Modular housing project gets commitment from Barrie council, not a rubberstamp

Design, number of units, rents, type of tenants are all things still to be hammered out

Modular homes for the homeless are part of the City of Barrie’s 2021 budget.

There is a lot of groundwork to cover before anything happens on the city-owned site, located at an old fire hall property, on Vespra Street at Innisfil Street.

At Monday night’s city council meeting, $3-million was committed to the modular housing project, which includes soil remediation of the property, to be capped at $750,000.

The original motion read $500,000, then got bumped on an amendment from Councillor Mike McCann.

There was unanimous support to commit the funds following hesitancy at last week’s budget meeting because some councillors felt this was being rushed through without a report on the number of units, who would own the building, what residents would live there and how much rent they would pay.

“There are people in our city who are unhoused, living rough outside in the middle of the pandemic, when the temperature regularly drops below zero,” said Councillor Keenan Aylwin. “And it’s completely unacceptable.”

Aylwin moved several amendments that satisfied enough councillors to see the project at least move to the next step.

City staff will hold talks with the County of Simcoe and social agencies dealing with homelessness. Before there is a request for proposal, Aylwin’s amendment asks for a report to council general committee on the type of residents, sources of subsidies, key project parameters, and how the city’s funding can be leveraged to access other funding opportunities.

Following a report to general committee, staff in consultation with the County of Simcoe would issue a call for proposals for a service provider to construct, manage and operate the housing units.

“Modular housing is a particular type of construction method where the unit is actually prefabricated off-site,” said Aylwin. “The City of Toronto actually created a project recently with modular homes, and they created 1,000 units. It’s a more cost-effective way of building this type of housing.”

Modular housing initiative – City of Toronto (photo provided)

He said modular doesn’t mean trailers or tiny homes.

“It’ll look like a traditional housing development. But it’s a more cost-effective way of making it a reality.”

A key component is community engagement.

“I want to ensure we engage the surrounding neighbourhood in the process,” said Aylwin.

“As well as get people on board, and how people will see the benefits of social housing, not only for the people who will be living there, but for the entire city as well,” he added.

Aylwin introduced an amendment that would require the development services department to hold a neighbourhood meeting once there is a proposal that has been accepted, and there is an actual plan and design in place.

While the focus of the project is to support people experiencing homelessness, Councillor Ann-Marie Kungl wanted to make sure that while creating access for some, others are not left out, such as low-income seniors.

“I’m hoping we’re not really targeting just one population or one type of need or income level,” Kungl said.

Aylwin said modular housing will save taxpayers money in the long run.

“We know that the average cost of providing a social housing unit is just over $600 a month. But the average cost of providing a bed in an emergency shelter, which is our current plan to help people who are unhoused, is around $2,100 a month. That’s a considerable savings.”

City of Toronto officials said on Tuesday that two modular housing projects for the homeless are nearly done and tenants have started moving into one. According to the Toronto Sun, the projects cost $20.9 million in total and were expedited using COVID emergency funds.

The modular housing units being considered in Barrie would be designed for one person, stackable, and about 500 square feet of living space.

Modular housing initiative – City of Toronto (photo provided)

“We want the best bang for our buck,” said Aylwin. “And I think we can come up with a really great project that serves the needs of the community, while also engaging existing residents in the process.”