Housing and health care top of mind in eastern Ontario as election looms

Will Towell is at an impasse: either live in a homeless shelter with cockroaches he hates or move back to a tent in the bush and deal with a bunch of other critters.

What the 64-year-old Kingston, Ont., resident really needs is a wheelchair-accessible unit in social housing. But it could be years before a spot opens up and market rent for a decent apartment is far beyond what his monthly disability support cheque provides.

While the thought of living outdoors tempts him, Towell decides to tough it out at shelter where he's been given a small transitional housing unit, despite the roaches that eat away at his mental health.

"I really don't want to be homeless again," he says. "It's not easy being homeless and disabled."

Affordable housing and health care are top of mind for many in and around this eastern Ontario region as the provincial election looms.

Towell used to live in a house with his wife and her son but could no longer afford the rent after she died in April 2021. He bought a tent and moved into the bush north of Highway 401, but that came with its own set of problems.

"The raccoons destroyed my camp," Towell says, "and then I was forced indoors."

Thus began his odyssey within the shelter system, unable to afford the rent in Kingston and forced to deal with living conditions that are wearing on him.

"(The cockroaches) are just running across my desk, my keyboard, up and down the walls," he says. "My daughter and my grandson won't even come here to see me the cause of the cockroaches, but I got nowhere to go."

One-bedroom apartments go for $1,364 in Kingston, the April rent report for rentals.ca shows, and studios go for $1,000 and up, Towell says. He gets $1,169 a month on the Ontario Disability Support Program.

"It's eat or pay the rent, you can't do them both," Towell says. "I just want a place that's affordable."

Sean Billing, a Kingston business owner who also consults in the long-term care and health care industries, says affordable housing has become a real issue in the city in recent years.

Young people who are the target market for many jobs in the local service and hospitality industry are priced out, he says.

"It's often very difficult for people to live near where they work because housing is either unaffordable, or just simply not available," says Billing, owner of the Frontenac Club boutique hotel.

"It's pushing people further out and then transportation becomes an issue. Transit doesn't go very far in Kingston, so you have to have a car -- well gas is way up, so is insurance, then all of a sudden, it's not worth it."

The next provincial government needs to spur housing development, provide tax breaks to attract more workers to industries with a labour shortages and develop better transit, Billing says.

"The province needs to help municipalities develop more high-density housing, more affordable housing, and that will have a snowball effect on things like labour shortages," Billing says.

Tim Pater, who runs a collection of restaurants in Kingston, says he's been dealing first-hand with labour shortages linked to affordability issues

The owner of Black Dog Hospitality Group says he had to cancel plans for a new restaurant because he can't find enough staff.

"There's just no workforce," he says. "There's lots of work to be had."

The staffing crunch is most problematic in the kitchen, he says. They have about 60 cooks, but need at least 90 to operate at full capacity across four restaurants.

The cost of food, fuel and insurance has shot up, Pater says, and affordable housing is also part of the problem.

"We're kind of getting beaten up," he says with a sigh. "There's definitely a role to play by the government to help industries like ours that just can't find people."

Down at Kingston City Hall, Mayor Bryan Paterson has a list of issues the next provincial government should tackle, but two spring to the forefront.

"It's basically housing and health care," he says.

The average price of homes sold in Kingston in March was $718,452, a 26 per cent increase from the year before, the Canadian Real Estate Association says.

"We need more housing built, more funding for affordable housing and supportive housing," Paterson says.

"Number two, we're being pulled more into the health care realm where we're in everything from physician recruitment because we have a shortage of doctors, to mental health supports for our most vulnerable residents."

The city has spent millions of dollars buying properties to house the homeless, the mayor says, but the province needs to help fund staff to run the units and support residents.

"That's where housing and health care intersect -- they were big needs before the pandemic and they're much bigger needs coming out of the pandemic."

About an hour and a half outside Kingston, Jackie Kelly-Pemberton has a different concern about housing.

She and her husband run a small cash crop farm -- corn, soybean and wheat -- along with a small cow-calf operation in the Township of North Dundas. Provincial plans to develop land for housing have her worried about the future.

"Farmland preservation and responsible land use planning is a big concern. We're looking for a government to contain urban sprawl," she says.

Kelly-Pemberton, who is also a zone director with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, is also worried about fuel costs, inflation and the carbon tax.

She says farmers are feeling the effects of climate change -- especially extreme weather like the drought that hit northern Ontario last summer.

"It's not April showers bring May flowers anymore, it's torrential rains in April and not a drop in May or June when it's growing season," she says. "That has given the entire industry a lot of stress."

The next government should provide more help for farmers' mental health, she says.

"There's a lot of stressors beyond our control," Kelly-Pemberton says. "We need help with more mental health supports,"

Ontario's election is set for June 2.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 16, 2022.