BARRIE — Barrie, a central Ontario city nestled on the west shore of Lake Simcoe, has somehow become one of Canada’s hottest — in other words, costliest — housing markets.
“We have an affordable housing crisis in Barrie today,” says Jeff Lehman, the city’s mayor since 2010 and an economist by trade. “It’s really been building over many years … but it’s become quite severe in the last couple years.”
Barrie is located around an hour’s drive north of Toronto. One theory holds that sky-high Toronto-area house prices are pushing residents to move north. Sweetening the proposition is the fact that Barrie is booming, with the lowest unemployment rate among Canadian cities.
Whatever the causes, Barrie is bursting at the seams. There is a housing affordability crisis afflicting this city of 145,000 residents (197,000 in the census metropolitan area), and the trend cannot simply be blamed on Toronto transplants in search of greener, more affordable pastures. The root causes behind the rise in Barrie’s housing costs are much deeper than that, and, as other cities from Vancouver to Hamilton have found, solutions won’t be easy to find.
Just how bad is it?
Barrie’s real estate market has seen a dramatic shift over the past year. Prices peaked in March 2017, when the average cost of a single detached home rose to $604,000 — a 42 per cent increase over the previous year. The market has since levelled off, and the average price of a home (of any type) in Barrie was $555,000 in 2017 — 21 per cent higher than the previous year. According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), the affordability threshold for Barrie — the recommended maximum house price for a person earning the average local income — is $428,500.
Local realtor Rob Alexander, a 17-year industry veteran, says demand for houses simply outstripped the availability last year, “Which led to multiple offers and historic increases in local prices … We had never had something like this before.”
Barrie broker Mark Farris recalls selling a home early last year for close to $200,000 above asking with 18 competing offers. That might not sound unusual for a Toronto dweller, but Barrie residents haven’t faced that kind of cutthroat competition for houses before. “The news of the sale spread across the real estate community and everyone was in shock.”
The rental market is heating up, too. A December report from apartment rental site Padmapper named Barrie the third most expensive rental market in the country, behind Vancouver and Toronto, and tied with Montreal. In 2017, rents were up 15 per cent over the previous year, reaching an average of just over $1,000 for a one-bedroom unit and $1,200 for two bedrooms.
Though the CMHC’s rental cost rankings differ slightly, the federal agency names Barrie as the second-most-expensive rental market in Ontario, after Toronto and ahead of bigger cities such as Ottawa and Hamilton.
Why are the prices so high?
Some signs point to Barrie absorbing the impact of people fleeing the Greater Toronto Area’s overheated market. Farris says about half of his clients are from Toronto. Statistics Canada data shows 21,500 people moving from Toronto to Barrie in the four years starting July 2011. However, roughly half that number moved the other way, and Barrie’s population growth between 2011 and 2016 was a moderate 5.6 per cent.
Realtors say the reason so many people are attracted to their city comes down to golden rule of real estate: location, location, location. Barrie is the gateway to cottage country and a roughly two-hour commute to Toronto via GO Train, which has recently increased service between the two cities to meet demand.
A booming job market might also be drawing people into Barrie and pushing prices upwards. According to last November’s jobs report, Barrie underwent the biggest drop in unemployment in Canada over the previous year — all the way down to 3.4 per cent, making it the lowest in the country after Victoria. That represented a huge plunge in local unemployment; in August 2016, for example, Barrie had one of the country’s highest rates, at 8.7 per cent.
Most of the new jobs have been in manufacturing, according to Statistics Canada. But Lehman says Barrie also seen growth in white-collar employment: in finance, professional fields and technical positions. Barrie is home to two large campuses for Canada’s Big Six banks and three major data centres, including an IBM facility.
Richard Brooks, the new executive director of Barrie’s Chamber of Commerce, says a lot of this talent is recruited from outside the Barrie area. He should know: Brooks himself was headhunted while living in Thornhill, a suburb to Toronto’s north. Since making the move in October with his wife and two young children, Brooks says the biggest thing he has noticed is how friendly everyone seems. That, and the lack of traffic. It’s an eye-opening difference for someone who grew up and worked in Toronto.
“You can get anywhere you need in 10 minutes,” he marvels.
While Brooks was able to afford a three-bedroom townhouse to rent, his mayor says plenty of other people coming to Barrie for work can’t find housing in their price range.
As executive director of the David Busby Street Centre, Sara Peddle tries to help the working poor find housing. The number of people who sought shelter through her organization was up 26 per cent in 2017. Local shelters also ran at capacity every night for most of the year, she says.
One of Peddle’s clients is a mother-of-three who is on the verge of being homeless after being hit with $1,000 hydro bills. Many other clients of the David Busby Street Centre are Ontario Works or ODSP (disability pay) recipients and Peddle says many landlords discriminate against people enrolled in these programs. She believes more work in needed in the community to educate landlords that “someone on Ontario Works, on Ontario Disability, or someone with mental health and addiction [issues] are not scary people. They’re still people that need housing. And everybody has a right to housing.”
Unfortunately, there’s a major lack of it. “That’s the huge issue,” Lehman says. “The city’s growing very, very quickly, but there’s no low-cost rental housing available and every year that goes by, it adds to the problem.”
The other issue he brings up is that as the real estate market and cost of living has skyrocketed over the last few years, people’s incomes haven’t really risen much, if at all. “For more and more people [that] has put safe housing out of reach and put more and more people into precarious housing.”
So what is Barrie doing about housing costs?
The city has committed to allocate at least 10 per cent of any new units built to affordable housing, as part of the city’s own Affordable Housing Strategy — an initiative mandated by the province. Its goal is to create 840 affordable units by 2024.
Some projects already in the works include a former motel that’s being converted into 17 affordable housing units this year, thanks to funding from the province. The mayor says the developer plans to also build some “tiny homes” on the site.
A few hundred more housing units are expected to be added in the form of stacked and back-to-back townhouses (which hadn’t been built in a while but are being revived due to the growing demand), as well as laneway homes going up this spring. Lehman believes the latter will be among the first in Ontario.
Then there’s the much-anticipated annexed land from neighbouring Innisfil. To allow for the city’s continuing growth, the provincial government granted Barrie 2,293 hectares of Innisfil’s land in 2010. Developing that annexed land will take years, but already four hectares of the 400 hectares in the first phase of construction have been set aside for roughly 300 units of affordable housing, according to officials.
On the federal front, the Trudeau government’s recently announced National Housing Strategy will aim to create up to 60,000 new homes and repair up to 240,000 existing community homes across the country, while also promising to help make home ownership more affordable for modest income earners. A housing benefit set to be launched in 2020 will also give an average of $2,500 a year to an eventual 300,000 Canadian households. The biggest criticism of the 10-year $40-billion plan is that it isn’t set to kick in until after the next election.
Still, Lehman feels optimistic that Ontario is finally on the right track when it comes to affordable housing, with all three levels of government committed to fixing the current crisis.
“I think we’re at a time where we really need to capitalize on that. It’s something all Canadians need to work on together. There’s always the complexities of funding agreements and timing and program design, but I hope there’s a genuine sense of urgency — because we certainly feel it in Barrie.”
Patricia Kozicka is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.
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