Collingwood Area Housing Crisis Predicted 18 Years Ago

"Why are we studying the very thing we predicted in a shelved staff report?"

“The existing housing situation is rapidly in danger of spiraling out of control and the town of Collingwood as a whole does not yet appreciate the severity of the situation.”

That is from a report prepared by the Vision 2020 Committee of the Town of Collingwood nearly two decades ago. Fast-forward 18 years and another report on attainable housing was brought forward to regional policy-makers. This comes as the region deals with a “crisis level” labour shortage, primarily due to an out-of-whack housing market.

The Town of Collingwood feared it would become a ghost town when Intra-west purchased Blue Mountain resort nearly 20 years ago.

We Knew This Would Happen

“Exactly what we predicted 18 years ago is happening today,” says Realtor Marg Scheben-Edey who 18 years ago was a part of that 2020 committee that was struck when Blue Mountain was sold to Intrawest and the Council in Collingwood feared its core would become a retail ghost-town. The task force was sent to Whistler and other ski towns to study their housing situation. All said, they came back with 240 recommendations, hardly any of which Scheben-Edey says the Town acted on.

The situation was bad in Whistler then and arguably worse now. As the ski town transitioned to Four Seasons and the new sharing economy took off, so did all traces of sanity in its housing market and we are seeing the start of this now in Southern Georgian Bay.

“We’ve reached a crisis point, employers are now securing 100’s of rental units just to keep staff, Andrew Siegwart, President of the Blue Mountain Village Association.”

Whistler’s business community began snatching up million-dollar properties just to keep a roof over the heads of employees. This came as the spike in housing costs propelled out of control to the point Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden struck a new task force dedicated solely to resident housing. Then the market moved to an unfathomable point, actually surpassing Vancouver and Toronto as the most expensive housing market (benchmark price) in Canada. All of this spurred a labour shortage.

Ontario’s “Whistler” is Facing the Same Crisis

“For Lease” sign in a Collingwood storefront on Hurontario Street

Ontario’s ‘Whistler’ is the Blue Mountains-Collingwood area and a lack of attainable housing is also escalating a growing labour shortage here.  Scheben-Edey knows of three businesses in the span of a month that closed up shop. In those cases, she cites labour shortages as the last straw.  Like Whistler, businesses in the Blue Mountains area are now buying-up properties to house workers and keep their doors open and almost two decades after the first report on attainable housing, another task force was stuck here.  Andrew Siegwart, President of the Blue Mountain Village Association, is a member of the South Georgian Bay Task Force. Siegwart himself has spoken to “dozens” of large employers taking this approach. He says they have been purchasing or securing hundreds of units for employees – something he doesn’t think is an economic solution.

The task force spent months on a research report for policy-makers in Meaford, Collingwood, The Blue Mountains, Simcoe and Grey County. In the interim, Siegwart says the region has been focusing on more transit connectivity so people can live in more affordable outlying communities.

Are Illegal Short-Term Rentals to Blame?

Screen shot of available Airbnb listings in Collingwood

A number of variables impact housing and rental supply, including short term accommodations. The language around short-term rentals in Collingwood basically states that the owner must live in the property and serve food. Enforcement is a complaint driven system, however, a quick search on AirBnB shows hundreds of listings, some of which may be illegal.

Siegwart says housing inventory is going away faster than we can rebuild it. He says with the fast growth of the sharing economy there were a lot more homes available for rent even 5 years ago, whereas today homeowners can rent their properties a few weekends a month and make more money.  Scheben-Edey calls short term rentals a small part of the problem because not many of those units would qualify as long term rentals.

Who Can Afford to Live Here?

A quarter of renters here spend half of their income on shelter

The high cost of living in Southern Georgian Bay doesn’t align with incomes. Nationally, 18 per cent of all renters spend half of their income to pay for shelter – which Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. considers a “crisis-level” in spending. Housing is typically considered affordable if a household spends less than 30 per cent. In Southern Georgian Bay about a quarter of renters spend half of what they make on shelter and utilities.

What can’t we just build more ?

Both Siegwart and Scheben-Edey agree it isn’t easy to convince developers to build more attainable housing. A number of retirement and 55+ developments are coming to market in the area and after a quick drive around Southern Georgian Bay you will see new-home construction is booming, but where are the attainable homes? The homes not starting in the low $400’s.

New construction townhomes in the Cranberry area of Collingwood

Attainable housing is the gap between social housing and high-end homes

Siegwart recalls when the number of listings in the $300,000 range dropped by 40 per cent in a single year. He says the single family “starter home” basically disappeared. A lack of supply of new affordable homes could be linked to restrictions placed on builders – at least if you subscribe to the C.D Howe Institute. They say “home-buyers in the eight most restrictive cities in Canada paid an extra $229,000 per new home between 2007 and 2016 due to housing restrictions.” Home-buyers are spending an extra $125,000 in York Region.

Luxury home for sale near Blue Mountain resort

C.D Howe researchers suggest easing restrictions though with those looking to protect the greenbelt. The group Environmental Defence says reducing development charges is flawed. They claim those costs will just get passed onto taxpayers and in fact, there’s absolutely no need to open up more agriculture lands for development. They point out that there’s land already designated to fulfill Ontario’s housing needs until 2031 and beyond.