not all. I have been inundated by contractors and calls and I do know it is becoming a very competitive situation now.”
“I think part of what was emphasized at the housing summit was the absolute multitude of jobs in Sioux Lookout,” Lawrance said. “Nobody needs to be without a job in Sioux Lookout. Thirty percent of the jobs posted in northwestern Ontario are in Sioux Lookout.”
Blanchard had shared previously with The Bulletin only 3.5 per cent of listed homes in northern Ontario are available in Sioux Lookout.
Lawrance said with so many jobs available, a shortage of housing available for rent is a major concern.
“Most of the people who are coming here, whether they are coming from the south or the north, they’re not coming prepared yet to buy a house, they’re looking to rent,” he said.
“We’re trying to raise awareness of the opportunities that here in Sioux Lookout… the opportunities for those that want to invest in housing,” he added.
Blanchard said the housing summit dovetailed nicely with the fact that the Municipality’s official plan and zoning bylaw are under review.
“It is really opening the eyes to the community and the municipality that we could be doing more. We need more land if all of this were to come to fruition. Having the official plan open for amendment is important to ensuring that we’re prepared in the future. I know that companies like First Mining and I know the Noront (Resources) CAO contacted me after and heard it was very successful and we’ll be filling them in. They thought it was a very, very important exercise and it’s one that they need to be part of.”
She further stated of the summit, “It was three days of intensive discussions. It was not about presentations or walking around and seeing homes. It was about intense conversation and decision making. We reversed the role. We’ve been spending a lot of money doing a lot of studies and now all of these partners, they spend money to come and help us. We can’t lose that momentum.”
Asked about moving forward she commented, “Keeping that momentum and talking to our government agencies that can also come on board on this journey with us and to keep the conversations open, but also to go out and tell local businesses that the demonstration project is going to focus on using only local partners. So supplies and labour. We hope that our local partners will reach out early in this process so they don’t miss out on this opportunity.”
Jeff Swinoga, chief executive officer for First Mining Gold, was one of the delegates who attended the housing summit and trade show.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for First Mining to create awareness that we’ve got four properties all around Sioux Lookout. When we talk about Sioux Lookout being the hub for the north, Sioux Lookout is kind of like the hub for First Mining Gold as well.”
“Housing will definitely be a concern in the future for us because we’re looking to develop these mines. Springpole is probably five years away. That will probably be 300 jobs right there. As the other mines get developed over time we’re taking about over 1000 employment opportunities.”
He agreed the opportunity to network with summit delegates was incredibly important.
Larry Stamler is the sales manager for Nor-Fab System Built Homes operating out of Fort Frances.
He was one of the trade show participants and said it was well worth his time to come to Sioux Lookout for the summit.
“I’ve been following the demand in Sioux Lookout for a long time and we get a lot of phone calls and inquires online, people saying there’s not much available in Sioux Lookout and prices are almost crazy, so they figure modular housing is maybe a good way to go.”
He said he picked up several solid sales leads here.
He said it was a good idea to get decision makers together in Sioux Lookout.
He hoped some of those decisions would help eliminate red tape he said he and other home builders run into such as a desire to build on smaller lots.
Ignace Mayor Lee Kennard said of the summit, “It was very informational and it certainly gives a starting ground for somewhere to go.”
Henry Wall, CAO of the Kenora District Services Board commented of the housing shortage in town, “It’s going to take a whole community to address that situation. It can’t just be the Municipality, or the KDSB, or one agency. This is truly going to take a whole community to address.”
He said the number of opportunities identified at the summit are staggering.
He pointed out one of the KDSB’s own projects in town as an example.
“The fact that we have 20 units of supportive housing opening here, and set to go operational on August 1, we were told that would never happen. But yet here is a model that is unique in all of Ontario in terms of how to properly support our community’s most vulnerable.
“I think the key will be not to let this fizz out. It’s been an exciting two and half days.”
Roxanne Hammond of Sioux-Hudson Employment Services appreciated how solution focused everyone at the event was. “We’re better together than we are apart,” she stated.
Courtney Wesley of Constance Lake helps oversee housing in that community.
She said the summit was very worthwhile to attend.
“There was some stuff that was pretty informative that I can take back to my housing manager and our chief and council,” she said. “We still have a growing population where we have to build yearly to meet our needs.”
Blanchard concluded, “I will be taking all of the feedback that was received and working with Mayor Lawrance and some of my other management team to compile a report that we can take into 2019, to ROMA (Rural Ontario Municipal Association), to OGRA (Ontario Good Roads Association)… we’re fortunate enough to have, possibly, the ear of the Minister of Northern Development and Mines, Energy, and Indigenous Relations… we’re hoping that maybe we can at least open that window and get the conversation started.”