St. Thomas is in desperate need of affordable housing. Question is, who should build it?

city_scope_logo-cmykLet’s start with the following premise.
“If the joint goal of our community is to provide as much affordable housing for people (as possible), it is important that the private sector be the primary delivery agent.”
That’s the argument put forth by Peter Ostojic who, along with his brother Joe, has completed several affordable housing developments in St. Thomas and Aylmer.
In the past several months via emails sent to this corner, Peter has repeatedly questioned why the city is undertaking the construction of affordable housing units such as Phase 1 of the city’s social services and housing hub recently opened at 230 Talbot Street.
A total of 28 apartment units are located on the two floors above the ground floor office space.
Of those units, eight one-bedroom apartments have received funding through the federal/provincial Investment in Affordable Housing (IAH) program. As such, rents can be no higher than 80 per cent of the average market rent for the area.

According to 2018 Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation figures, the average rent for one-bedroom units in St. Thomas was $694. Based on that, the rent for these eight units is pegged at $555, which includes utilities.

230 Talbot Street conceptualjpg

Social services and housing hub located at 230 Talbot Street.

For these apartments – two of which are barrier-free – household income cannot exceed five times the monthly rent, therefore the maximum annual household income threshold is $33,300.
This corner had the opportunity to tour a one-bedroom unit last month prior to occupancy and the apartments are a welcome addition to addressing the critical shortage of affordable housing options in St. Thomas.
Shortly after the walkthrough, we accepted an invitation from Peter Ostojic to visit a similar one-bedroom unit in one of his two buildings that now occupy the site of the former Myrtle Street Public School for comparative purposes.
The 12 apartments in each of the buildings present a compelling argument in support of Peter’s opening premise.
The city’s units on Talbot Street are utilitarian and strongly remind this visitor of a budget chain hotel room complete with bare concrete ceilings and a lack of trim work around some of the doors and windows.

230 Talbot living roomjpg

Lacking in the bedroom is an overhead light requiring the use of several lamps for illumination.
They are relatively bright and airy but would have benefitted from a balcony to enjoy summer evenings overlooking city life.
The ensuite washer and dryer are a real convenience but they are ensconced in a cluttered alcove with little storage space.
230 Talbot laundryjpgThe kitchen is basic as are the cabinets and the stove is on the small side.
The bathroom is compact but entirely functional.
230 Talbot bathroom jpgA simple upgrade to some of the finishings would have transformed this unit from merely a place to stay into a comfortable new home.
That could very well still be the case based on decorative touches.
Over on Locust Street, the Ostojic-built apartment of Jeanne Gray is an impressive addition to the affordable housing stock in St. Thomas.
It begins with the large lobby on each of the three floors from which the four apartments branch off.
ostojic affordable housing balconyjpgWhat first catches your eye is the large sliding door off the living room leading to a balcony. The doors and windows all have attractive trim work and the room – as are all of the rooms – is enhanced through a drop ceiling.
Ostojic affordable housing kitchenjpgThe kitchen is U-shaped with upgraded cabinets, backsplash and a double sink, a necessity these days but absent on Talbot Street.
The washer/dryer combo is creatively hidden away at one end of the spacious bathroom behind folding doors.
ostojic affordable housing laundryjpgA nice feature is the built-in HRV (heat recovery ventilation) system in each apartment unit which is used to reduce the heating and cooling demands on buildings.
Peter is renting these units for $500 per month and, as is the case with the city’s apartments, for a period of 20 years – 25 years for the most recent units built – the annual rent increase cannot exceed a prescribed amount which is pegged at 2.2 per cent this year.
Where Peter Ostojic’s argument in favour of private-sector construction gains validity is the admission last year by city manager Wendell Graves that the business case for Phase 2 of the hub fronting onto Queen Street “is soft.”
Back in July, the cost per residential unit was projected to be “fairly high” at $290,515 per unit.
That cost has since been estimated downward and is now in the range of $225,000 per unit.
That soft business case has necessitated moving the proposed childcare facility from Phase 2 into a standalone new home on St. Catharine Street, across from the former Colin McGregor Justice Building.
St. Thomas Child CareThe city has received $2.6 million in funding for the childcare space, with the understanding it must be operational by December of 2020, something not possible with the delayed start on Phase 2.
“With the new construction costs (at 230 Talbot Street), the business case for a limited number of units was driving the price per unit of affordable housing up,” explained Graves at the time, “so we’re going to be doing a fresh business case looking at increasing the density.”
Hopes of a fall start on construction were not realized.
So with re-design expenses for the revamped Phase 2, a delayed start and an estimated $4 million cost now for the childcare centre, Ostojic still can’t fathom why “the city is involved in building affordable housing units themselves.”

Ostojic affordable housingjpg

One of two Ostojic-built affordable housing complexes built on the site of the former Myrtle Street Public School.

It’s a question now being championed by at least a couple of members of city council.
At a reference committee meeting last September dealing with the future of Phase 2, Coun. Steve Peters queried, “Can we partner with private enterprise?”
In a lengthy email sent to City Scope last summer which you can read here, Ralph West, housing services administrator for St. Thomas-Elgin Social Services, offered high praise to the Ostojics for the affordable housing projects they have built so far.
“I should begin, though, by saying that the City of St. Thomas (and the County of Elgin) owe both Peter and Nic Ostojic an enormous debt of gratitude for the affordable housing units which they have built on many sites since the beginning of the province’s affordable housing programs.
“The units they have each contributed to our affordable housing stock have been extremely well-constructed, energy efficient, and been built at remarkably low cost.
“These units were developed in responding to the city’s past proposal calls for the use of capital funds provided under provincial programs for affordable housing development.”
West went on to defend the city’s participation in the construction of affordable housing units.
“The city’s goal is simply to permanently increase the stock of affordable housing units in St. Thomas and the County of Elgin (at no additional expense to city taxpayers).”
West continued, “When the city owns the units we can dedicate their use to whichever members of the community stand to gain the most benefit from them.”
I doubt Peter Ostojic is going to willingly buy into either one of those arguments.

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The heritage easement agreement signed last month by Patriot Properties and the City of St. Thomas for development of the former Alma College property will come before city council at the Jan. 13 reference committee meeting.
That’s according to city manager Wendell Graves who noted, “We’re going to review everything with council . . . to review all the documents and where all the issues are still standing.”
He continued, “With the approvals to follow that.”
The 23-page agreement itself is a far-reaching blueprint for development of the Moore Street property with very specific timelines and penalties which may be imposed by the city for failure to abide by “the following covenants, easements and restrictions which shall run with the property forever.”
Alma redevelopment revisedjpgFirst up for Patriot Properties – which is proposing to construct a three-tower residential development – is to acknowledge and agree “that this Heritage Easement Agreement shall be registered on the title of the property prior to registration of the site plan agreement for the first site plan approved by the city for the property, pursuant to the Planning Act.”
City council has yet to approve the final site plan agreement and Graves was not able to provide a timeline for registering the easement agreement on the title of the property.
“It’s a legal matter,” indicated Graves, “and I don’t know how long it takes to navigate the registry system.”
One noteworthy provision of the agreement cautions, “Prior to construction of a new access for the property for Ross Street and prior to commencement of work on any other permanent site alterations above or below surface grade on the property, the owner shall apply to the city . . . and have obtained the city’s approval for an overall Conservation and Interpretation Plan for the property which shall describe in sufficient detail to satisfy the city, all of the heritage conservation measures and interpretive features.”
One of those commemorative features is “a permanent spire sculpture representing a portion of the former central tower above the front entrance of the main Alma College building.”
Several pages later the agreement again refers to the “spire sculpture at the location of the former central tower of the building.”

Patriot Properties new proposal

An artist’s rendition of the new Patriot Properties proposal for the Alma College property.

The edifice that appeared in conceptual drawings of the proposed development certainly was not spire-like in appearance.
From here on in, the onus will lie with the city to enforce the provisions contained in the easement agreement including this rather specific item dealing with the commemorative features.
“An interpretation plan and detailed technical plans pertaining to the commemorative features and describing the design, construction, material specifications and maintenance requirements for the significant components of the commemorative features shall be submitted to the city within the first 90 days following the registration of this agreement on the title of the property.”
It would behoove city manager Graves to become extremely familiar with navigating the title registry system to ensure adherence by Patriot Properties to this key provision.

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Undaunted, Lake Margaret resident John O’Reilly is continuing his battle against
commercial ventures operating out of homes in that subdivision.
What began as a challenge to the validity of restrictive covenants signed by homeowners in the Doug Tarry Homes development has taken on an entirely new life of its own.
Back in August, O’Reilly was rebuffed by the city’s committee of adjustment regarding his opposition to a minor variance request from Patricia Riddell-Laemers to allow her to operate a childcare facility out of her home at 18 Hickory Lane.
He argued Riddell-Laemers was not in compliance with city standards regarding parking and the minimum space required for a play area in her backyard.
In addition, the Tarry Homes restrictive covenants signed by both O’Reilly and Riddell-Laemers prohibited commercial enterprises from operating out of homes at Lake Margaret
When the committee’s decision came down in September allowing the childcare centre to continue operating with no appeal allowed on the part of O’Reilly, he vowed to proceed to a higher authority.
And damned if his letter of complaint to the province’s Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (LPAT) didn’t earn him a one-day hearing to be held in St. Thomas at city hall on Jan. 13.
Under the case name O’Reilly v. St. Thomas (City), the tribunal will deal with the minor variance issue involving Riddell-Laemers and the operation of her childcare centre at 18 Hickory Lane.
A possible subplot that day could determine how those restrictive covenants impact existing zoning regulations.
We asked city planner Pat Keenan about that in August and he responded, “It’s an interesting question and I have the same question and we’re looking for a legal opinion on that. I’m more interested in whether or not that covenant would over-ride zoning.”
Keenan continued, “It’s a legal question and if somebody wanted to go to court, I guess the courts would answer it. I’m still waiting for our lawyer to give us an answer on it.”
Needless to say, O’Reilly is pleased he is about to enjoy the equivalent of his day in court to have his complaint addressed.

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Our item last week on Walnut Manor and owner Vishal Chityal generated considerable feedback as witness some of the responses, including this email from Don Jackson.

“Found your story on the Walnut Manor Residents to be very sad but true. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. We all need to support new safeguards to protect our most vulnerable St. Thomas residents. After spending over 40 years in the real estate business and being witness to some horrible living conditions in our city, I can assure you Walnut Manor is not the only housing facility in St. Thomas and area that needs more regulation. We all seem to look the other way and sweep this disgusting housing situation underground.”

On LinkedIn, Steve Ogden had this to offer.

“It’s nice that someone’s in their corner. Thanks for that, Ian. I cannot understand what’s being allowed to continue …”

Karen Barry, who we’ve have featured in several Walnut Manor stories, noted this on our Facebook page.

“The past keeps repeating itself. It is so important to call on all community members and MPPs to support Welland MPP Jeff Burch’s bill and put minimum standards in place to protect vulnerable people. This is only one wilfully neglectful absentee owner. There are many in this province and it has to change.”

Also on Facebook, Tracey Howie added this observation.

“Beyond sad and disgusting. I hope Jeff Yurek does support the bill and changes happen swiftly. This reminds me of the Fifth Estate documentary about the Muskoka family doing this and a lady was being housed outside in a shack.”

On a personal note, Carrie Hedderson Smith added this on Facebook.

“Our worst fear for when we will get too old to care for our disabled son.”

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