City officials want to ensure that affordable housing in Orillia is also safe and legal.
“Over time, we know that many, many large homes in Orillia have been cordoned off and broken up into three- or four-dwelling units and they never got building permits to do that,” says Jill Lewis, the city’s senior planner.
What that means is these apartments are not legal. But it may also mean they don’t meet the “minimum life safety in the building code,” she said, noting they might not have required smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, fire-retardant drywall or proper exits.
With that in mind, Lewis is “proposing to change the zoning bylaw so we can recognize those existing properties and so the owners can come in and get building permits to bring the units up to” building code standards. “The whole reason is we want these people to stay housed, to stay where they are at, but we want them to be living in legal and safe housing.”
The city will host a public meeting on the proposed zoning bylaw changes and its implications on March 5. At that public forum, Lewis will make a presentation about the initiative. “Any one can come and speak and address council directly and anyone can submit written comments,” said Lewis. “Council is simply there to hear from the public on this matter.”
Lewis said the municipality mailed out more than 9,000 notices to residential property owners potentially effected – all located on the east side of Highway 11. “We are legally required to put a notice in the paper, which we did, but council also asked us to send out notices to those effected. They wanted everyone to be aware.” She stressed this is not related to any new construction.
If council ultimately green-lights the zoning bylaw change, “these people can stay housed,” said Lewis. “Property owners just have to come in, get a building permit, bring (their building) up to code, which is a good thing, and everyone wins.” She said the tenants win because they can live in safer, legal residences and the owner wins because he/she can then obtain “proper insurance and proper financing” and, if they want to sell, can sell the property, for example, “as a legal three- or four-plex, which is better for them.”
Joyce Ward, the past chair of the Orillia chapter of the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness (SCATEH), said the change would improve living conditions in sub-standard apartments.
“One thing I can tell you is we have a problem in Orillia with accommodation that is in very bad repair,” said Ward, noting she has heard horror stories from front-line staff about kitchens without running water, basement apartments without proper flooring or insulation and other “awful” problems. “A number of people are living in substandard housing, in desperate conditions. At SCATEH, we heartily endorse this effort and would like to be a partner in any way we can.”
However, she is concerned about unintended consequences. “It is a huge issue and I guess the dilemma is that if the city were to act … there is a real possibility that some of those living in them, as bad as they are, will be put in jeopardy of being put out on the street. It’s a complex issue of how to ensure tenants have security of housing but that their housing comes up to a decent standard.”
Lewis agreed; the goal, she stressed, is not to displace people.
“The objective of this is not to displace existing residents but to make sure they’re living in safe, legal housing,” she said. “If this (zoning) change doesn’t happen, we will be forced through legal action to remove tenants. We don’t want to do that. To me, this come backs to providing affordable housing; many of these units are there because they do offer affordable rent. We do not want to be in the situation where we’re actually kicking people out into a community that does not have capacity for them. Where are they going to live?”
After the public forum, city council could, at the earliest, green-light the zoning change at is April 9 meeting. Following that, there is a 30-day appeal period. So, the earliest this change could take effect is early May.
If and when it’s enacted, city planning staff will conduct an education campaign to help landlords meet the new rules. “We don’t have staff to proactively go out and pursue enforcement,” said Lewis.
However, she said there is a request in the 2019 budget to hire additional contract staff who could specialize on enforcement and bringing these homes up to code. “I want to stress this is on existing units as of 2017 that didn’t get building permits – it’s not about new construction,” Lewis said. “Our goal, simply, is to ensure people in Orillia are living in safe, legal dwelling units.”
The public meeting March 5 begins at 4:45 p.m. at the Orillia City Centre council chamber, located on the first floor of 50 Andrew St. For more information, call the planning department 705-325-2622 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Written comments will be accepted until March 5.